From Emergency to Emergence. Learning to inhabit complexity and to expect the unexpected - Piero Dominici

Our hypertechnological civilization, obsessed with attempting to control and predict every event and every aspect of our lives, has not yet understood that emergency is a connotative element of complexity and of the complex systems that we call “life”. This means that emergency, like error, is an intrinsic part of our lives and can never be predicted, prevented or managed, much less eliminated. Seeking solutions by delegating carte blanche to technology, staking all on know-how, speed and simulation, is the “great mistake” of today’s digitalized society and of its educational institutions. In dealing with emergency, rather than rationalizing our inadequacies and those of our authorities and experts by using the age-old metaphor “black swan” (Taleb, 2007; 2012), students and teachers alike need to be empowered to inhabit complexity, to expect unpredictability, and to tackle emergency through creativity and self-organization, in order to be able to fully comprehend how emergency can become emergence.

Keywords: emergency; emergence; unpredictability; complex systems; hypercomplexity; epistemology of error.


Before attempting to explore the transformations in learning processes that occur during periods of emergency, it is first necessary to define exactly what the word “emergency” signifies. Although at first glance the meaning may appear to be obvious – emergency has always been represented as an unforeseen/unforeseeable negative event – our hypertechnological civilization, obsessed as it is with attempting to control and predict every event and every aspect of our lives, has not yet understood that emergency is a connotative element of complexity and of the complex systems that we define as “life”, “nature”, “humanity”, “social systems” and basically everything we perceive to be part of the universe itself.

This means that emergency is an intrinsic part of our lives and can never be eliminated nor truly “managed” (the very idea of an emergency is something outside of our plans and intentions, something that disrupts the smoothness of our daily habits and routines).

It means that emergency is complexity and must be perceived as such. Our inadequacies, however, lead us to perceive systems as objects, whereas what we must learn to do is to perceive objects as systems, rather than vice-versa. This would enable us to secure a firmer grasp on the meaning of “complexity”, which is another concept that is so often misunderstood. Admittedly, in common linguistic terms, complex is often considered a synonym for complicated. Regarding systems, though, nothing could be further from the truth. The difference between complicated and complex systems is fundamental for understanding what we have stated above; that is, that emergency is a constitutive feature of complex systems (Mead, 1934; Weaver, 1948; Wiener, 1948, 1950; Ashby, 1956; Heisenberg, 1958; Arendt, 1958; Simon, 1962; Feynman, 1963; Neumann von, 1966; Bertalanffy von, 1968; Emery, 1969; Anderson, 1972; Bateson, 1972; 1979; Morin, 1973, 1977; Holland, 1975; Capra, 1975; 1996; Mandelbrot, 1977; Le Moigne, 1977; Prigogine, Stengers, 1979; 1984; Maturana, Varela, 1980; 1985; Prigogine, 1979; Foerster von, 1981; Kauffman, 1971; 1993; Luhmann, 1984; 1990; Bocchi, Ceruti, 1985; Gell-Mann, 1994; 1995; Prigogine, 1996; Laszlo, 1996; Bar-Yam, 1997; Diamond, 1997; 2005; Mathews et al.,1999; Barabási, 2002; Israel, 2005; Dominici, 2005; 2022a,b,c,d; Nicolis, Nicolis, 2007; Montuori, 2014; Gentili, 2018; Blastland, 2019).

1. Complicated vs. complex systems

Complicated systems are products of human ingenuity; as such, they are usually artificial and mechanical. They are also manageable: it is possible to divide them or break them down into smaller parts to examine them and study their behavior. Should we wish to put these parts back together, we would find that their total sum would be exactly equal to the value of the whole. Complicated objects and systems can be observed from the outside; they can be categorized and analyzed according to linear models (cause-effect, stimulus-response, and so on). Because of these characteristics, we can more or less accurately predict the evolution of complicated systems. Predictability, of course, implies control and the possibility of adjusting any temporary imbalances or irregularities.

