Generative Emergence: A New Discipline of Organizational, Entrepreneurial, and Social Innovation, by Benyamin Lichtenstein, PhD. Culminating more than 30 years of research into evolution, complexity science, organizing and entrepreneurship, this book provides insights to scholars who are increasingly using emergence to explain social phenomena. In addition to providing the first comprehensive definition and framework for understanding emergence, it is the first publication of data from a year-long experimental study of emergence in high-potential ventures—a week-by-week longitudinal analysis of their processes based on over 750 interviews and 1000 hours of on-site observation.  These data, combined with reports from over a dozen other studies, confirm the dynamics of the five phase model in multiple contexts.

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Read Chapter 1: Introduction

What is Emergence?

Emergence is the creation of order—new structure, systems, organization, and interdependent action. Emergence permeates the natural and social world; examples have been studied in physics, chemistry, computer science, biology, entomology, ecology, evolution, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, group dynamics, entrepreneurship, institutional theory, and economic geography. One goal is to integrate insights across all these fields—see Emergence Across the Disciplines.

Generative Emergence refers to a certain type of creation, namely the generation of social ‘entities’—new initiatives, ventures, projects, organizations, alliances and social  innovations of all kinds. Generative Emergence describes how these social emergents arise and take shape, through a rigorous stud of their drivers and dynamics.

What distinguishes Generative Emergence is that these social emergents are purposive—they are organized by individuals who intend to produce some outcome—even though the emergent form is always a surprise, unpredictable and uncertain. For example, an entrepreneur intends to start a venture, a leader aims to start an initiative, an activist focuses on creating a social innovation—all of these are examples of Generative Emergence.

Generative Emergence unfolds through five sequential phases: Disequilibrium; Stress and Experiments; Amplification to a Threshold; New Order through Recombination; and Stabilizing Feedbacks. The logic underlying these five phases is drawn from the complexity science of dissipative structures; the phases have been identified by a dozen research studies in entrepreneurship, leadership, organization theory, collaborations, and organizational change.

Five Phases of Generative Emergence

Why Generative Emergence?

Key insights from the book include:

  • Findings which show a major difference between an aspiration that generates a purposive drive for generative emergence, versus a performance-driven crisis that sparks organizational change and transformation.  This difference has important implications for studies of entrepreneurship, innovation, and social change.
  • A definition of emergence based on 100+ years of work in philosophy and philosophy of science, evolutionary studies, sociology, and organization science.
  • The most inclusive review of complexity science published, to help reinvigorate and legitimize those methods in the social sciences.
  • The Dynamic States Model—a new approach for understanding the non-linear growth and development of new ventures.
  • In-depth examinations of more than twenty well-known emergence studies, to reveal their shared dynamics and underlying drivers.
  • Proposals for applying the five-phase model—as a logic of emergence—to social innovation, organizational leadership, and entrepreneurial development.
One Cycle of Emergence

About the Author

Benyamin Lichtenstein, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Management at University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a faculty member in the Organizations and Social Change group. His research specialty is the study of emergence, the creation and re-creation of new ventures, organizations, and collaborations; he also is an expert of complexity science and how it can be applied to sustainability issues. He has published four books and more than 50 articles and chapters in internationally recognized journals. Professor Lichtenstein is Academic Director of the Entrepreneurship Center at U-Mass Boston; he is a Research Fellow at the Center for Sustainable Enterprise, and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Policy in the McCormick School of Public Policy.

To reach Prof. Benyamin, email:  Phone:  617-721-3609.

Research Papers available at:
Research Profile available at:

Benyamin Lichtenstein, PhD

Lectures, Classes, and Talks

For Scholars

The Dynamics of Re-Emergence: How Social Entities are Created and Re-Created Over Time. This talk presents the in-depth longitudinal data from four ‘high-potential’ ventures, each of which were aiming reach a higher level of scaling and growth. Analysis shows that they all moved through the same five phases of emergence, as they shifted from one Dynamic State to another. It turns out that this consistent process yielded totally inconsistent results, ranging from a 300% increase in revenues in five years, to a multimillion dollar failure. An examination of these differing outcomes reveals why emergence is much more powerful than traditional notions of change or transformation. Insights from these findings will be applied to examples from psychology, sociology, policy, management, and entrepreneurship.

