Creativity Does Not Begin With Novel Ideas

A crow talking from the top of a advertisement

Creativity does not begin with a novel idea, that is then made real via an iterative process. But rather involves the iterative emergence of multiple novel affordances (exaptations) via an experimental ecological process. These processes can be found across all processes of change making – whether human or not.

Affordances – the relation between embodied abilities & aspects of the environment that gives rise to specific opportunities for action, ground perception & purpose. Affordances are more of a process/activity than a thing. They emerge, because of who we are & what skills we are nurturing in relation to an environment we are always co-shaping, as our reality stabilizing into a nearly seamless field of opportunities for action.

That said, affordances are equally things – things are stabilized affordances. A coffee mug affords holding & drinking coffee – amongst many other things because of embodied abilities & a cultural assemblage. We stabilize and fine tune the socio-material aspects of the environment (the cup) to meet our embodied practices such that we can clearly demark it as a “coffee cup” having a set “purpose” (& in this we ignore exploring all of its other (mainly unintended) affordances).

The beauty of approaching things this way is that we can see that to get to what we would just term our outside “reality” is a co-creative act. Our reality is real but neither fully objective nor fully subjective. Having a reality is a skilled co-creative achievement that is so mundane that we hardly notice it (sense-making). Creativity is a fundamental feature of being alive & of reality in general.

This brings us to the production of novelty (innovation). This also involves affordances – radically novel affordances – the opportunities to do something new & qualitatively different whose possibility already haunts things (or better: the process of thinging). These are what are also called Exaptations. A now popular concept in the field of innovation (a good thing), & often seen as the radical repurposings of things or practices (not so ideal). I.e. something that was developed for one thing, but also has the ability to do something else that was never intended (e.g. dinosaur feathers, viagra, microwave ovens, etc.).

So why connect exaptations to affordances? What something does that is novel, is equally relational, and how we get there is a process of enactive ecological innovation. Novel purposes are not just out there “in” things waiting to be noticed – discovered – & then put to work in a new manner (repurposed). Exaptations i.e. radically novel affordances, like all affordances, are relational dynamics that must be co-created. Prior to such an activity there is no exaptation (unintended capacity) – purposes must be invented. Developing an understanding, and way of actively working with the full scope of affordances (from stable to exaptive) is critical to innovation.

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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