This is impossible when dealing with natural and living systems. In nature, all living systems are complex; in these complex (biological, physical, social and human) systems, the whole of the system will never coincide with the sum of the parts that make up the system itself, but will always be greater, richer and marked by an infinity of variations. A complex system is by definition culturally and socially dynamic, evolutive and intrinsically subject to risk and to the absence of stability (Sorokin, 1941; Beck, 1986; 2007 Luhmann, 1991). If we want to even begin to discern the functions of a complex system, we must consider it holistically, focusing not on its distinct parts, but on the multiple connections and levels of interconnection among them (Hayek von, 1964; Canguilhelm, 1966; Von Neumann, 1958; 1966; Bertalanffy von, 1968; Kauffman 1971; 1993; Haken, 1977; Lovelock, 1979; Maturana, Varela, 1980; Panikkar, 1989; Capra, 1996; Laszlo, 1996; Capra, Luisi, 2014; Dominici, 2005; 2019a; 2019c; 2019d; Turner, Baker, 2019). At the same time, we had better keep in mind that we are dealing with a system, due also to the features of its constituent parts (stars, cells, leaves, animals, human beings, etc.) as well as to the environment that surrounds it and with which it also interacts, that can never be completely comprehended, much less predicted, controlled or simplified. The sheer quantity, as well as the diversity in quality of the connections and interactions will always make the difference (“more is different” in the words of Anderson) (Anderson, 1972).

2. The transition to hypercomplexity

It may be useful at this point to ask ourselves: how effectively is the concept of complexity being taught in our educational institutions, from elementary school up through higher education? Not too well, unfortunately: our educational institutions have fallen victim to the pervasive conviction that through digital technology, algorithms and artificial intelligence (Bostrom, 2014; McCall, Burge, 2016; Crawford, 2021) we will soon be magically capable of managing, predicting, controlling and determining the characteristics and the evolution of both our natural environments and of our complex – or rather, hypercomplex social systems. The complexity of human systems has, in fact, mutated into hypercomplexity (Dominici, 1995-1996) in the past years, owing to a hyperbolic increase in variables, a significant shift in parameters, and above all, by two essential factors related to the extraordinary technological progress, in particular in digital technology, of the last decades: an unprecedented acceleration of all social and cultural processes (Rainie, Wellman, 2012) and the maximization of the strategic virality of communication in modern society. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the above-mentioned aspects of technological progress have intensified an ever more radical interconnectivity in every aspect of social life, triggering a veritable anthropological transformation (Simon, 1962; Morin, 1973, 1977; Prigogine, Stengers, 1979; 1984; 1997; Tegmark, 2017; Dominici, 1995- 1996; 2017a; 2019c), they are far from being able to provide a strategy for managing the changes they have contributed to bring about.

It is precisely this incapacity that needs to be acknowledged, first and foremost in our halls of education, first and foremost by the educators themselves, who will be called upon to explain and act upon these concepts to enable their students to cope with the reality (Kuhlmann, 2013) that is taking form around them. Our educators must be rendered capable of educating toward achieving a systemic approach. And along with our teachers and students, our policy and decision makers must become fully conscious of the impossibility of aspiring to control living systems. This implicates a readjustment of our ambitions from the lofty goal of “managing” to a more modest one of “inhabiting” complexity (Dominici, 1995-1996, 2005; 2014a; 2014b; 2019c).

