Emergence: The Achilles Heel of Systems Thinking

Document Type

Conference Proceeding


Faculty of Computing, Health and Science


School of Computer and Security Science




Hutchinson, W., & Warren, M. (2003). Emergence: the Achilles heel of systems thinking. In proceedings of the 9th ANZSYS Conference System in Action. Melbourne, Australia: Monash University.


This paper examines concept of 'emergence' and its underlying acceptance by system theory. Stating that a 'system' has properties greater than the sum of its parts can only be explained by system theorists as 'emergence'. Thus, the explanation of a phenomenon has been avoided by creating a 'mystery' - that of emergent properties. Whilst this might be a pragmatic avenue to make sense of the world, it evades further investigation. The use of a bottom up approach exposes the negative side of the concept of emergence in real world problem solving, and also the acceptance of the fatalist assumption of 'that is the way things are. ' In a sense, it is both a reductionist's argument against lack of rigour and vague notions of system theory, and also an indicator that perhaps systems' theorists can only justify their theories by a belief in something higher than the physical and observable world.