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What is Emergent Architecture?

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Emergent architecture is when organizational structures such as business processes and technologies are designed incrementally by many designers.

The Inevitable Analogy

Emergent architecture is best explained with an analogy to emergent cities.
Historically, some cities have emerged as the result of individuals building structures such as houses and infrastructure such as roads without a central plan. Other cities have been centrally planned from the start with building codes and long term strategies for infrastructure such as transportation.
Emergent architecture tends to result in charming cities where everything is different. Central planning tends to result in functional cites that can be somewhat bland and undifferentiated. As such, there is growing appreciation for emergent techniques such as placemaking within the urban design and urban planning professions.

Enterprise Architecture

At the enterprise level, emergent architecture is characterized by disparate systems, islands of data and a messy patchwork of integration and inefficient processes that make it all work.
On the positive side, emergent architecture can make an organization more resilient. When an organization deploys a single technology everywhere, it is exposed to weaknesses such as bugs or security vulnerabilities. Diverse architectures tend to prevent single points of failure such as an ESB platform that performs all integration for a firm. Emergent architecture can also result in experimentation whereby teams adopt their own technologies and share what works with other teams.
A centralized committee dictating technologies to diverse business units can be a mistake.

Application Architecture

At the application level, emergent architecture can work quite well. The traditional approach of attempting to future-proof designs isn't always worth the upfront overhead as techniques exist to adapt with time. Emergent design prioritizes current needs and treats the future as an unknown. It tends to result in lightweight structures that avoid over-engineering. That being said, emergent design isn't typically as robust and probably isn't appropriate for applications involving business risks such as safety related functions or financial controls.
Overview: Emergent Architecture
Organizational structures such as business processes and technologies that are designed incrementally over time by many designers.
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