3. Inhabiting complexit

As said before, although we will never succeed in managing complexity, we can certainly teach ourselves how to recognize and cope with it, how to inhabit complexity, how to deal with the “emergencies” that populate its landscapes, as long as we keep well in mind the implications of its most essential properties. Complex systems, in particular complex adaptive systems (CAS), consist of extremely large numbers of reciprocally interactive, interdependent sub-units, characterized by a high degree of sensitivity to initial conditions (which basically means the conditions at the beginning of any given process). Thus it is easy to see why complex systems defy predictability, as opposed to both complicated systems artificially created by man, and with a certain degree of success to chaotic systems (although the irregularities and exponential divergences in chaotic trajectories render predictability quite arduous). It is essential to underline that complex systems are dynamic, non-deterministic and non-linear, as opposed to those that are merely complicated, and that very small variations, also known as bifurcations (Poincaré, 1885; 1908), can have enormous qualitative effects on the entire system: this is what is known in both complex and chaotic systems as the “butterfly effect” (Lorenz, 1963; Stewart, 1989). For those who are unfamiliar with the term, the butterfly effect is the name given to the metaphorical concept that a small butterfly, flapping its wings, could conceivably cause a hurricane at the opposite side of the globe. This last point, that a very tiny change in any small part or process can create huge effects across the entire system, needs to be pondered at length, as it is one of the properties that can allow us to comprehend in-depth the intrinsic features of unpredictability and emergency in our lives, and to prepare ourselves to “expect emergency, expect the unexpected, expect the strange twists and quirks of events…and to stop expecting to be able to foresee the future, much less determine it.

Undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable properties of complex systems is their capacity for adaptation and self-modification, owing precisely to the interconnectivity, interdependence, interaction and feedback among the parts. Adjustments stemming from the smaller sub-units, passing through and involving higher and higher planes of sub-units in a progressive hierarchy (Simon, 1962), eventually give rise to self-organization, duplication, transformation and evolution: in other words, emergence. This reversal of the concept of top-down causality has significant implications both for governance and for learning systems within our societies. What political authorities, experts, engineers, economists and – most unfortunately, educators-fail to realize is that all systemic change begins at the bottom level, among the smallest and most unassuming elements in the system, and that the most valuable kind of learning is accomplished by trial, error, exploration and discovery, rather than by top-down direction or teaching. This is one of the strategic fallacies held by intellectuals and academicians, which also can be effectively applied to teaching and learning during emergency situations. Because, like dreams, emergencies are the stuff that we are made on, to paraphrase someone who said it (much better) long ago (Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, 156-8).

4. From the bottom up: self-organization and emergence

Speaking of schools, we continue to invoke “excellence”, calling for the best of the best, the top talents, the most highly celebrated geniuses from the halls of the most prestigious institutions, to spark off, implement and execute the metamorphoses we need to transform society and to deal with emergency situations in the most positive, efficient and enlightened manner (Young, 1958; Viesti, 2016; 2018; MacAllister et al., 2013; Profumo, 2018; see also the scientific journal in its entirety: Van den Branden K. et al. (2022) Equity & Excellence in Education). Yet emergency, like change itself, often occurs from the bottom up, and coping with emergency situations, for example, coordinating communication and learning during the never-ending series of emergencies that keep popping up continually like bubbles in a pot, will never be truly effective as long as the protagonists are taken solely from select groups of governing elites and/or intelligentsia. On the contrary, solutions must arise from horizontally inclusive foundations, through spontaneous self-organization, cooperation, multidirectional communication and self learning as well as through more traditional forms of organization and education. Above all, without falling back on reductionist, deterministic (and therefore ineffective) measures of surveillance and control.

The capacity of complex systems for self-organization, which needs no external regulation, has also been termed “anti-chaos” (Kauffman, 1993). This term highlights the marvelous capacity that living systems have for creating order out of chaos, or, in other words, for creating emergence out of emergency. This does not mean that emergencies (or chaos) will disappear, but that they will co-create new aspects of social systems that will evolve into emergence and, eventually, into new “emergencies”, whose inevitability we should by now be able to take for granted. The sub-units in these selforganizing systems are individuals (Krugman, 1996), entities and relations that are constantly contributing to change and to co-create the conditions of the interactions, of the framework of reference, of the ecosystem. This is not difficult to understand when we look specifically at human systems, in which emergence can even occur at great spatial or temporal distances; in these kinds of systems, the determining factor is not the spatial proximity of the interacting parts so much as the intensity of the interactions themselves.