For PhD Students and Researchers

Bringing In Non-Linearity: An Introduction to Complexity Science for Organizational Researchers.  Virtually all of our research methods  are designed around an assumption that the social world is composed of independent, autonomous entities, which interact in linear ways.  Unfortunately these assumptions are mostly wrong—a fact that is well-seen in the low degrees of explained variance in our studies.  Alternative assumptions will be introduced in this session—new research methods designed to examine the non-linear and interdependent dynamics of social entities. Each of these 15 complexity sciences will be introduced (e.g. chaos theory, fractals, system dynamics, computational models, resilience studies, auto-catalysis). Then, participants will explore how one of these could be incorporated into current research projects.

For Companies and Institutes

Generative Emergence: A New Engine of Entrepreneurial Innovation. Innovation is the lifeblood of growing ventures and great companies, but it is hard to maintain especially in dynamic industries. This talk presents three new ways to create a sustainable system of innovation. The first, Generative Leadership, shows how managers can amplify the insights from any interchange to increase the flow of ideas and actions across their team. Second, the science of power laws reveals how to identify hidden concepts that can make radical improvements in a firm. Last, Generative Emergence is a unique strategy for leveraging these new inputs, to increase capacity and performance in work unit. Using vivid examples from successful firms, the presentation will provide moves and tactics that can be implemented almost immediately.

How to Use this Book

Generative Emergence provides important benefits for research and for teaching in a wide variety of fields.

Complexity Science. Explains the leading edge theories and methods of complexity. Each of the 15 complexity sciences offers a unique perspective and method for uncovering non-linearity, interdependence, and order creation. Shows how scholars have been most successful in applying complexity science to social phenomena.

Entrepreneurial Emergence of Organizations and Projects. Carefully lays out the five-phase process model of emergence, and relates it to all levels and types of order creation. Presents the Dynamic States model as a means for identifying when a new entity is created or re-created. Examines and operationalizes re-emergence in high-growth ventures.

Sociology, Policy, Organization Theory. Explains how emergence is generated out of a social ecology—the culture, technology, regional economy, markets and sectors that source the ideas an opportunities for emergence. Draws on recent social theory to explain how emergence is based on the social ecology, but can go beyond it as well.

Emergence Research.  Most scholars of emergence have been working within a particular discipline, without knowing about parallel findings from studies in other fields.  The eight prototypes of emergence provide a unique framework for integrating findings across fields and develop new avenues of inquiry.  As a start, the book proposes a set of common drivers across prototypes, and methods for extending that analysis further.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation.  Reveals the dynamics of new venture creation and organizational innovation.  Proposes Opportunity Tension an integrative driver of entrepreneurial action, and shows how it operates in a range of innovation efforts. The five-phase model of emergence is a framework with links to key findings in the field.

Organizational Development and Change.  Extends the traditional literature on change and transformation by contrasting them with emergence, and shows how they differ in terms of quality of creativity, degrees of freedom in innovation, and ultimate outcomes.  Presents hundreds of detailed examples of innovation in small organizations, all based on longitudinal qualitative data.

Leadership and Management.  Draws on earlier findings to show how leaders can create the conditions for emergence and innovation.  Gives specific moves for leading emergence, and proposes ways for extending the model.

Sociology, Policy, Education.   Shows how the micro- and meso-dynamics of social change and policy can be usefully understood through emergence and non-linear change.  Gaining insight into these dynamics provides new avenues for activating innovations in policy, education, and social change.  As well, the text presents tools and exemplars for integrating  non-linearity, and interdependence into existing models.

