Week One: Emergent Strategy & Research

By nuff
September 13, 2023
4 min read

Our summer intensive is over and a new semester begins. Whereas this summer we had five weeks in-person to do and make everything, we’ll be spending 15 weeks on Zoom, going deep. Here in Critical Experiences land, we’ll be sharpening our tools for research, systems thinking and experience design.

On Emergence, and Things as Events

To begin the class, we’re reading (bits of) Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown. Emergent Strategy is a new concept to me and discusses emergence in a slightly different way to what I’m used to, although on reflection, not that different. To quote Brown (quoting Nick Obolensky):

Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.

She describes the way cells interact to create complex organisms, saying they may not necessarily “know” what is happening at the macro level, despite causing it.

This connects—in my mind, at least—to something I read by Carlo Rovelli:

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. A stone is prototypical 'thing': we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an 'event'. It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones. On closer inspection, in fact, even the things that are most 'thing-like' are nothing more than long events.

Rovelli goes on to explain that, viewed across a long enough time horizon, a stone is just a bunch of atoms that came together for a while and will eventually disassemble. In this way, a stone is a “happening”, a verb as much as a noun.

This is how I think about emergence. A way by which the thingness of a thing is defined in the activities of that thing. Does that make sense?

One more example—drawing. When I was younger, I was told not to start with details, to rough out general shapes instead. But I could never see general shapes. I saw blobs of light and dark, lines and planes. And only when I stepped back from the drawing would I see a still life or a portrait. I guess that’s an emergent approach to drawing.

Principles of Emergent Strategy

  1. Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small.)
  2. Change is constant. (Be like water.)
  3. There is always enough time for the right work.
  4. There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
  5. Never a failure, always a lesson.
  6. Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.)
  7. Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass — build the resilience by building the relationships.
  8. Less prep, more presence.
  9. What you pay attention to grows.

I struggle with 3, 5, 6 and 8. I don’t understand 7.

I rarely feel like my self-regulated schedule leaves enough time for anything, which is to say nothing of external expectations and pressures. That said I do want to learn how to protect valuable things from those pressures.

With regards to failure, I increasingly disagree with any push to rebrand or remove it from the palette of life experiences. Yes, it is often instructive. But surely sometimes, you just have to take the proverbial L. Is this not a valid perspective?

On trust, ha. Far too nihilistic for that, soz. Maybe one day.

On prep vs presence, why are these things being versused in the first place? As a card-carrying member of the Extremely Awkward, Nervous and Uncomfortable club, preparation is how I calm the three-headed dragon. Don’t get me wrong, learning to roll with the punches/surf the wave/insert metaphor here has also been a gift, and I thrive on chaos when I’m the only person involved. But the moment others are involved, bust out the calendar invites, sticky notes etc.


For our first major project of the class, we’ve been “randomly” (right, Sarah?) assigned topics. We’ve then been placed in small groups with their own overarching topic. My group looks like this:


The word “transgression” has particularly religious connotations to me—maybe that’s the catholic school peeking through. In other spheres of life, you’re more likely to hear words like “offense”, “crime”, “wrongdoing”…my friend said it almost felt like “treason” to him, which gives me connotations of either a monarchy or pirates. Transgression feels in line with sin and sacrilege.

Puppets, on the other hand…my first instinct was to reject a literal interpretation. To think about manipulation, representation and proxies. Puppet politicians and the like. Then I thought about shadow puppets and how it might be fun to combine a Leap Motion with some sort of gesture recognition/GAN and create images based on hand signs. The more people I told about this assignment, the more puppet-related things appeare—sorry, emerged. So now, I’m thinking I’ll look into puppetry at large and go from there.


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