Creativity Eats Ideation for Breakfast

We know that ideation does not lead to the radically new. Conceptual thinking -- the type of thinking that lies at the heart of ideation relies on existing concepts, words, systems of knowledge, habits, infrastructures, and representations. And in this way ideation, in all of its forms -- even at its most imaginative, is tied to the old, the known, the existing. These ties in all their complexity effectively bind us to the world of the known. This is a structural and logical problem with conceptual thinking -- it does not matter how smart you are or how imaginative you are you still need to work with an existing set of concepts to ideate.

Creativity is more effective than ideation
Stop Being so Smart - Creativity Eats Ideation for Breakfast

This is a fundamental problem for any model of creativity that privileges conceptual thinking: at the moment the new emerges it cannot be conceptually thought. Conceptual thinking -- ideation -- our favorite technique for all things creativity has far less to do with the actual production of novelty that we believe.

So what do we do if the normal process of ideate + plan + realize will not work?

The first critical change in approach is: to realize that thinking -- cognition is something very different from what we thought it was. Cognition -- knowing does not occur deep inside our brains but out in the world. And secondly thinking both begins and mostly remains non-conceptual -- it is more ‘know-know’ than ‘know-what’.

This is something we have written extensively about in previous articles and our newsletter (we have links to all of this at the end of the article). Today we are going to focus on the second critical piece of the creativity paradox:

The new requires neither a big idea nor a plan to begin.

The New Is Already Here

Creativity does not require ideation to develop a new concept in advance of action because it begins with a spontaneous act of repurposing a previously existing affordance for a novel, unintended, and most often unrecognized, possibility.

The spontaneously occurring unintended affordance, emerging from the state of the system, is at the disruptive heart of all novelty.  It is no exaggeration to say:

All disruptive forms of creativity utilize the unintended possibilities of a system or a thing.

A quick perusal of the history of recent human inventions bears this out:

  • The computer: a knitting machine
  • The airplane: hip steering in cycling
  • The Internet: a closed communication system for the military
  • GPS: developed to track the first satellite
  • Antibiotics: uncleaned lab equipment
  • The lightbulb: took advantage of unintended properties of threads, paper and bamboo
  • Plastics: an accident in making a shellac replacement for wood
  • Viagra: a heart medicine with unintended engorgement properties somewhere far south of the heart

This list is infinite — every disruptive innovation involves the unintended.

Too often these unintended aspects become interesting marginal side notes in the classical heroic story of invention as the work of a solitary human genius and their brilliant powers of ideation.

But, what if they -- the spontaneously occurring unintended affordances, is the story? What if creativity happens despite -- not because of the power of human ideation?

Of course, at the end of the process of experimentation novel concepts can be defined, theories articulated, and practices explained -- but what is happening early in the process?

Experiments -- they are not there to prove things that you already know. What is the purpose of an experiment? The historian of science, Ian Hacking puts it this way:

“Most experiments donʼt work most of the time. To ignore this fact is to forget what experimentation is doing. To experiment is to create, produce, refine and stabilize phenomena... But phenomena are hard to produce in any stable way. That is why I spoke of creating and not merely discovering phenomena. That is a long hard task. Or rather there are endless different tasks. There is designing an experiment that might work. There is learning how to make an experiment work. But perhaps the real knack is getting to know when the experiment is working…”

Experimentation is a process
Experimentation is to create, produce, refine and stabilize

To experiment is to create, produce, refine and stabilize [novel] phenomena. There is so much to unpack in this wonderful quote. The first thing to note is that what happens in experimentation is the tweaking, testing, developing, and stabilizing of an assemblage/taskscape to allow for a general phenomena (a specific field of potentiality) to stabilize as something that can be engaged.

