Synergy feature photo of Falcons de Vilafranca in Barcelona by Pere Lopez 2007 CC-BY-SA-3.0 Creative Commons

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Synergy occurs when parts combine to produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Words such as holism, synergy and systems are often used so loosely that they are in danger of becoming discredited and devoid of meaning. However here we believe the words have precise and useful interpretations from which we can all benefit – that is our intention.

Many people associate synergy with holism – to mean thinking in terms of wholes and relationships. This they contrast with the splitting down or reducing a system into its parts and looking at each part in isolation. In our view that is insufficient because we need to combine holism (big picture thinking) and reductionism (thinking about specifics) which is common in science. To do this we use the idea of a holon. A holon is both a whole and a part at the same time.

If we do this a system naturally divides into layers of holons in a multi-levelled hierarchy. The holons have emergent properties. These are attributes that apply at only one or more layers as a result of interactions between holons at lower levels that do not exhibit these attributes.

Emergent properties  are more common than many people realise. For example the pressure of a gas is the result of the buzzing around of gas molecules at a lower level of description. The human ability to walk and talk emerges from the co-operation our many subsystems. You are a holon.

Your personality, your particular skills and competencies emerge from the co-operation of the parts — they are emergent properties which apply at the level of description of you — as a whole.

However, you are also a part. As the poet John Donne said, ‘No man is an Island’ (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624, Meditation XVII). You can- not live without interaction with your fellow human beings. First of all you are part of your family holon, whether as son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother or any relation. The family has emergent properties. Perhaps you are part of a ‘happy’ family or an ‘intelligent’ family or a ‘wealthy’ family. You are also a part of many other holons. You are part of the company for whom you work. You are part of a group or team within that work. Of particular interest in construction is that you may be part of a project team with people from other companies. All of these groups have emergent properties such as ‘team spirit’, ‘successful’, ‘dynamic’ or ‘team in trouble’, these properties emerge from the interactions (the chemistry) between the people in the group. Of course, at even higher levels we are all part of the city we live in and that city is part of the country we live in and we are all part of the human race. It is a useful exercise to think of emergent properties at each of these levels. Examples are that we speak of a ‘beautiful’ city, of a ‘peaceful’ country and of the ‘aggressive nature’ of the human race. We can encourage useful emergent properties such as good team spirit by helping processes to be co-operative.