Birds, bees and ants: George Kembel on emergence

October 16, 2013
Editor-in-residence, d.school

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Photograph of bees by Flickr user Sean Winters.

Photograph of bees by Flickr user Sean Winters.

Have you ever seen a swarm of starlings, an ant farm, or a beehive? If you have, you’ve witnessed emergence in action.



There’s an entire episode dedicated to this on the public radio program Radio Lab. The episode dives into emergence in the way only Radio Lab can.

Buzz. Whir. Woosh. Click.

If you’ve never heard an episode of Radio Lab, then here, take a listen.

See?

Okay, let’s get back to talking emergence. I spoke about it with George Kembel, the global director and co-founder of the d.school. It turns out that emergence plays an important role in the d.school’s development. Today, a sizable portion of what George has learned about emergence is manifest in how the school operates day to day.

He described emergence as “an area of personal interest,” a “philosophy of personal leadership” and “something I’ve been experimenting very intentionally around.”

“I think we’re at a point now where I actually see a strong connection between the way creative agency needs to spread and the way emergence as a construct supports that,” he said.

But here’s where the conversation grows. I was confused at first. I talked with George during my first few weeks at the d.school, and I must confess that I sat on this interview for a bit — about a month. I wasn’t quite sure how to construct a piece around it. But I recently turned back to the recording of our conversation and was surprised. In the following quote, George sums up, from my perspective, what any significant time spent at the d.school will do to you. I’ve edited his words a bit for clarity:

“Personal change is a very non-trivial thing. So, the way I’ve found we have seen that work is outside in, then inside out. Meaning, the first thing you encounter is stuff that’s outside of you. You encounter different physical space. You’re like, ‘Wow, okay, I can move in a different physical space. Some behaviors are easier here and other behaviors are not.’ So, it’s a very external thing. You encounter an explicit process. ‘Okay, so I work in an explicit way.’ Start with empathy, then brainstorm, then prototype and test. That’s an external thing. You work on diverse teams, and so you’re confronted with people who think differently than you. On projects you’re forced to get out in the world.

What I find is that, by moving through that, you end up seeing something about yourself that’s an internal thing, so the intrinsic motivations — what you learn, your sense of meaning. You see your impact in the world. You discover something about yourself that may be new and [that you] may have dismissed a long time ago. That’s a very internal thing. And then you desire more of that in your life. So the change comes from inside out, and you say, ‘How do I bring more of this into my life?’ And then you have to move in the same way. You have to author in external things. You change your workspace back at your home or you invite other people into your team, or you introduce them to a process and then the cycle repeats. Then those people encounter external factors that change, confront them internally. … And you see the spread in a much more human way.”

That’s pretty much what has happened for me over the last month. It starts from the outside — the whiteboards, the Post-Its, the non-hierarchical leadership structure, the communal workspaces and the group activities. All of this contributes to a change in the way you see the world around you. Then that change starts to manifest internally and, before you know it, you’re raiding the Post-It section of the drug store and checking prices on whiteboard paint. (Yes, between the time I conducted this interview and wrote this piece, I did these things). You start telling people about what you’ve learned (over dinner last week with a friend from out of town). Then, perhaps, they tell their friends and, like a flock of starlings, we’re off to a better place.

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