Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

EmergenceSteven Johnson has a way with complex subjects, and this subject in particular—complexity itself. Drawing on complex systems theory and emergence (the natural tendency of organic systems like ant colonies or human cities to cluster into patterns of behavior), Johnson makes the seemingly baffling topic quite palatable, with lots of examples from lots of different disciplines.

Why does it have anything to do with arts and cultural management? Just think about what we manage: thousands of audience members and patrons making individual decisions based on individual motives; a role in our cities and communities as social or economic engines of positive change (we hope); a nonprofit industry shaped by micro choices of donors, funders, and government regulation; and countless other complex systems.

If you squint a bit as Johnson explores how mold spores on the forest floor suddenly come together with no visible leader telling them to, or how cities form high-rent districts and slums without any outside control, you can see shimmers of the nonprofit organization itself in motion. Why do boards of directors, made up of intelligent business people and philanthropists, so often stumble and mumble their way through nonprofit governance? Why do some marketing campaigns stick, and others float off into space? Why does the ‘blockbuster’ exhibit seem to feed on its own success? These are all emergent patterns of complex systems. Since we can’t directly control them, we had better understand how they emerge.

Just a taste of how this applies to cities, in Johnson’s words:

Indeed, traditional cities—like the ones that sprouted across Europe between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries—are rarely built with any aim at all: they just happen. There are exceptions of course: imperial cities, such as St. Petersburg or Washington, D.C., laid out by master planners in the image of the state. But organic cities—Florence or Istanbul or downtown Manhattan—are more an imprint of collective behavior than the work of master planners. They are the sum of thousands of local interactions: clustering, sharing, crowding, trading—all the disparate activities that coalesce into the totality of urban living. (p. 109)

more info on Amazon.com…
(any purchase benefits the Bolz Center for Arts Administration library fund…not much, admittedly, but a bit)