Design for Emergence: A Theory of Social System Change

Saul Kaplan
11 min readApr 26, 2021

Social systems challenges require social systems solutions. But because our heads explode at the thought of transforming an entire dynamic social system we keep developing point solutions in the hope that our magic bullet of choice (new law, technology, product, service, or even more money), dropped into today’s social systems, is the one right lever to nudge the system to its transformational tipping point. It rarely works. There’s just no controlling for all the independent variables in any complex adaptive system. This explains why ‘evidence-based’ point solutions almost always disappoint when the goal is social systems change. We can’t analyze our way to social system transformation, it’s a generative act. We have to design for its emergence.

We know from our lived experience within today’s social systems that there is no shortage of pain points urgently needing design attention. Designing new solutions and workarounds for any one of them in isolation is like squeezing a toothpaste tube in one place only to have new pain points pop up somewhere else in the system. New social systems don’t start at scale, they’re complex adaptive systems that evolve generatively. We live in a world screaming for systems transformation and the best we seem capable of is tweaks.

“What if we can design for the emergence of new social systems to equitably empower people, improve lives and sustain the planet?”

Waiting for top-down point solutions to catalyze social system change or for existing enterprises, vested in today’s systems, to disrupt themselves is leaving too many people behind, causing too much pain and putting our planet at risk. Today’s social systems are unsustainable. What if an alternative path to reaching the tipping point for social system transformation starts by creating the conditions for the emergence of new social systems and deploying the point solutions that enable them to scale? If we want to transform our important social systems including healthcare, education and just about every other public service you can think of, we need a new theory of change.

“What if we designed for emergence?”

Designing for the emergence of new social systems follows a similar hierarchical pathway to achieving self-actualization at the pinnacle…

Saul Kaplan

Hopeful Innovation Junkie, Business Innovation Factory (BIF) Founder & Chief Catalyst, LunaYou Founder and CEO

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