Creativity Is in the Middle

Creativity is in the middle. The middle is where the opportunities for action that the environment provides exists. This middle of creativity is called affordances.

Playing the cats cradle game
Exploring creativity in the middle with the cats cradle

This is a wholly relational concept, which is really hard to properly conceptualize. It is easy to put affordances “in” things — we can easily imagine that when we say “this cup affords grasping” it is simply an actual physical property of the cup and that's it — but in doing so lose sight of the relationship.

Coffee Mugs multiple uses
The affordances of a coffee cup

An affordance is an emergent relationship between an environmental feature and an individual — it is not reducible to the material property of the cup.

Why does this matter? By putting the affordance “in” the cup we confuse the role of the designer in the creative process and misunderstand creativity in general. Creativity and invention are needed to make the relationship that gives rise to an affordance. We — the system is creating the affordance. It is not a person designing it “into” the cup.

What is really difficult to understand is the concept of a relationship being real. But, we need to grasp this to understand creativity.
Ecology, Dynamic Systems Theory, Complexity Science, Enactive Cognition, Ecological Psychology, Process Philosophy — in all of these fields, everything is a relation — there is nothing but relations.

Evan Thompson puts it beautifully “... ‘nature’ does not consist of basic particulars, but fields and processes… Everything is process all the way ‘down’ and all the way ‘up,’ and processes are irreducibly relational — they exist only in patterns, networks, organizations, configurations or webs… There is no base level of elementary entities to serve as the ultimate ground. Phenomena at all scales are not entities or substances but relatively stable processes, and since the processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has absolute… primacy.”

All of the key concepts for innovation are themselves relationships:

  • Creativity is not in anything
  • Thinking is not in anything
  • Affordances are not in anything
  • They are all out there arising from the middle of a set of semi-stable relationships.
  • These are “properties” of a system, a field, a process…

To be great swimmers in the sea of creativity is to be in and of the middle.

Here are a few resources that help articulate the points above:

  1. Anthony Chemero: The World Around Us
  2. Hanne De Jaegher: An Introduction to Participatory Sense-Making
  3. 56 uses for a pencil

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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