Generative Emergence: Research and Praxis for Social Innovation
- Benyamin LichtensteinBenyamin LichtensteinUniversity of Massachussetts, Center for Social Policy
Generative emergence is one of many theories for how new entities are created; how a new order comes into being. Emergence itself is one perspective on change and transformation. However, whereas change is an alteration of existing structures, emergence refers to the creation of a new (social) entity. Explaining the phenomenon of creation, at all levels, is the goal of an emergence science.
Generative emergence takes a step in that direction, which explains how emergence can be enacted in practice. Generative emergence derives from dissipative structures in thermodynamics, a theory of new order creation. In the experiment that produced the theory, heat energy is dissipated through a closed container (from a source to a sink), and the heat is continuously increased. At a threshold point, an entirely new level of order emerges across the molecular substrate, in the form of large whirlpools (visible to the naked eye). These macrostructures confer “orders of magnitude” more capacity to dissipate the incoming energy flux.
This unique order-creation process has led to a strong multidisciplinary literature, carefully analogizing this order creation process to social systems. Specifically, in empirical research across multiple levels of analysis (from leadership to teams to ventures to strategies to new markets), the same four phases of activity have been identified. These four phases have been integrated into the theory of generative emergence, which reveals the sequential conditions through which a new system emerges. The phases are (a) disequilibrium organizing and stress, (b) experiments and amplifications to a critical threshold, (c) emergence of a new entity, and (d) stabilizing the new system into a dynamic state.
Generative emergence also shows how each phase can be supported and enacted through the actions of leaders. Specifically, a close reading of empirical research on dissipative structures in social systems reveals a set of leadership interventions that have improved the likelihood that these phases would build in sequence, leading to the creation of an emergent—a new entity.
As one example, consider phase 1: disequilibrium organizing and stress. Entrepreneurial leaders initiate this through opportunity recognition for the creation of new value. As they pursue this aspiration, the dramatic increase in organizing—with its concomitant upsurge in work hours and uncertainty—leads to growing stress and conflict. Here, generative leadership shows how to “manage” this stress, for example by providing space for internal innovations and “experiments” by employees, which might spark the new level of the organization.
In like manner, each of the phases has leadership correlates, which together coalesce into the emergence of a new system—a new initiative, venture, organization, or macrolevel market. The power of the generative emergence theory is that the new order that results can dramatically increase the capacity of the system, and for all of its members. As such, the leadership actions which generate this outcome are worthy of careful exploration and enactment.