The question is where do these novel phenomena first emerge? Ian goes on to hint at what this means as the paragraph continues:

“...That is one reason why observation, in the philosophy of science usage of the term, plays a relatively small role in experimental science. Noting and reporting reading of dials -- Oxford philosophyʼs picture of the experiment -- is nothing. Another kind of observation is what counts: the uncanny ability to pick out what is odd, wrong, instructive or distorted in the antics of one's equipment. The experimenter is not the “observer” of traditional philosophy of science…”

In the active practice of doing, many things are happening -- far more than what is wanted or intended, most often these are never even noticed or if noticed passed over as inconsequential. This is a simple fact of the dance between entropy and order -- systems are constrained into novel patterns but always exceed them. And most often we are not engaged in experiments to push systems into new states -- we are just trying to do what we are doing -- which is already hard enough.

Because the history of human creativity is so thickly overlaid with heroic narratives of ideation, to actually see the role the unintended plays in all creativity it’s best to turn to the history of non-human innovation processes. All creativity from the big bang to the flight of birds is a story of unintended possibilities being activated towards novel ends. Let's take a look at evolution.

Things = a Hot Mess of Possibility -- Not Utility

The unintended repurposing can be a simple functional shift or utilization of an unintended aspect of the design. Living beings are directly in contact with their environment via affordances -- the potential for action in “things”. The features of the environment afford both intentional and unintentional potential actions. Most of the time both are directed towards desired ends. When we don’t have a ladder handy we use a chair. The chair was not intended for this purpose. But things have the potential to go beyond this loop of repurposing the unintended for existing (non-novel) ends.

All things exceed their designed purpose
"Things" exceed their designed purpose

Mindless Evolution -- The Superstar of Creativity

Let’s look at a classic evolutionary example of unintended shifts in function: the story of how fish migrated from the sea to land.

For this to happen fins had to evolve into feet. Why and how did this happen?

This has been a vexing general question of Evolutionary Historians for quite some time: how could a new feature like the leg ever evolve via the slow process of minor generation-by-generation changes? What would be the use of half a leg? How could such a creature that neither walks nor swims well survive?

Fish evolve to walk on land
Fish evolve to walk on land

In regards to the fish evolving legs, it was originally thought that environmental changes propelled this process: water bodies were drying up and shrinking so for fish to survive the ones lucky enough to randomly have stronger fins would drag themselves between ponds. Slowly the environmental necessity to crawl on land propelled a change and bit by bit fins turned into feet while crawling on land.

This neat explanation turns out to be another false just-so story where the end drives the story. But fish never “intended” to go on land -- fish, like all life (us included), are deeply enmeshed in deeply habitual patterns -- fish just want to be better fish!

Two critical discoveries put the dry water bodies scenario to rest:

  1. It was discovered that the environment in which we find the first fish coming onto land was swampy -- no droughts, no shrinking environments -- in fact seemingly no environmental pressures.
  2. Many fish during this era had legs but never left the sea.

Now, why would a fish have a leg?

Who needs “feet” in the ocean?

Clearly, they must have afforded swimming and many other non-walking activities. But what were they?

  • First, legs do work for swimming -- we and a whole host of creatures swim ok with legs and arms. Feet-like fins are simply one of a vast array of aquatic propulsion strategies that emerged in the ocean.
  • Feet for swimming had the unintended affordance to help fish linger invisibly on the bottom and spring up to ambush prey
  • They could also help fish navigate underwater grasses without giving away their location by using their forearms to gently move aside the grasses

Long feet and arm-shaped protrusions proliferated on diverse fish species.

Legs evolved, not to walk (their current purpose), but for wholly different purposes in a whole different environment. The leg, just like all features, does not have a fixed singular purpose -- it is whatever it does. Origins never explain or mimic current practices in a linear manner. All creative processes involve these functional leaps.

But if legs are so great in the ocean -- why go on land?

There is no one answer, but we know with certainty it was not because of environmental change. One interesting possibility is the juvenile footed fish “escaped” briefly onto land to avoid predation and discovered they had unintended capacities to survive briefly out of water. Fish-bladder lungs, eyes on top of the head, and other capacities were all entrained -- co-opted towards new possibilities and new assemblages/taskscapes.

And then this led slowly to a more permanent shift to land.

It is a situation where a change in degree crosses a qualitative threshold to become a change in kind.

Change crosses a threshold from iterative to disruptive innovation
When change in degree becomes change in kind

The French word “detournement” — rerouting or hijacking is an ideal term for this process. Radical co-opting.