5. Observing the non-observable & the inevitability of unexpectedness

“If we observe social organization or simply a group of people, or even a random set of people seen together, not only will the totality be superior to the total number of people, not only will we be unable to understand the dynamics of the group by isolating individuals or narrowing our fields of observation, but we will be forced to realize that these same people (individuals, entities) are constantly modifying, co-creating, co-constructing the social environment in which they are immersed.” (Dominici, 2018, p.2-3). The word “observation” itself can be somewhat misleading; as a scientific principal it is, in reality, impossible to actuate, which is especially easy to demonstrate in social systems: humanity cannot be studied by an external observer. As in all complex systems, but even more so, the observer is part of the observed: the act of observing changes the object/system that is being observed, and the observer is in turn changed by what he or she is observing; in sociology the term that is often preferred is “observer/participant”.

Three elements which are often the target of today’s digital gurus, convinced that they are on the brink of banishing them from our lives are error, doubt and unpredictability (coincidentally, but I believe, significantly, the initials of these three terms spell the first three letters of the word “EDUcation”. No future outcome can ever be accurately foreseen in a complex system, owing to what I have termed the inevitability of unexpectedness (Dominici 2022a, b, c, d). Following this line of reasoning, it becomes evident that we can no longer indulge in the fallacious belief that we are on our way to setting up a perfect system of control and anticipation of future developments, reassuring ourselves and justifying the occasional emergency by calling it a “black swan”. Black swans (an ancient metaphor and a classic form of retrospective rationalization), are themselves intrinsic elements of complex systems, not unforeseeable exceptions, and the sooner we accept this, the sooner will we understand that learning, training and teaching during emergencies require little more than creativity, empathy and the capacity to sail through troubled waters without blaming the waves for our own incapacities and inadequacies. The sooner we stop justifying our own incapacities and incompetence with the excuse that anything we are unable to “control” is simply a glitch in the system, the occasional unforeseeable black swan, the sooner will we begin to learn how to inhabit complexity without deceiving ourselves as to our capacities for “managing” it (Kiel, 1994).

6. The grand illusions of the hypertechnological civilization

This is just one of what I have called the grand illusions of the hypertechnological civilization, which dictate so many of our current policies and actions: the illusions of rationality, control, predictability, measurability and the elimination of error (Dominici, 1995-1996; 2005; 2019a; 2019c; Hammersley, 2013). These illusions are what help fuel the false narratives that form the essence of the current social and cultural morass based on perpetual emergency, which is faced by levying ever more numerous decrees and punitive legislation, based on the incapacity on the part of our authorities, experts, and decision makers to prepare for unpredictability, solely capable as they are of creating measures to repress, surveil, monitor and control. Measures and illusions useful for masking their own incompetence and the fear of adventure (risk and opportunity) which deadens the lives of both young and old. As Zygmunt Bauman has said: “Uncertainty is the natural habitat of human life-although it is the hope of escaping uncertainty that is the engine of human pursuits” (Bauman, 2008).

Taking up the concepts of education as related to error, doubt and unpredictability, at this point we have to ask ourselves what kind of changes need to be made today in our educational systems, anchored onto a society in which seems to be drifting from one emergency to another without even the auxiliary of a nautical compass or basic knowledge of the stars? The learning process for students of all ages during the pandemic struggle was/has been conditioned by physical immobilization, distancing and devices that inevitably limit capacities for unhindered breathing and communication, or alternatively, isolation in homes with the obligation of accessing remote learning sessions, often held by teachers who had received no advice or preparation for such a difficult change in methods and relations. What kind of take-away message have we as educators, parents and students received from this experience? One answer can be gleaned from the replies made by students in a survey conducted in Italy regarding the choice between studying online or in presence: even among habitual late-getter-uppers, over 62% of students aged 11-19 opined that studying physically in presence, talking face to face to professors and sitting next to classmates in the classroom provides a better opportunity for learning and maturing. [1]