Emergence Across the Disciplines

Scholars in almost every discipline have examined emergence. However, rarely are insights transferred between disciplines, leading to an uneven patchwork of understanding. Given more than 100 years of research into emergence, and hundreds scholarly studies, the time is ripe to call for a formal discipline of emergence.

Examples of emergence are listed below, by discipline, e.g. physics, biology, organizations, sociology. An analysis of those examples yields eight ‘prototypes’ of emergence: essential archetypes of emergence with specific drivers and dynamics. In combination, these prototypes cover the entire range of emergents, from symmetry-breaking in physics to laws and institutions in social structures. Together these form a framework for integrating knowledge about emergence across the sciences.

Read Chapter 2: Prototypes of Emergence

Prototype 1—Relational Properties.  e.g. temperature, symmetry breaking
When a large number of homogeneous agents—atoms or molecules—are put together, the relationships between them lead to emergent properties.

Prototype 2—Exo-Organization: Energy Driven into Constrained Systems.   e.g. laser light
Some emergents occur when high amounts of energy are driven into a closed container, forcing the elements into a far-from-equilibrium state, a precursor of emergence.

Prototype 3—Computational Order.  e.g. genetic algorithms, NK landscapes, agent modeling
Computational agents interact with neighboring agents according to a small number of rules; given the right parameters and interdependence, macroscopic aggregations will form—discernable patterns, groups, and simple hierarchies.

Prototype 4—Autocatalysis.  e.g. polypeptides, hypercycles, social structures
In an autocatalytic system, a macromolecule (structure) produced in a chain of reactions itself becomes a catalyst that spurs at least one of its precursor reactions in the chain, turning the entire cycle into a self-amplifying system that is highly efficient.

Prototype 5—Symbiogenesis.  e.g. eukaryotes, symbiocosms, certain ecosystems
A symbiotic envelopment of one microorganism by another, creating an integrated system that improves the functioning of both elements.  This is an engine of evolutionary order creation.

Prototype 6—Collaborative Emergence.  e.g. social practices; institutions (Sawyer, 2005)
A stream of dynamic interactions between agents yields unintended emergent structures, which constrain yet enable behavior.  In insects this micro-aggregation of structure leads to anthills and nests; in humans it leads to institutions and material systems.

Prototype 7—Generative Emergence.  e.g. projects, ventures, organizations, initiatives
The creation of social entities through agentic organizing by individual agents.  Studies reveal a common five-phase process that yields these intended but unpredictable social outcomes.

Prototype 8—Collective Action, Social Aggregates.  e.g. new industries, markets, ecologies
Organizations and institutional entrepreneurs work together to generate higher-order collectives, including industry alliances, social movements, and collective action.

o    The emergence of water and its macroproperties out of hydrogen + oxygen (Corning & Kline, 1998)

o    Laser light—the emergence of highly coherent light-energy waves (Haken, 1977)

o   The emergence of macrostructures in far-from-equilibrium chemical systems, as studied by Prigogine and others (Prigogine, 1955; Prigogine & Stengers, 1984; Swenson, 1988; Nicolis & Prigogine, 1989)

o    Symmetry-breaking processes which shift the dynamics of the macrosystem (Anderson, 1972)

o   The emergence of “gliders” in the cellular automata computational system Game of Life   (Conway, 1970)

o   The emergence of ordered landscapes in NK computational modeling (Kauffman, 1993)

o   In multi-agent systems, computational entities emerge which are capable of learning, decision-making, and coalition-building (Axelrod, Mitchell, Thomas, Bennett, & Bruderer, 1995; Gilbert & Conte, 1995; Axelrod, 1997; Sawyer, 2001)

o    Autocatalysis—self-reinforcing catalytic networks that are central to the buildup of biological complexity (Eigen, 1971; Eigen & Schuster, 1979; Ulanowicz, 2002)