Detournement — It's a Process:

While the general concept is critical, it is the detailed step-by-step process that once understood abstractly can be applied to the development of a new innovation approach.

If we were to zoom in on this process we would see that it is composed of a series of many sequential pivots in purpose (it does not happen all at once via one big move).

“Purpose is a Porpoise” (bpNichol)

Because things have agency and affordances they exceed intended use
Things equal purpose and exceed it via affordances and agency

Everything has a purpose in relation to someone doing something (an agent, an activity, and purposeful things). The chair is like this: it is the stabilized, materialized, and formalized affordance of things for sitting. It has a specific form and purpose. But “hovering” around or “haunting” this purpose are infinite immanent and emergent unintended possibilities awaiting a literal realization and production in use. We utilize this when we stand upon the chair, use it as a musical instrument, wedge it under a door handle to lock a door. But these are all one-off events.

If we were to zoom in on the process we saw with fish evolution we would see that it is composed of:

  1. A pivoting away from an established purpose (the leg for swimming), and
  2. The following of an unintended capacity in that same feature towards a new end (the leg to slide onto land temporarily), and
  3. How this changes the agent, its activity, and environment.
Process for Creativity is Block Follow Change
Creative process is Block Follow Change

Tracking our evolving fish, the story reveals a more complex process. A key aspect of the fish-to-land transition is the fin-to-foot transformation, but to be able to do this the fish needed to first evolve cartilage and bone.

Why did cartilage first evolve?

One might think it is obvious: to give fish structure. But, that is not the reason — in fact, that is the unintended outcome of what happened: cartilage first evolves to help sequester toxins that could not be effectively flushed out of early oceanic beings.

So, now fish have bones that unintentionally help them swim — what next?

Not so fast. The cartilage goes through various twists and turns to get to this point — essentially a series of these sideways movements of purpose being pushed aside by the unintended being discovered in action. There is no linear path here. Just a lot of branchings and many twists and turns.

But, can we skip ahead to fins?

Sure, because of the tendencies in self-organizing systems, fins evolved in two directions: one type joined the body in a single spot (lobe-finned), while most joined the body at more points (ray-finned).

Variations of fin evolutions
Fin Evolution: Lobe fin joined the body in a single spot. Ray fins joined the body at multiple points

Mutations diversified these designs and the variations allowed many forms of unintended possibilities to emerge.

Many of these minor mutations of a lobe fin developed into the appendages that we would now recognize as “legs.”

So the ocean was full of “legged” fish swimming around?

Sure, and it still is. Each of these leg-fins affords certain beneficial actions and each harbors unintended capacities.

It is not just about the fins right? Wouldn’t you need lungs to breathe on land? A flatter body perhaps and eyes looking in the right direction?

Yes. Many other changes were going on in parallel. Lungs surprisingly evolved quite early on and many early fish had both lungs and gills. It is believed that lungs are an unintended by-product of a digestive “cough” reflex in primitive fish. In most fish lungs evolved into swim bladders because lungs were not necessary but had the unintended capacity to regulate buoyancy.

And fish bodies definitely varied and some larger fish developed longer slender bodies suited to stalking in underwater seaweed beds and tall underwater grasses.

Eyes moved towards the top of the head to help some fish eat airborne creatures like flies.

There is a wonderful dance of co-shaping and co-evolving via many many unintended affordances with their environments, and taskscapes.

So we have many converging lines of unintended capacities?

Yes, and each of these lines consists of a long series of mutations making intended features and unintended features  — and all of these features are being activated in novel ways over and over again.

And at some point land comes into play?

Well, yes — there was a leg-finned fish who enjoyed hunting in shallower plant-filled waters where their leg-fins gave them the advantage of both pushing off the bottom to ambush other fish and also allowed them to stealthily swim through the grasses by gently pushing them aside with their leg-fins. They were quite big — over a meter but their young would regularly, perhaps at first accidentally find themselves on land in an attempt to escape being eaten. Now their leg-fins, lungs, arms, long bodies, etc. unintentionally afforded them new possibilities. Which at first must have been very modest — the ability for a few of them to push themselves back into the water when the chase was over. But eventually, a new feedback loop evolves between unintended capacities, their further mutations, new behaviors, and an environment that allows them to live on land. At this “moment” it would be right to say that a wholly new “world” emerges — the world of land animals.