7. We are relationships

Naturally, improvements can be made in both methods and materials for a system of online learning to be actuated when necessary, but it is my firm belief that the emotional and education value of personal contact should never be underestimated. Because, in my opinion, meeting others, even just the physical proximity of crossing paths, of looking into other people’s eyes, of speaking and interacting with friends, acquaintances, colleagues and even strangers, hearing the murmurs and roars of groups of people gathered together, is impossible to substitute. Never have we felt so alone, as in these hyperconnected, interconnected non-places we have been frequenting, never have we felt the absence of others more strongly than in these periods of “mediated closeness”. The unpredictable complexity of relationships, of relating to others without mediations or filters imposed by connection technologies simply cannot be simulated. Our need for others, for a relationship with others, is a vital need that become desperate if it is not fulfilled. We are ourselves complex, open systems, we are ourselves relationships, and we need to be near others like plants need the sunlight. Too often do we make the fatal error of thinking of society and of organizations as though they were machines rather than organisms. (Capra, 1975; 1996; Barabasi, 2002; Israel, 2005).

Thus, the best learning approach we can concoct for the students of today and tomorrow is to learn how to inhabit emergency, complexity, error and uncertainty, heading for a future that cannot be foreseen but that is full of risk and opportunity. Remembering that the capacity to learn during emergency, like the capacity for systemic change, shares the essential characteristics of complex adaptive systems and their emergent properties and processes. That this must begin from grassroots communities and single individuals and groups, and by definition can never be a top-down imposition, implicates a necessary rethinking of our educational institutions (Dewey, 1916; 1929; 1933; Morin 1990; 1999a; 1999b), which are still based on logics of separation and on “false dichotomies” (Dominici, 1995-1996) as well as on frontal didactic methods that exclude participation and empathy.

8. False dichotomies

The didactic methods that should be fostered from now on, adopted by teachers who have themselves been trained in systems thinking – thus requiring fundamental changes in the universities that carry out the function of “forming” future teachers and professors – are those encouraging collaboration and contribution, where error is welcomed and analyzed, and where digressions from the main topic open other paths to knowledge. The incapacity of our educational institutions to free themselves from the “false dichotomies” between fields of knowledge – that is, the artificial fracture between the sciences and the humanities, between nature and culture, between the human and the technological (Weber, 1922; Popper, 1934; 1994; Kuhn, 1962; Canguilhelm, 1966; Bertalanffy von, 1968; Lakatos, Musgrave, 1970; Kauffman, 1971, 1993; Haken, 1977; Lovelock, 1979; Maturana, Varela, 1980; Panikkar, 1989; Capra, 1996; Laszlo, 1996; Capra, Luisi, 2014; Dominici, 2005; 2019a; 2019b; 2022; Sloman, Fernbach, 2017), are suffocating any chances for social and cultural change. It is time our institutions – in particular our educational institutions-set about healing this fracture, putting an end to the feud between culture and technology, theory and practice/research, doing away with divisions such as creativity vs. rationality, art vs. science, soft skills vs. hard skills, and all of the other false dichotomies that stand in the way of a truly interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary preparation for life and work in the hypercomplex civilization we have come to inhabit.

