Visualizing Emergence

Project status: 
In Development

Visualizing Emergence seeks to explore and visualize phenomena of emergence in data representing technologically mediated human communication and exchange, that is, within a techno-social complex adaptive system (CAS). 

Greg Van Alstyne & Trevor Haldenby. Photo © Jonathan Nuss 2013

The Visualizing Emergence project is part of the broader project, Designing for Emergence, which was presented at the international conference, Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) 


Through interactions among their large numbers of parts, such systems exhibit emergent properties that cannot be predicted or understood simply from the rules of their lower-level components (Capra 1996, 29). For example an organism’s behaviour cannot be understood from the properties of its bio-molecules (Kauffman, Logan, Este, Hobill, Shmulevich, 2007). A principal means of understanding emergence is through modeling and visualization (Miller & Page, 2007; Sawyer, 2005).

One question we have investigated is, “How might data visualization techniques illuminate the role of emergence in the process of diffusion of innovations (Rogers 1962/2003), including the adoption and spread of new technologies and new ideas (memetics)?” This motivation stems from Van Alstyne and Logan (2007) in which emergence is seen as necessary for innovation. Hypotheses regarding the role of ‘bottom-up’ (emergent) and ‘top down’ (designed) forces will be formulated and tested. We will elaborate insights from Capra (1996; 2002), Barabási (2003), and Christakis and Fowler (2009).

Using textual analysis and other data as substrate, we’ll focus on data from CIV-DDD partners, IBM Cognos and public sources, possibly including Twitter and other accessible APIs. In time we expect to aggregate data from additional sources. Leveraging senior researcher and student contributions from OCAD and York Universities, the project will explore and exploit a synthesis of scientific, artistic and aesthetic techniques, with software from partners including IBM / Cognos.

Visualizing Emergence is supported by NCE-GRAND. This project is funded in part by the Centre for Information Visualization and Data Driven Design established by the Ontario Research Fund (ORF).

Thematic Axis:

  • Textual and asset visualization in humanities and social sciences, communications and medicine

Technology Research:

  • Model-based scientific visualization of complex data sets
  • Emergent systems, data mining techniques and visualization

Design Research:

We will test, review and select the most appropriate software approach for developing the data models and generating dynamic results. The work will deliver findings tied to the following CIV-DDD project aims:

  • Appropriateness of 2D or 3D visualizations
  • Visualization aesthetics
  • Specific versus generic tools

This research will address challenges including:

  • Finding the right data set; evaluating data quality
  • Representing, managing multi-variant data
  • Models, metaphors; legibility, navigation


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Capra, F. (1996). The web of life : A new scientific understanding of living systems. New York: Anchor Books.

____. (2002). The hidden connections : Integrating the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability. New York: Anchor Books.

Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected : The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives (1st ed.). New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Fromm, J. (2005). Types and forms of emergence. Retrieved April 4, 2011, from

Johnson, S. (2001). Emergence : The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software. New York: Scribner.

Kauffman, Stuart ; Logan, Robert K. ; Este, Robert ; Goebel, Randy ; Hobill, David & Shmulevich, Ilya (2008). Propagating organization: An enquiry. Biology and Philosophy 23 (1).

Logan, R. K. (2007). The extended mind : The emergence of language, the human mind and culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

____. (2004). The sixth language: Learning a living in the internet age. Caldwell NJ: Blackburn Press (1st edition 2000. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing).

____. (2010). The Poetry of Physics and the Physics of Poetry. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

Miller, J. H., & Page, S. E. (2007). Complex adaptive systems : An introduction to computational models of social life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.

Sawyer, R. K. (2005). Social emergence : Societies as complex systems. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Van Alstyne, G., & Logan, R. K. (2007). Designing for emergence and innovation : Redesigning design.Artifact, 1(2), 120-129.