Abstract, algorithmic art of butterflies made of butterflies repeating in infinite, fractal depth


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

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Emergent strategy is a way that all of us can begin to see the world in life-code—awakening us to the sacred systems of life all around us. Many of us have been and are becoming students of these systems of life, wondering if in fact we can unlock some crucial understanding about our own humanity if we pay closer attention to this place we are from, the bodies we are in.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

But emergence notices the way small actions and connections create complex systems, patterns that become ecosystems and societies. Emergence is our inheritance as a part of this universe; it is how we change. Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Octavia Butler, one of the cornerstones of my awareness of emergent strategy, spoke of the fatal human flaw as a combination of hierarchy and intelligence.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
All successful life is
Interconnected, and
Understand this.
Use it.
Shape God.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler (amb)

All successful life is (Fractal)

Adaptable, (Adaptive)

Opportunistic, (Nonlinear/Iterative)

Tenacious, (Resilient/Transformative Justice) Interconnected, and (Interdependent/Decentralized)

Fecund. (Creates More Possibilities)

Understand this. (Scholarship, Reflection)

Use it. (Practice/Experiment)

Shape God. (Intention)

Octavia Butler said, “civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.” She also said “all that you touch you change / all that you change, changes you.” We are constantly impacting and changing our civilization—each other, ourselves, intimates, strangers.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

What is Emergent Strategy? “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions”—I will repeat these words from Nick Obolenksy throughout this book because they are the clearest articulation of emergence that I have come across. In the framework of emergence, the whole is a mirror of the parts. Existence is fractal—the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Octavia wrote novels with young Black women protagonists meeting aliens, surviving apocalypse, evolving into vampires, becoming telepathic networks, time traveling to reckon with slave-owning ancestors. Woven throughout her work are two things: 1) a coherent visionary exploration of humanity and 2) emergent strategies for being better humans.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Octavia Butler said, “Belief initiates and guides action—Or it does nothing.” In her twelve novels and her short stories, she created case studies that teach how to lead inside of change, shaping change. I’ve been calling what I learn from her work emergent strategy. Based in the science of emergence, it’s relational, adaptive, fractal, interdependent, decentralized, transformative.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Octavia Butler appeals to me because she wanted to prepare us for inevitable consequences of human behavior.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

We Are Interdependent

The idea of interdependence is that we can meet each other’s needs in a variety of ways, that we can truly lean on others and they can lean on us. It means we have to decentralize our idea of where solutions and decisions happen, where ideas come from.
We have to embrace our complexity. We are complex.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

One of the most common and exciting elements of the visioning exercises I have done with social justice movements and organizations is the desire for a society where there is more interdependence—mutual reliance and shared leadership, vision. This is particularly our longing in the face of economic competition.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Compelling futures have to have more justice, yes; and right relationship to planet, yes; but also must allow for our growth and innovation. I want an interdependence of lots of kinds of people with lots of belief systems, and continued evolution.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

we laugh, we find the pleasure of community, of interdependence. It feels good together.

Octavia’s leaders were also decentralized, and they were generative—resilience and solutions came from that decentralization; the collective response was possible because no one person held the power.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Octavia’s protagonists were also interdependent, often polyamorous.

The strategies that played out in Octavia’s books included adaptability and interdependence—often through the practice of repeated vulnerability.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Be Fractal

abstract fractal art resembling butterflies

When we speak of systemic change, we need to be fractal. Fractals—a way to speak of the patterns we see—move from the micro to macro level. The same spirals on sea shells can be found in the shape of galaxies. We must create patterns that cycle upwards. We are microsystems.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
Fractals Playlist by Nils Berglund

I was looking for language and frameworks to use when exploring the kind of leadership Butler’s protagonists practiced, and found them in conversations with ill and Grace about emergence—interdependence, iteration, being in relationship with constantly changing conditions, fractals.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
abstract fractal art
Pseudo Proxima by AJ Wool

fractals: the relationship between small and large

A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

In a fractal conception, I am a cell-sized unit of the human organism, and I have to use my life to leverage a shift in the system by how I am, as much as with the things I do. This means actually being in my life, and it means bringing my values into my daily decision making. Each day should be lived on purpose.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
Fractal Foam by AJ Wool
Little Earth with Fractal by AJ Wool

Octavia was concerned with scale—understanding that what happens at the interpersonal level is a way to understand the whole of society. In many of her books, she shows us how radical ideas spread through conversation, questions, one to one interactions. Social movements right now are also fractal, practicing at a small scale what we most want to see at the universal level. No more growth or scaling up before actually learning through experience.

