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Simple Rules

Ant colonies are often cited examples of how agents governed by simple rules can give rise to complex emergent phenomena

Ant colonies are often cited examples of how agents governed by simple rules can give rise to complex emergent phenomena

One of the key premises of complex systems theory is that global coordination and complex behavior can emerge out of very simple rules governing the interaction between agents on the local level without the need for centralized coordination.1 At the heart of this is the question of how agents synchronize their state or cooperate to create local patterns of organization. We see many examples of self-organization within complex adaptive systems that are composed of elements following simple rules. For example, swarms of fireflies who may start out flashing their light in a random fashion with respect to each other come, through their interaction, to coordinate their behavior into an emergent pattern of the whole swam flashing in synchrony.2

Types Of Rules

This type of quite basic self-organization can be modeled using cellular automata where very simple rules are programmed into a computer, and out of the interaction between these simple agents we see emerging surprisingly dynamic patterns that are able to stay evolving over prolonged periods of time to produce novel behavior. Ant colonies are another often-cited example of self-organization through simple rules. Without a centralized coordinator, the colony as a whole exhibits quite sophisticated differentiation and specialization of its functional organs that then work together to maintain the whole system. Individual ants interact and communicate through exchanging chemical scents that induce other ants to do more or less of a given activity. This type of coordination is the product of what we call feedback loops. Through feedback loops some local pattern or behavior can become amplified to create an attractor state that will draw local elements into a particular synchronized configuration, thus arising some pattern of organization without the need for any form of top-down control system.3

Cooperation & Competition

Cooperation and competition are another lens through which we can try to understand this process of synchronization. As an example, we might think about the vast complex adaptive system of our global economy, an organization that is capable of producing things like laptop computers and sports cars that no individual could produce in isolation. They take the coordination of thousands or possibly millions of people in order to complete the full production and distribution process, but no one is in control of this whole operation. No one makes these people coordinate their activities. They have done so according to their own local rules and incentives. The elements in this type of system have agency, that is, some kind of choice over their actions. And thus, we can best understand the coordination of their activities through the concepts of cooperation and competition, where agents choose to synchronize their states in order to maximize their individual payoffs, once again giving rise to local and global patterns of organization.

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Simple Rules," in Complexity Academy, February 15, 2016,

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