When Alexis de Tocqueville observed American democracy for the first time, he was so astonished at what he saw that he made a proclamation: “a new political science is needed for a world altogether new.” If Tocqueville had been reborn a twenty-first-century technological visionary, perhaps he would have said something slightly different — something like this: a new kind of engineering is needed for a world altogether new.
Over the past three years, SFI’s Applied Complexity Network (ACtioN) has had a front-row seat in a series of meetings where SFI researchers have been evolving this new kind of engineering, one better suited to the complex systems that drive the contemporary world. Called emergent engineering, it generates the conceptual frameworks and design principles that practitioners need to carry out engineering projects that engage with adaptive agents.
The inaugural exploratory meeting took place in June of 2019, which was followed by a virtual roundtable in September 2020, and then a series of two roundtables, also in 2020, that homed in on emergent engineering in the organization, and in the market, respectively. To continue to develop the theme in greater depth, in November 2021, SFI hosted a virtual ACtioN Board of Trustees Symposium, which was dedicated exclusively to the subject.
One way to understand emergent engineering is by comparison to classical engineering. Whereas classical engineering works with systems that exhibit (more or less) deterministic patterns (think: the steam engine, Newtonian mechanics, or even a supply chain), emergent engineering engages with agents and systems that evolve and adapt (think: ecosystems, public health care, and cybersecurity).
For SFI President David Krakauer, an illuminating example of emergent engineering is the cochlear implant. As Krakauer explains, “the cochlear implant stimulates neurons directly, and essentially simulates the tonotopic frequencies. The designer of a cochlear implant, therefore, has to be cognizant of both electronic engineering and also neurophysiology. Contrast that with a hearing aid, which is just an amplifier.” The brain of a person who’s received a cochlear implant bypasses the old auditory system and effectively learns a new language.
The forums at SFI where complexity scientists and practitioners discuss emergent engineering frameworks illustrate the field’s adaptive character. As Casey Cox, ACtioN Director, explains, “one of the things that we’ve noticed as we’ve conducted our meetings is that this is a research area where practitioners and complexity scientists have much to offer each other.” For Cox, there’s a dynamic relationship between science and practice that is integral to the field.
At SFI and in the world, engineering continues to evolve. In the fall of 2022, ACtioN is planning an in-person conference in Santa Fe that is aimed to elucidate further the field’s principles. Ultimately, Krakauer plans for emergent engineering to become a full research theme at SFI and expects that the Santa Fe Institute will take the lead in shaping this new kind of dynamic science.