How communities evolve gives clues to better healthcare, says Steven Johnson

Written by my namesake and resonating with my own ideas on the social foundations of behaviour, Steven Johnson’s book proved both unnerving and humbling. He takes you on a whistle stop tour of a vast array of disciplines, picking up common patterns and building a compelling case for the vast potential of a “collective intelligence”.

Emergence shows how disparate elements (or individuals) that share the same locality can spontaneously evolve into a system (or community) that is not only self-organising, but also “intelligent”.

In the context of a consensus that for any community (neighbourhood, town, market, organisation, network) value is most effectively generated from within, we have much to learn from the principles outlined here. Call it co-creation, public engagement or world class commissioning, we are scrambling for ways to harness the experiences, opinions and intelligence of the communities we serve as a means to more effective services and better health outcomes.

However, the book’s breadth is achieved at the cost of depth, and if you are looking for concepts that can be applied directly to your current practice, you are likely to be disappointed. Many of Johnson’s inspiring observations resonate strongly with our desire to engage communities in developing their own interventions, but his work is primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive. To capitalise on this tantalising glimpse of people power, we will have to find a way to adapt his concepts to our specific disciplines.

Steven Johnson, the reviewer, is creative director at social marketing agency, The Hub.

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