Steven Johnson’s “Emergence” attempts to connect the lives of ants, brain activity, urban interaction, and software to show how decentralized and bottom-up interactions emerge as an intelligent swarm.

I was at first skeptical about the book, as it seemed to take a very scientific view, which I am wary of given my thesis on design thinking and its relation to a scientific approach to solving problems. But I got over myself and began to appreciate the perspective and what it might mean for interaction design. (Notably, the word “interaction” is repeated a lot throughout the book.)

The behavior of ant colonies forms the backbone of the thinking behind the book. Despite popular belief, ant colonies have no pacemaker, meaning there is no top-down authority that tells the colony what to do. The queen does not give directions, she only lays eggs. The rest of the ants base their behavior on interactions with their compatriots using a very simple language using pheromones. Through the numbers of these low-level decisions by individual ants, the colony as a whole exhibits characterizable behavior.

“The colonies take a problem that human societies might solve with a command system (some kind of broadcast from mission control announcing that there are too many foragers) and instead solve it using statistical probabilities. Given enough ants moving randomly through finite space, the colony will be able to make an accurate estimate of the overall need for foragers or nest-builders.”

When I read that the ants made decisions through statistical samples of the overall population, it seemed related to how designers make decisions based on a small, but rich interaction with sample users. Given millions of design decisions resulting from random sampling of the population, will there emerge a better world for all? That’s the hope that a greater design culture brings.

Another intriguing argument is that through local interactions higher-level order emerges. One prime example given is the benefit of sidewalks in increasing local interaction of city dwellers. Neighborhoods often develop, not because someone planned them, but through interaction with others—individual decisions about where an how to live creates an order. Examples include class divides, ethnic areas, and gay neighborhoods.

Good designers recognize that they have only so much control in the way that there solutions are used. Johnson points out that emergent systems are not without rules. In fact they need rules to prevent chaos. This seems a likely place for design to contribute: by understanding the system as a whole and providing the rules for interaction, but not dictating how interaction should take place. Not all interactions can or should be designed. There is room to allow emergent behavior to determine the interaction, rather than interaction being dictated by the designer.

Does this sound a bit like co-creation or allowing users to design their own experience? I think so. To encourage emergent systems, Johnson suggests that in addition to rules, incentives should also be provided. For designers interested in allowing users to design their own experience, incentives for participation are paramount because they encourage investment and support.

Johnson entertains the principles of emergence being applied to all aspects of human activity, from social organization to urban planning to business management to political systems. For businesses looking for innovation, an emergent approach is worth considering. Johnson suggests an organization made up of smaller teams that act without top-down dictation.

“The role of traditional senior management grows less important in these models—less concerned with establishing a direction for the company, and more involved with encouraging the clusters that generate the best ideas.”

Through the lens of design, you could see this as employees designing their own work experience. With groups making the best decisions at the local level, the overall system would be more efficient and innovative. This idea definitely gains my interest, having worked in too many places where decisions made from above hurt the experience of employees and the effectiveness of the organization; and where everyone at the local level knew how to make productive changes but were discouraged and prevented from doing so.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about “Emergence” is Johnson’s ability to make connections between seemingly tangential subjects, as making connections is what good designers do. Overall, it’s an interesting read with insights into emergent behavior that are worth considering and perhaps bringing into current and future design challenges.