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Side by Side - part 4/5: Emergence

April 22, 2014
— Bilal Brohi/Spider Magazine illustration
— Bilal Brohi/Spider Magazine illustration

In any environment, fecundity is not an idiopathic phenomenon.

Yes, there are serendipitous moments where the stars seem to align for a particular venture or individual, but barring those, there is a methodology for delivering the highest probability of success to a new design which includes rethinking our approach to product design and collaboration.

Having unhindered access to newer forms of collective intelligence, manufacturing techniques, social sales channels and customer feedback still does not guarantee a cascading stream of productivity or escalating levels of success. Another factor, which is increasingly apparent in the post-internet world and which influences the adoption, adaptation & propagation of every effort, could be a catalyst: emergence.

To design is to create, and to create is to cause, and every cause has it’s effect.

While one can exercise manic control over every aspect of the creation process, one has to relinquish all delusions of control regarding the outcome, as that lies strictly outside the designer’s sphere of influence. Brainstorming, user stories, focus groups, interviews, polls, surveys and cohort analyses are compelling tools to employ during a phase of design, specially for making assessments and trying to validate decisions.

However, their common shortcoming is that they work on an assumption of knowledge, which usually pertains to post-launch marketplace reaction. So while its okay to test packaging, price points, competitive positioning, messaging etc, you simply cannot test and gauge mass user response. This is one of the reasons why new-age startups place emphasis on ‘getting out of the building’

Uncertainty, or rather the fear it produces, is one of the greatest systemic diseases afflicting mankind. If opportunity cost were quantifiable, we’d gasp at the sheer number of innovative ideas which never see the light of day due to the fear of not knowing how an idea, product or venture will be perceived and received.

The concept of emergence doesn’t entertain the possibility of uncertainty, rather takes it as a known certainty and chains it as the next phase in a product’s lifecycle; it just happens to be post-parturition. By doing so, it enables stupendous levels of innovation at a ludicrous pace. Look no further than Wikipedia: An open-source, online encyclopedia which supplanted a 200+ year old encyclopedia by relying on user-generated content.

Due to its open-source nature, it enabled development to occur in parallel, rather than sequentially. The fact that the quality and integrity of data remains at a spectacularly high level only lends credence to the model, especially given that there is limited extrinsic and intrinsic motivation built into it. In today’s world, true innovation is the sum of design and emergence; the result of singular, controlled, intended design combined with multiple bodies, adopting, influencing, regurgitating and solidifying natural selection.

Even though some purists would disagree, I contend that Apple’s app store is a stellar example of emergence. It does have many constraints in place which are stringently enforced and monitored, yet it has allowed for some terrific bottom-up innovation to occur. Would the iPhone be as successful as it has had Apple not conceptualized a mechanism for distributed innovation (app store)? It’s unlikely.

We are in the midst of a sea of change which is impacting everything we do and how we do it. When the pace reduces and normalization starts to occur, it is certainly possible that virtually all of our societal constructs will have been upended.

On a slightly philosophical plane, modifying our thought processes incrementally should teach us to be more fluid while remaining anchored to our purpose, so we may acclimate better and remain relevant. On a conceptual level for design, similar alterations to our approach - i.e to identify, acknowledge and include emergence - will not only ensure that our purpose is retained, but that it is realized. For without purpose, all design is useless.