Rather than narrowing into one path forward, Octavia’s leaders were creating more and more possibilities. Not one perfect path forward, but an abundance of futures, of ways to manage resources together, to be brilliant together.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Ferns are a form of fractal. A fractal is an object or quantity that displays self similarity, which means it looks roughly the same at any scale. Small-scale solutions impact the whole system. Use similar principles to build at all scales.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

No matter where I look or how much I zoom in, I will see the same pattern over and over.

Never ending patterns like this that on any scale, on any level of zoom look roughly the same are called fractals.

The Koch fractal has an infinite perimeter, but a finite area. In the 1990s, a radio astronomer named Nathan Cohen used the fractal antenna to rethink wireless communications.

Fractal antennas are different. As the fractal repeats itself more and more, the fractal antenna can pick up more and more signals, not just one. And because the perimeter of the Koch snowflake grows way faster than its area, the fractal antenna only takes up a quarter of the usual space.

What Is A Fractal (and what are they good for)? – YouTube

Fractals are one form of redundancy that has attracted particular attention from scientists. A fractal pattern is one in which the same motif is repeated at differing scales. Picture the frond of a fern, for example: each segment, from the largest at the base of the plant to the tiniest at its tip, is essentially the same shape. Such “self-similar” organization is found not only in plants but also in clouds and flames, sand dunes and mountain ranges, ocean waves and rock formations, the contours of coastlines and the gaps in tree canopies. All these phenomena are structured as forms built of smaller forms built of still smaller forms, an order underlying nature’s apparently casual disarray.

Fractal patterns are much more common in nature than in man-made environments. Moreover, nature’s fractals are of a distinctive kind. Mathematicians rank fractal patterns according to their complexity on a scale from 0 to 3; fractals found in nature tend to fall in a middle range, with a value of between 1.3 and 1.5. Research shows that, when presented with computer-generated fractal patterns, people prefer mid-range fractals to those that are more or less complex. Studies have also demonstrated that looking at these patterns has a soothing effect on the human nervous system; measures of skin conductance reveal a dip in physiological arousal when subjects are shown mid-range fractals. Likewise, people whose brain activity is being recorded with EEG equipment enter a state that researchers call “wakefully relaxed”—simultaneously alert and at ease—when viewing fractals like those found in nature.

There is even evidence that our ability to think clearly and solve problems is enhanced by encounters with these nature-like fractals.

The Extended Mind – Annie Murphy Paul
abstract fractal art
Julia Mask by AJ Wool

Collaborative Ideation and Adaptation

Collaborative Ideation

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”

—Octavia Butler

Ideation is just the verb for coming up with ideas. We are socialized to come up with ideas in isolation and compete with them, to have the best idea and get rewarded for it. But if we want a world that works for more people, we have to get into the practice of ideating together, letting others as close as possible into the intimate space where ideas are born.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Intentional adaptation is the heart of emergent strategy. How we live and grow and stay purposeful in the face of constant change actually does determine both the quality of our lives, and the impact that we can have when we move into action together.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

But emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience. The quality of connection between the nodes in the patterns.

Dare I say love.

And we know how to connect—we long for it.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Emergence is a system that makes use of everything in the iterative process. It’s all data.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

She tells of a radical fringe of scientists who are realizing that natural selection isn’t individual, but mutual—that species only survive if they learn to be in community.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
fractal art of a human face
The Adorned Man by AJ Wool

The artist hopes to convey this: that the universe is given forth folded and unfolded. Although explicit understanding helps, it is too cumbersome, and should only provide refinement to something already greater that exists.

That greater thing is what was given to the artist first by the practice of origami. An enlivening of the intuitive mind, experience with a universe of many dimensions, and the promise of creation revealed when one folds a flat square into the likeness of a higher dimensional thing. That inspiration reaches a young mind in a powerful way.

The artist wants the viewer to see proof of what their intuitive mind already knows is true, the universe is a multidimensional phenomenon and the ability to understand its nature already exists within us each.

The artist hopes the viewer will be inspired to seek the understanding of freedoms available to the individual inspired by the exposure to artistic expressions, and of a nature of dimensionality unimaginably greater than the object presented here.

Adriel Jeremiah Wool

Further reading,