Nassim Nicolas Taleb defines a Black Swan as an event that is high-profile, hard to predict, and beyond the normal realm of expectations.

How unpredictable…

Black swans have a disproportionate effect on historical events because of their unpredictability, and how easily they can be rationalized in hindsight.

I think this is a wonderful concept — which stretched a little farther seems to be present in all throughout our lives. For instance, you happen to see a book in a bookstore which you by chance flip through and in doing so, find the inspiration or thing you spend the rest of your life doing. This totally random and unpredictable event has a disproportionate impact on your life. In hindsight it seems obvious — “well I love books, and often go through bookstores. So why is it so improbable that I’d read a book.”

In hindsight, all black swans seem that way. They seem to be predictable, and entirely obvious. However reversing the situation — imagine you hadn’t gone to the bookstore yet, nor found the “thing” you loved. Would today be the day you’d find it? Why in a book, and not somewhere else? Do you reasonably expect to ever find it, until you do? To me, that’s what so incredible about the Black Swan concept. That even in our personal lives, we have these pivotal moments that are unpredictable, and disproportionately impactful on our futures.

Emergent Design has its roots in David Cavallo’s work creating a theoretical framework for systems-level change in learning environments.

I define designing for emergence as creating a space for unpredictable, or unlikely things to occur through the interactions of systems or uncontrollable variables. As an example, I’ve been doing some work recently doing experience design for a public installation that allows the user to create a spontaneous orchestra of sound and lights that onlookers can experience and engage with. This creates an interesting relationship. The installation user has the freedom to experiment and play with the reactions of the onlookers. Different combinations of light and sound and different onlookers will create different compound reactions.

This isn’t even close to representing what I’m talking about

As a designer, I have no control over what this compound reaction is. Within bound, I can’t control how the installation user chooses to interact with the system. I also can’t control which onlookers are watching at specific times. Therefore I also can’t control the compound of those two variables, or the many other variables I’m not even aware of. In this context, designing for emergence is designing a space or system where these two agents can create moments between them. Spontaneous awe.

I think this concept is so powerful — with implications ranging from how brands interact on social media, to how education systems are designed to allow students natural talents to emerge.

The Four Orders of Design

Leurs & Roberts (originally from Buchanan and his work on Wicked Problems) have created this chart that goes through the “orders” of design.

In increasing complexity — it moves from Symbols, to Products, to Interactions, and finally to Systems. It’s easy to see why the orders get progressively more complex. Symbols are purely symbolic, whereas products are both symbols and physical artifacts with their own utility, and ergonomic considerations. Interactions are the touchpoints between various products, symbols, and agents. Finally systems track numerous interactions (each of which is an interaction, and a product, and a symbol) over time and the flow of resources between them.

Pulling from the work of Greg Van Alstyne — I believe that Designing for Emergence is one step beyond systems. It’s designing a (not physical but meaningful) space where spontaneous interactions between systems can produce awe. Systems are incredibly complex and opaque, so designing for emergence isn’t easy by any means. However, it’s also a co-creation rather than something designed “for” the person ultimately using it.

Sanders and Design Agency Dubberly have created a map which attempts to show the relations between various schools of design and what separates and unites them.

I think emergent design falls wonderfully on the Generative Design Research corner of this map. It’s creating a space where systems can spontaneously interact to create these moments of awe, and meaning. These black swans. To do this — you need to loosen your grip on the process and allow the people you want to help, to help themselves. That’s truthful design, and from my experience, limited as it is, it’s a wicked problem in, and of itself.

I think this is where design is headed, towards designing for emergence — and I think it’s up to us to make sure we design spaces where the wonderful things about humanity — our intimacy, eye for beauty, propensity for exploration, courage and our nurturing and caring — are given room to spontaneously emerge, and flourish.

Categories: Design


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