Chaos left to simmer unchecked will often self-organize. Take any mass of rabble and sooner or later someone will suggest an organizational structure if for no other reason than to gather firewood when the sun goes down. That organization may fail future collective initiatives sooner or later, but chaos inevitably breeds seeds of patterns, and in patterns are the stems of invention.
In fact, it’s possible to squint at that blazing campfire, now kindled, and come to the realization that the fire organized itself. There, amid a mass of disharmonious people, facing a cold night without leadership, matching motivations among unaffiliated, chilly folk transformed into collective action with only minimal inputs. “If we all amass just a few pieces of wood in the same place, we can all keep warm.”
The inevitable question is, therefore, whether there really is such a thing as chaos in the first place. If order will ultimately result, is chaos simply a noisy means to a melodic end?
Sometimes. The problem usually has to do with time. Playing loose with the scientific concept, chaos concerns how things we think we understand can change profoundly with only small perturbations to their initial systems. The mathematician Edward Lorenz put it this way:
Chaos: when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.
Consider dilemmas of determining intangible implications for managing unstoppable forces destined to collide with inevitably fragile objects. This is what happens when a client comes in the door with a job: you have the task of determining how much it will take (implications) to create a solution (unstoppable forces) for a finite sum of money in a finite amount of time (fragile objects). The solution is non-linear: there are a million ways to skin a cat.
The evolution of human DNA is an interesting example. Even with spectacular results derived from a primordial cauldron of chaotic energy, extraordinary solutions arise simply from subtle changes propagating over time. (Recall that all DNA is only made of a few base pairs of molecules, no matter who you are.) The problem for creative people looking for a lesson here is that most of us want to choose our paint colors rather than see what remains from churning chaotic systems. We also don't have a few million years to wait around, and most of us also don’t want to leave our work to probabilistic outcomes. In fact, often just waiting past noon for a good idea to emerge from a chaotic soup might put you into a panic.
But chaos can be your friend, too. Don’t dismiss it too quickly. Chaos is like wind: left to it's own it simply moves across the land without easily discernible pattern. But with a delicately crafted turbine placed in a zephyr’s path, wind can generate electricity. Chaos can be harnessed like a natural force, and it can drive ideas forward.
Instead of courting chaos, there’s another way to think about this. An emergent property is an expression of something’s origin that results from hard to predict interactions. The more complex an environment, or componential objects in that environment—whether physical or purely creations of mind—the greater the potential for complex interactions to yield something new….
…except when this doesn’t work. Sometimes too much complexity can inhibit the rise of new solutions. There’s a threshold to complexity that forestalls emergence. Too little chaos makes it hard for self-organization; too much chaos makes a mess.
You’ve read this far. It’s hard to hold in mind, there’s no doubt. Here’s the payoff. When faced with the job of creating something new, look for connections and resonances among components that you might not automatically notice. What are the affinities and the shared values among all parties involved? Who are the players on a team who might do well together precisely because they come from different worlds? What are the natural rhythms that seem to keep expressing themselves despite all of your efforts to impose external, rigid order?
Emergent properties tend to have deep truths. They bubble up organically, like they were just waiting to be discovered all along. The best way to cultivate their growth is to learn how not to suppress them, how to get out of your own way. If you have a project to complete and only a minuscule budget with which to work, it doesn’t make sense to impose solutions requiring vast technological capacity and a gigantic staff. See? You can get out of the way of yourself.
Conversely, sometimes the same phenomenon demands a countermanding force. Sometimes solutions reveal themselves to be painful truths. For example, tasked with fording a sleepy river by a stately new bridge, a team of engineers determines it’s impossible to build with the resources allocated, no matter how stern the political mandate. On a site visit to prove otherwise, a team of surveyors travels out onto the flat water in a boat. What comes back to shore is the suggestion to operate a ferry rather than build a bridge.
Emergent properties speak for themselves. The challenge, as for most things that matter in life, is discovering how to hear what those properties are saying, and then to figure out what they mean.