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Emergence is the process of deriving some new and coherent structures, patterns and properties in a complex system. Emergent phenomena occur due to the pattern of interactions between the elements of a system over time. Emergent phenomena are often unexpected, nontrivial results of relatively simple interactions of relatively simple components. What distinguishes a complex system from a merely complicated one is that some behaviours and patterns emerge in complex systems as a result of the patterns of relationship between the elements.

An emergent behaviour is shown when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviours as a collective. The complex behaviour is not a property of any single such entity, nor can it easily be predicted or deduced from behaviour in the lower-level entities. The shape and behaviour of a flock of birds or school of fish are readily understandable examples, and it is typical that the mechanisms governing the flock or school are harder to grasp than the behaviour of individual birds or fish.

Emergent processes or behaviours can be seen in a lot of places, from any multicellular biological organism to traffic patterns or organizational phenomena to computer simulations. The stock market is an example of emergence on a grand scale. As a whole it precisely regulates the relative prices of companies across the world, yet it has no leader; there is no one entity which controls the workings of the entire market. Each agent, or investor, has knowledge of only a limited number of companies within their portfolio, and must follow the regulatory rules of the market. Through the interactions of individual investors the complexity of the stock market as a whole emerges.

The study of emergent behaviours is not generally considered a homogeneous field, but divided across its application or problem domains.

Not to be confused with emergency.


  • Stephen Johnson, Emergence (2002)

  • Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science (2002), ISBN 1579550088.

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