A New approach to Innovation?

Yes, the sideways step-by-step process of detournement until a threshold is crossed from a change in degree to a change in kind. And then developing this novel world.

Creativity the iterative process
Creativity: the iterative process

Is there a type of “blocking” going on in this process?

That’s a critical part of all of this:  Essentially at each step of the process the major purpose or affordance of a feature is ignored, or “blocked” as you put it — and a process is undertaken to discover what else it can do. This process of ignoring is a type of blocking or creative negation.

So this is what people mean when they say “break all the rules”?

Sure, it’s a bit like that. You’re experimentally breaking the “rules” for how something is used. But, just as importantly you are making new rules -- really new constraints. (This is what Ian Hacking was discussing as the key to experimentation -- you are stabilizing the new via experimenting with new constraints).

This new understanding of the process of evolution is of major importance to reinventing creativity and putting it on a surer footing. The process of evolutionary change — evolutionary invention really is at its core an emergent “purpose switching” of features via unintended capacities to entirely novel ways of being alive (from water life to land life).  

In evolutionary theory, this process of utilizing unintended capacities is termed “exaptation”.  The term means “outside of aptation”. (Aptation meaning a feature that suits an organism to its environment). Ex-aptation is in contrast Ad-aptation which is the further development of a characteristic to suit a creature to its existing environment.

Exaptation and Adaptation mirror the logic of change-in-kind and change-in-degree
Exaptation and Adaptation

Exaptation and Adaptation mirror the logic of change-in-kind and change-in-degree.

We can thus conceptualize the process of innovation as being composed of two distinct design logics: Exaptive Design and Adaptive Design. Exaptive Design is used to develop disruptive novelty, and Adaptive Design is used to improve something.

So -- that what you mean by stopping being so "smart"? You need to get out of your head and experimentally follow exaptive processes?

yes -- that's the beginning of it...

15 Take-Aways for Your Creative Practice:

  1. You need to develop a genuinely experimental milieu
  2. Get engaged and not theoretical
  3. Shift from an Ideation-first creative process to an experimental process of the exploration of unintended capacities
  4. Trust the process (it is going to take its own time)
  5. Take blocking and novel constraint making seriously
  6. Welcome difference
  7. Let events, objects and practices speak
  8. Follow and do not lead
  9. Let yourself be changed by the process
  10. Make new tools, develop new habits, use new words
  11. Be open and welcome whatever comes next
  12. Work via a series of blockings and shifts in purpose (block and shift repeatedly)
  13. Be comfortable with being unsettled
  14. Laugh a lot as the oddness of the unintended sweeps you along to emergent unknown shores
  15. Don’t force what is emerging to be that answer to an existing problem -- let a world emerge

Next Steps for New Approaches to Creativity and Innovation

Want to go deeper? We publish a weekly newsletter: Emerging Futures in which we delve much deeper in the issues we raise in our LinkedIn articles. You can sign-up here.

Looking for the big picture, or a way to put these concepts to work? We just wrote a book on creativity and innovation that dives deep into all of this: Innovating Emergent Futures.

How we got here: past articles in series:

One: we looked at how creativity, in the sense of the making of something genuinely new, was not part of the western tradition until the mid 1800’s. And for the previous 2,000+ years to create was to copy.

Two: “Where did your Big Idea come from?” We went on a genealogical journey to discover how we came to believe that big ideas are both the source and goal of creativity and innovation.  

Three: Thinking is not in your head – Thinking, especially creative thinking happens in the middle of acting and doing….

Four: The New Cannot be Seen or Thought -- how does the new emerge if it cannot be seen or thought?

Five: Reality is Creativity -- on creativity being a fundamental aspect of reality itself.

Six: Creativity: “and what else can it do” -- we introduce the concept of affordances and its relevance to creativity.

Seven: Creativity: Constraints, Fields and Systems

Have a specific innovation question? Just give us a shout, and let’s talk.


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