Emergent versus imposed design

By Vera Bradova. Original post here.

We make the path by walking. – Spanish proverb

Some decades back, the communist planners in a central European town built several of their cheap high-rise apartment warrens. As usual, the landscaping was slow in coming. The grounds between the buildings grew muddy, people complained. Someone threw grass seed down and made it all a little more bearable.

By the time when, two or three years later, the aparatchiks finally sent a crew out, the men discovered that the pattern of sidewalks had already been patiently laid down by the pitter-patter of feet large and small, perfectly suited to the needs of the inhabitants. These workers had the good sense to adapt their blueprints to the impromptu human design etched in the grounds between the buildings.

Imagine – instead of people having to follow some engineer’s preferences, the sidewalks followed the preferences of those who lived and walked there! What a revolutionary concept. I’ve been reflecting on how much of our surrounding human world is built upon the herky-jerky imposition of distant planners, architects, and technocrats, us locals stuck with it like Cinderella’s sisters with the ill-fitting slipper. Is it such a preposterous idea that people who live and walk in an area have vital knowledge regarding how sidewalks ought to be laid out? In fact, isn’t their knowledge so vital that no amount of abstract knowledge and accumulated experience from elsewhere can make up for it?

A happy exception, this friendly walkway. To juxtapose, there is a story about a particularly nasty bit of “design by imposition” in Richard Douthwaite’s free book Short Circuit. A small island community off the coast of Ireland requested a modest grant to rebuild an old and very serviceable pier. Instead, the distant authorities approved a huge amount of money for a brand new pier. Let Richard tell it:

The New Pier built with high hopes and at great expense is rather a damp squib. Disturbance of the sea bed during construction has caused large areas of the harbour to dry out during low tide and the ferries cannot get into the pier for parts of the day. Dredging is now necessary… Even when the tide is sufficiently high, boats cannot lie easy at the new pier in bad weather due to its open construction and the old pier, long the island workhorse, is still required. It is estimated by the local boatmen that a great deal of money will be needed to create the necessary shelter on a pier which may never be free of problems. Designed in Dublin by engineers who probably never visited the island, it has been a disaster from the beginning.

Ouch. Grandiose, expensive, high-maintenance, and utterly incompetent! Quite an achievement, innit? As long as we keep beginning with fantasies of changing people, a harbor, a town, a region or continent from on high, from “knowing better than thou,” we’ll end up in disastrous cul-de-sacs.

Mother Nature does not start with master plans and goals. She evolves its creatures from tiny beginnings via nimble adaptations. It is a humble process that rises out of the needs of currently existing living beings, where novelty and improvements emerge via trial and error and feedback loops along the way; there is no ultimate goal. Humans, on the other hand, tend to start with designing the finished end-product, and then march from goal post to goal post to reach it. If reached, it is celebrated as an achievement regardless, as with the pier, of the actual impact of the finished scheme. Such a process is admirably suited to the replication of well-understood, proven tools and other artifacts. To reach something novel and beneficial, or to grow a living entity like a community, however, emergence and evolvement is needed.

I have collected in the following table some of the “thinking switches” that have been helping me focus on what emergent design (or emergent decision making, for that matter) may mean. This is — naturally — an emergent project. Additions, modifications and open source use are welcome!

Imposed designEmergent design
God’s eye view (view from the mountaintop)Many partial and specific local views
Rationalistic, abstractExperiential, relational
Assuming knowledge of the whole, “having all the answers”Assuming limitedness of human knowing; seeking useful questions
Forced clarityCreative ambiguity
Omnipotent, vague “we”Humble, specific “I”
Insistence on certaintyAcceptance of uncertainty
DecreeEvolution, unfoldment
RulesNorms and feedback loops
From the center, from authorityFrom the grassroots
From the outside in, top downFrom the inside out, bottom up
Beginning with the futureBeginning where we are, where I am
Focus on the destinationFocus on the journey
Where are we going?What are we hoping for?
Experts decide, and override lay people/localsLay people/locals are assisted by experts
Master planning to launch projectInspiring manifestos to launch project
Trying to shape the future, bending it to our will and controlFuture emerges from today’s actions, serendipitous opportunities, flexible adaptations


Emergent design is evolutionary. It holds both emergence (the bubbling up of new phenomena from the random interaction of individuals) and design (the crafting of a desired future state) in a dynamic embrace that transcends the apparent duality. It seeks to reduce the friction points that inhibit free flow of information and to encourage rootedness in the very particular present. Allowing for experimentation toward an envisioned future, the process of realizing that desired state becomes more like the leaves of trees reaching for sunlight than planning.

And all this hints at the main reason why, IMHO, so many dictatorships are collapsing. In the unpredictable, weird world we have entered, regimes that constrain people from choosing as best they know how in response to problems experienced first hand, that depend on preventing emergent solutions to difficult problems, are exposed as lumberingly, unsustainably stupid. They are being weeded out as we speak.

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