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Synergies & Interference

Two honeybees Apis mellifera foraging for nectar and pollen on a yellow sunflower. The relationship between plant and bee is a classical example of a synergy.

Two honeybees Apis mellifera foraging for nectar and pollen on a yellow sunflower. The relationship between plant and bee is a classical example of a synergy.

A synergy is a constructive relation between two or more elements through which value is added by components performing differentiated functions, while also coordinating their activities into an integrated system.1 Due to the value added by the synergistic interaction, the system becomes more than the simple sum of its parts in isolation. The term synergy comes from a Greek word that means “working together.” A synergy is a positive interaction between two elements derived from some synchronization between their states. As an example, we could cite the division of labor within many insect and human communities, such as ant colonies and market economies, where synergistic relations create a net result that is greater than the product of the individual elements actions in isolation. Very simple ants can through the division of their labor and collaboration create ant colonies that appear to far exceed the capabilities of simply summing up the capability of each ant in isolation.

Relations

A relation is a connection or interaction between two or more components. Through this connection, there is an exchange of some matter, energy, information or ideas that bind the elements into a state of interdependency, where the total gains and losses of any component are correlated with those of others in the relationship. These relationships between the system’s constituent elements can be fundamentally of two different kinds; constructive or destructive. We call constructive relations synergies and destructive relations interference.

Differentiation & Integration

From this, we should note that in order to achieve synergies, components need to be both different and synchronized. If all the ants in an ant colony or the people in a business performed exactly the same function, then the result would simply be additive. Or if they all performed different functions but did not coordinate their behavior then again we would be dealing with an additive linear system. It is only when we get differentiation, that is when components become different not in some random fashion but in a specific way with respect to each other and they also coordinate their activities, then we get synergies and the system becomes nonlinear. To illustrate this further, say person A alone is too short to reach an apple on a tree and person B is too short as well. Once person B sits on the shoulders of person A, they are tall enough to reach the apple. The point here is that they had to both differentiate their activities with respect to each other and then coordinate them again in order to achieve this synergy. With both on the ground, they got nothing, but when one stood on the ground and the other on his shoulders then something different happened. This phenomenon of synergy is ubiquitous, being encountered throughout the natural, social and engineered world.

Interference

The interaction of waves can result in each cancelling out the other, a form of destructive interference

The interaction of waves can result in each canceling out the other, a form of destructive interference

Whereas synergistic relations are constructive relations, we can of course also have destructive relations between components, which we might call interference. Destructive relations result in a combined system that is less than the sum of its constituent components in isolation. An example of this could be the interference between two wave functions, where they cancel each other out due to their asynchronous interaction. Whereas synergistic relations occur through differentiation and synchronization, interference often involves a decisive lack of differentiation between components within the same environment, resulting in them trying to all access or occupy a single state with the inevitable result being destructive relations of competition and crowding out. We might think about rush hour traffic jams here, many people trying to access the same resource at the same time, with every new component added to the system resulting in an increased overall loss for everyone else due to a lack of differentiation between their activities.

Disconnection

Whereas synergies arise from feedback loops between components during their development, enabling them to adapt and synchronize their behavior with other components within the environment. Destructive relations, in contrast, involve the lack of feedback between components, meaning they cannot or do not synchronize their behavior and the overall system remains sub-linear. For example, the human body as an entirety is a complex system that emerges out of differentiation and synchronization on both the cellular level and the level of the individual organs as they grow and are regulated through a network of feedback loops. The disease of cancer then represents a set of cells which have broken free from these feedback control mechanisms that the body exerts on all cells to regulate their proliferation. These cells grow into a malignant tumor that is then in a destructive relation with all other elements in the system.

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Synergies & Interference," in Complexity Academy, February 7, 2016, http://complexityacademy.io/synergy/.
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