"Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds" by Martin Johnson Heade, 1871. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art's Open Access.

Fri: 8AM to 11:00AM | Sat: 10:30AM to 12PM, US Mountain Time


Our campus is closed to the public for this event.


Freeman Dyson famously wrote that  “A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering.” Dyson’s premise is that ideas that work need to be simple enough to implement, complicated enough to solve the problem, and robust enough to withstand the rigors of reality. What Dyson failed to address is the complex domain where the application of engineering principles has been by and large a history of unmitigated failure - these include attempts to Engineer-X, where X = {environments, minds, societies, markets, political institutions, and companies}. The list is almost endless. The question is why has finding “designs that work with as few ideas as possible” been so difficult in complex systems.

There are several candidate answers: (1) the idea of a fixed design is the wrong idea when dealing with an evolving systems, (2) the particular simple idea has been the wrong classical idea and not the right adaptive idea, (3) we do not know what design means when we are dealing with collective systems with competing interests, (4) we do not know how to think about designing systems with functional emergent properties.

In all likelihood all of these answers have some truth to them. But it is in combination that they explain why our best efforts to intervene into complex systems have proven to be so unsuccessful. If we are to be good engineers of complexity we need to learn how to be “Emergent Engineers” and this means learning the design principles for adaptive systems.

In this meeting we explored how to become effective Emergent Engineers by exploring a broad range of functions where new practical ideas are urgently required. These functions include the law (and regulation more generally), social life and media, health systems, socio-political systems, and companies. We need a better understanding of the limitations of our thinking and a willingness to explore new paradigms that are currently uncertain but potentially transformative.


Complexity Postdoctoral Fellow and ASU-SFI Center Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, and Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School
Assistant Professor at the Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change and the Environment
Historian, Author, and Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution
President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute
Professor of Neurology and Director of the BLAM lab at Johns Hopkins University, and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute
Professor of Computer Science at UNM, and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute
COO at Shopify, and Trustee at the Santa Fe Institute
Professor of Management Practice in Business Administration at Harvard Business School
Associate Professor of Law at University of South Carolina, and Affiliate Scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School
Science Fiction Author, and Former Miller Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute
Founder at Seabed VC, and Trustee at the Santa Fe Institute
Science Journalist, and Author of 'Complexity'
Friday, November 5
    Emergent Engineering Prequels, Problems, and Principles: Stability and Variation with David Krakauer
    Emergently Engineering the Past with Niall Ferguson
    Technology: Insights from Biology with Melanie Moses
    The Trustworthy Company with Bryant Walker Smith
    Engineering Emergent Interventions for the Diseases of Modernity with John Krakauer
    Emergently Engineering the World: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease? with Neal Stephenson
                    Includes a reading by the author from his upcoming book Termination Shock 
Saturday, November 6
    Emergent Coordination in Communities with Mitch Waldrop
    Emergent Engineering in the Organization
                    with Marion Dumas (Grantham Research Institute), Toby Shannan (Shopify & SFI), Willy Shih (HBS), and Vijay Ullal (Seabed VC & SFI). Moderated by Anjali Bhatt (HBS & SFI).

More SFI Events