Embracing the Chaos of Emergent Behaviour

February 6, 2024

Embracing the Chaos of Emergent Behaviour

What is emergent behaviour?

Emergent behaviour refers to the phenomenon where complex patterns, properties, or behaviours arise from the interactions of simpler components within a system, all without explicit coordination or control from any central authority. In emergent systems, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as novel characteristics and behaviours emerge at a higher level of organisation that cannot be predicted by examining the individual components alone.


  • Flocking behaviour in birds, where large groups of individuals exhibit coordinated movements without any centralised control.
  • Traffic flow patterns in cities, where complex traffic dynamics emerge from the interactions of individual vehicles following simple driving rules.
  • The self-organisation of social networks, where collective behaviours and information dissemination emerge from the interactions of individual users.
  • The emergence of consciousness and cognition from the interactions of neurons in the brain, giving rise to complex thought processes and behaviours.

An interactive example:

Let’s use a sand game as an example of emergent behaviour. We will define a grid, and each frame we will update the sand to a new position based on its neighbouring cells and the following rules. If we can move down and left or down and right we'll decide between them randomly.

  1. If there is empty space below the sand, move the sand down
  2. If there is an empty space to the bottom left of the sand, move to that position
  3. If there is an empty space to the bottom right of the sand, move to that position

Ta-daa we have emergent behaviour! Our simple set of rules has created the illusion of a sand simulation.
Ta-daa sand-demo.

The sand game above is an example of cellular automata, a very visual way of exploring emergent behaviour with simple sets of rules. The most popular example of cellular automata is in Conway’s Game of Life where cells on a grid evolve based on simple rules of birth, survival and death determined by neighbouring cells. From these rules emerge diverse patterns, including spaceships, guns and oscillators. Here’s an example of Conway’s Game of Life in action:

This is cool! What can I learn from this?

I’m glad you asked.

Just as cellular automata exhibit emergent patterns from simple rules, consumer behaviour often displays emergent properties arising from interactions between individual preferences, societal influences, and market dynamics. Understanding the driving force and impact of emergent behaviour in our audiences helps us understand what can be done better to reach them. Experimentation is key.

Encouraging a culture of innovation, empowering team members to explore new ideas, and embracing iterative approaches can lead to breakthrough insights and novel solutions.

Consider the rules and motivations in your audiences to predict behaviour, but embrace the chaos of emergent behaviour and you may just discover a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Scott Ansell | February 6, 2024
Scott Ansell
Digital alchemist, tech explorer, eternal optimist
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