Complex versus emergent: Simplifying emergence

| How do you simplify emergent complexity? |

It’s a trick question: The answer is that you don’t. But perhaps making a distinction between emergence and complexity would be helpful in understanding both a little better.

Complexity refers to our ability to understand and predict a system. This interpretation reflects both limitations in our scientific knowledge as well as the challenges of modeling a system with capacities to learn and adapt. It is not necessary for a complex system to exhibit emergent behavior.

Instead of describing emergence as a form of complexity, we can talk about it as a kind of system or process. In this context, for something to be emergent only means that it involves relatively simple units at one level interacting to generate another level of relatively complex units. An emergent system does not have to be complex by definition, although it would generally exhibit a greater degree of complexity than systems represented by single level processes.