27 Oct 2020

Emergent engineering

Emergent engineering is how you tackle complex systems. It’s for when the perfectly reasonable standard engineering approach doesn’t work any more. When fault-free and predictable isn’t getting you anywhere.

Co-opt complexity

I first saw the phrase in the essay1 “Emergent engineering: reframing the grand challenge for the 21st century”. It asks why human society has “operated so poorly in establishing stable economies, reducing the incidence of conflict and disease, and discovering and manufacturing effective biomedical drugs?”

Standard engineering has got us a long way. But to go further, it’s time to take a different approach. To “co-opt complexity” against itself.

Jiujitsu move

Time for an example. Right in the introduction of “Rebel Cell”2 Kate Arney writes: “…the old models of [cancer] drug development and clinical trials no longer stand up” (p. xvi). Why? Our bodies are a patchwork of mutated cells, undergoing evolution on the timescales of cell division. Rather than engineering a wonder drug, we need to find ways to force a population of cells to evolve into a dead end they can’t evolve out of. Like species extinction, but in the landscape of a body.

She writes:

“We have to stop ignoring the evolutionary processes happening right under our noses and not only accept them, but also start using them to our advantage.” (p. 286)

That sounds like emergent engineering.


Returning to David. C. Krakauer’s essay, the techniques of emergent engineering include genetic algorithms, agent-based modelling, and all things you find under the “adaptive systems” umbrella. Rather than define, we nudge, coerce and tempt systems to bend to our will:

“We replace these ideas of a deterministic age with an understanding of the ever-evolving nature of adaptive processes, seeking to discover new methods for the specification of incentives, rewards, constraints, and communications, together capable of moving outcomes into a space of desirable, albeit never optimal, performance.” (p. 355)

“Never optimal” is an important point. These approaches may mean living without cures and other permanent fixes.

When to use emergent engineering?

As far as I can tell, this is a new label for existing techniques—and giving something a name is an important step towards establishing an idea. It’s not clear to me how you know when to take an emergent stance to a problem. Anything social seems a good candidate. Perhaps tackling misinformation (and similar) online issues might be a good one.

I’m still getting my head around emergent engineering. I’ll be watching this space, and looking for situations to apply the techniques.

  1. The last chapter in David. C. Krakauer (2019) Worlds Hidden in Plain Sight: https://www.sfipress.org/books/worlds-hidden-in-plain-sight↩︎

  2. Kate Arney (2020) Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution and the Science of Life. https://www.rebelcellbook.com/ ↩︎