o    Dynamics of slime molds—populations of multicellular organisms which, in adversity, organize into a single living column that can literally move across the forest floor, to re-generate the population in a more resource-rich place (Bonner, 1959; Nicolis & Prigogine, 1989)

o   Symbiogenesis—the envelopment of separate organisms (e.g., mitochondria) into a cell, generating an emergent entity with significantly increased metabolism and capacity for adaptation (Margulis, 1967, 1981)

o    Complexity that emerges within ant colonies, beehives, and termite hills, including division of labor and the construction of very large free-standing structures (Wilson & Holldobler, 1990)

o   Ecological resilience—the capacity of an entire ecosystem to grow while remaining adaptive (Ulanowicz, 1980, 2002; Folke et al., 2004; Walker et al., 2006)

o    Emergence of increasingly complex types of organisms in evolutionary history (Jantsch, 1980; Coren, 1998; Chaisson, 2001; Morowitz, 2002)

o   Emergence of human communities and societies (Carniero, 1970, 1987)

o   Traffic jams (Nagel & Paczuski, 1995; Johnson, 2001)

o   Emergence of slang words, conversational routines, and other shared social practices (Lang & Lang, 1961; Giddens, 1984)

o    Norms and leadership that emerge in a group or team (Guastello, 1998; Arrow & Burns, 2004)

o    Entrepreneurship—the emergence of new organizations (Katz & Gartner, 1988; Gartner, 1993; Gartner, Shaver, Carter, & Reynolds, 2004; Lichtenstein, Carter, Dooley, & Gartner, 2007)

o    The creation of new industries (Schumpeter, 1934, Sarasvathy & Dew, 2005; Chiles, Tuggle, McMullen, Bierman, & Greening, 2010; Dew, Reed, Sarasvathy, & Wiltbank, 2011)

o    The emergence of organizational communities and aggregates (Chiles, Meyer, & Hench, 2004; Ehrenfeld, 2007; Viega & Magrini, 2009)

o     The rise of social institutions and of material infrastructure in large societies (Sawyer, 2005; Padgett & Powell, 2011)

What Colleagues Have Said About the Book

“The heart of complexity is emergence, and in this highly informative and engaging new work Benyamin Lichtenstein offers an eminently helpful road map, theoretically and practically, for our century of innovation.  This book is both a shining example of sterling scholarship and a well of insights into the pragmatic utility of emergence.”
Jeffrey Goldstein, Professor—Management, Marketing, and Decision Sciences; Adelphi University.

“The generative emergence framework/process is a major contribution to organization science, and a critical path towards seeing entrepreneurship as it is: dynamic and non-linear.”
William B. Gartner, Professor of Entrepreneurship—Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School.

“Emergence is at the heart of complexity science, and this is one of those wonderful books that rigorously explores the nature and process of emergence using various complexity sciences.  Its call for a discipline of emergence is convincing, and the eight prototypes of emergence capture the breadth of emergent phenomena.”
Bill McKelvey, Professor Emeritus—University of California Los Angeles; Anderson School of Management.

“Research into institutional entrepreneurship often mentions emergence, but scholars rarely define it or explore the processes underlying it in depth.  Likewise with complexity science – emergence is often invoked, but only a few scholars have focused on the dynamics of order creation itself.  This ambitious book tackles these challenges and, by highlighting core processes of emergence and relating them to organizations and social institutions in an intriguing way, lays a firm foundation for future scholarship.”
Steve Maguire, Director—Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management, Desautels Chair in Integrated Management, Professor of Strategy and Organization; Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University.

“By explaining how and when emergence and re-emergence happen, Professor Lichtenstein articulates the dynamics of core entrepreneurial processes including innovation, new entry, and organization creation. His theory regarding the conditions that either support or undermine emergence is truly insightful.”
Tom Lumpkin, Chris J. Witting Chair of Entrepreneurship; Co-Editor, Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University.

How to Buy the Book

You can buy Generative Emergence from or Oxford University Press.