9. Hybrid figures for inhabiting complexity

The question therefore arises: how can educational processes prepare students to inhabit complexity, to learn in the midst of emergency situations, to become hybrid figures? We will have to completely reformulate our schools and universities, rethinking education to incorporate the principles of uncertainty and unpredictability. What we must succeed in transferring to our students is not an accumulation of information, but rather a method for synthesizing the huge quantities of information they are exposed to today, which means being taught to see the connections between their lives and the knowledge they are acquiring, including the social histories of cultural and legal norms. They will not be able to do so if they have not been introduced to an approach which perceives objects as systems, rather than vice-versa, and above all, if they have not become capable of using logic to develop, investigate and verify postulates and arguments. Thus it is imperative that educators go beyond the age-old linear and cumulative models, overstepping the limits posed by the separation of fields of knowledge into deceptively opposing categories: the “false dichotomies” mentioned before. Individualistic dynamics based exclusively on the transmission of knowledge (Hess, Ostrom, 2007) – rather than its shared communication – must be overturned. Even more essentially, students must be encouraged to appreciate the value of doubt and error, even to question the validity of the arguments that they are being taught, rather than simply memorizing and repeating lecture or text material, or adopting standard answers or solutions. They must feel free to experiment new ideas, areas and methodologies, with no fear of failure or disapproval: just as emergency is a constitutive process of (human) complexity, error is a constitutive element of learning. It is time, indeed, to call for a new “epistemology of error” (1995-1996) and to become fully aware that error is what makes us human. Furthermore, students must be allowed more time: time for reflection, time to explore problems in-depth instead of skipping over them to find quick solutions, or simple solutions to complex problems (ibidem). Above all, students should be actively encouraged to follow their passions, to study the subjects that most interest them, and not to resignedly opt for taking the most “useful” or economically profitable path, a choice that runs the tangible risk of dampening their enthusiasm or turning them into frustrated adults.

10. The great mistake

There is an ancient Chinese saying that goes more or less like this: when the winds of change blow, some build walls and others build windmills. In the same way, the borders and limits between fields of knowledge and skills that have been so strongly cemented in our academic architectures, can / should / must become openings, passages, pathways and opportunities. Our schools must stimulate students to mature into hybrid figures (Dominici, 1996; 2022a,b,c,d), professional profiles that understand how to merge imagination and rationality together, how to heighten creativity through rigorous methodology, how to reunite the human and the technological dimensions of our lives and livelihoods. This means understanding that “the Great Mistake” (Dominici, 1995-1996; 2015; 2016a; 2016b; 2019d; 2020b; 2020c; Dominici, Flores Vivar, 2022e) being made by our hypertechnological civilization today is that of insisting on considering education and training as purely technical questions, of aiming to solve all problematics through ever more efficient “know-how” and “skills”, of believing that educational processes can be improved simply by staking everything on speed and simulation. This limited mindset, unfortunately, permeates every aspect of our social, cultural and political spheres, including the schools and universities themselves, as guilty as the rest of giving “carte blanche” to technology.

Yet without culture, technological innovation is but a “would-be” innovation; without culture, education is but a shadow of itself. Technology is, in fact, a part of culture, not something external to it. The misleading concept that technology, owing to the velocity of its development, is somehow far ahead of culture is one of the reasons why we never learn from our mistakes: we are still convinced that any glitches or obstacles in our system are caused by emergencies, instead of remembering to “expect” the “inevitability of unexpectedness”.

If in general, the political, cultural, social and educational spheres of our society, and in particular, if students and teachers alike are empowered, as described above, to inhabit complexity, to expect unpredictability, and to tackle emergency through creativity and self-organization (emergency -> emergence), we will be become slightly less eager to implement technocratic solutions to the (perpetual) sequences of emergencies that dot our lives.

Ironically, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the amazing progress that has been brought about by the digital revolution, today we find our most highly praised scientists, engineers, managers and administrators once again toying with the idea that, through precise analyses of facts, statistics, data and algorithms, it will soon be possible to predict and control all of the secrets of life and complexity, and to predict, prevent, or at any rate to deal rationally and effectively with any future emergencies. This perspective harkens back to the linear, reductionist, deterministic world we were convinced of inhabiting in the years before we first began to become capable of perceiving the entangled, intersecting trajectories of the living worlds and their complexity.

This is the attitude that keeps us closed inside our cognitive cages ,in perpetual dread of the looming black swans, preferring to close our eyes and reassure ourselves of our capabilities and certainties, lest it should suddenly dawn on us that emergency is a connotative element of complex systems.


[1] See the survey (2021) promoted by the portal and the National Di.T. Association,
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