‘Emergence’ Explained in Everyday Speak…So Defense Forces Might Mean What they Say!

Ben Zweibelson, PhD
9 min readMar 13, 2022

I see the term “emergence” used quite a bit in security, defense and related discussions. It usually is clustered with “complexity”, “non-linear”, and “adaptive” in discussions on how to better equip organizations to deal with uncertainty. Yet often, the term is being misapplied (forced to fit into a framework based not on complexity theory but Newtonian physics and classical warfare theory), rendering it more of a buzz word to spice up a discussion. Another hint that complexity theory is misunderstood by the speaker is when they interchange ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ in the same sentence…they are indeed quite different and require deeper appreciation so that the concepts translate to the challenge. As for ‘emergence’- the next time you hear it used, try asking the speaker for an example of what emergence is. If they stumble, chances are- you might be winning buzz word bingo.

Usually, ‘emergence’ is played as a synonym for ‘that which is coming up in the future but not quite here yet.’ This is a misnomer- in that emergent phenomenon do indeed express in the future and currently are not in the picture, but emergence in complex systems is far more nuanced. One distinction is whether the person using the term is thinking in systematic or systemic logic. Aside from hitting two more buzz word bingos in that sentence, those terms are confused nearly as much as complicated and complex are. Systematic logic expects a system to behave in an ‘expected input leads to desired output’ or A plus B should equal C. Systematic logic underpins much of our thinking in reality, because it is really useful and when we are in a stable, simplistic or complicated system, systematic logic works just fine. This is linear causality- and how militaries construct ‘Ends equal Ways plus Means’ to develop military plans and campaigns.

Yet systematic logic falls apart in complex and chaotic systems- which tend to be the very ones a military struggles with and is directed to think and act within. This is where systemic logic works better, and requires an understanding of emergence. Unlike systematic logic (input-output, linear causality, mechanistic, analytical), systemic logic draws from multiple competing and paradoxical ways of understanding and acting. Systemic thinking requires multiple…

Ben Zweibelson, PhD

Philosopher of Conflict; Director for the U.S. Space Command’s (USSPACECOM) Strategic Innovation Group; Author of 'Understanding the Military Design Movement'.