Creativity “And What Else Can It Do?”

Crows are smart - they see things as tools with affordances
Crows ask: "What Else Can This Do?"

Creator: Forget your Intentions! (the crows are coming)

Here is a question for you: are these two things the same?

A Nutcracker and a Traffic Light
Are These Two Things the Same: A Nutcracker and a Traffic Light

On the left is a normal everyday nutcracker and on the right is a busy intersection with traffic lights and cars (you are going to have to imagine this -- we are not that good at drawing!).  

We get it if you are hesitant to answer — the scenario has the set-up of a trick question, and who wants to fall for a stupid trick…?

Not only that -- what do we mean by “the same”?

Obviously, they are superficially the same — both are made of atoms, both are images...

If we put these highly abstract or philosophical approaches aside for a minute: Clearly they are designed for quite different purposes.

But is that the end of the story? Are these simply two very different things?

On the surface it would seem that way:

One is small and just cracks nuts, the other is large and quite complex and keeps the flow of traffic safe and efficient.

Perhaps you are thinking ironically and humorously: they both crack things. One cracks other cars and the other nuts! One intentionally cracks things and the other unintentionally...

Stupid humor is the site of great insight: If we ignore intentionality: both have a similar capacity, crushing.

Now you might think this is equally abstract, far removed from everyday life way too philosophical.

But if we were hanging out at the right intersection debating this, in the midst of all of our crazy talk,  crows would arrive.

A Black Crow
A Common Black Crow

They are now sitting above us on a powerline. What someone designed with the intention of carrying power has also become a perch.

The crows are taking flight and landing directly in front of stopped car wheels. We see the light is red and as odd as this is, the crows are safe. They drop something and fly back up to their perch.

Shortly the light turns green, cars move, there is a series of loud cracks. But then the light turns red again, and the crows spring into action. Landing back on the road directly in front of the cars they start eating. Those were nuts they had placed on the road!

So why is this an interesting story for innovation?

It has to do with the simple and radical fact: nothing -- no object, no idea, no system is its purpose or identity. Or to be more precise nothing can be reduced to its intended purpose. Everything is far more than that. The crows were in no way concerned with understanding what a traffic intersection really is.

From the perspective of a crow -- and innovation, it does not matter what something’s identity or designated purpose is, all that matters is:

What can it do? What does it afford?

On Affordances

We might be admiring how creative and smart crows are, which is only fair, they possess many complex reasoning skills we admire. But it would be a mistake to think what just happened is unique in the sense that only crows ignore purposes and discover other uses for things.

All living things are directly enmeshed in their environment in this manner. They are embodied beings in action connecting with what is around them by what it directly affords them. This is not done via thoughtful introspection but directly and immediately: a squirrel darts under a rock, and we lean our elbow on a table to rest our heads.  

Affordances are the emergent possibilities of a total situation. When cars, traffic lights, roads, trees, and crows come together in a specific manner the situation affords the crow the novel creative possibility of nut-cracking.

Charting Affordances
Affordance is an Emergent Opportunity for Potential Action

The Gibsons, who developed the concept of affordances and co-founded the approach of Environmental Psychology, were adamant about this point: Affordances step out of and negate the subject-object divide. An affordance is neither in the thing nor is it in us: it is the outcome of a situation. Thus an affordance is best thought of as a directly sensed “opportunity for potential action”.

Features only show up as what they “are” in action. (This connects back to our Crow — things or in this case features are what they can do in a certain context for a certain subject (the crow for example).

Features are relational.

You cannot “see” them by being a disinterested neutral observer of reality — they only emerge in action or when following action (use).

Think of how often in the course of the day we use whatever is handy to do things: we step on a chair to change a bulb, or a dishcloth to grab a hot pan, or a large mug as a smartphone speaker. In these moments we see the world around us directly for what it affords.

Tools are Stabilized Affordances

If the world around us is experienced directly in this manner that means every thing we engage with is experienced in this manner. A coffee cup, the table, the chair -- look all around you: everywhere affordances -- opportunities for potential action.  

One could easily push back: these are intentionally made things that have a purpose -- they are fixed, obvious, and objective.

But, while it is true they are intentionally made: the coffee cup handle is only a “handle” if you have a hand. The features of things or creatures that we are talking about are not neutral, obvious or objective -- they are situated relational emergent capacities (A chair “seat” only exists for those who could sit in it — no spider or crow thinks of a chair as being a tool for sitting. “Chairs” don't show up for spiders or crows).

Things -- objects that we have designed with a purpose in mind are transformed and stabilized affordances. We, like the crows, move from a noticed affordance to stabilizing them via tool making.

And if objects -- tools -- are stabilized, transformed, and materialized affordances, then concepts (what some might call “ideas”) are abstracted and stabilized affordances that accompany stabilized and transformed environments and tools.

Thinking dwells in the midst of affordances that allow for and ground all of our ongoing actions.

We stabilize and transform these from raw objects into tools and concepts.  Consider how a found stone was once used as a hammer, and that noticing both how it works and how the rock breaks -- it afforded shaping and transformation into a hand axe. Accompanying this emergent tool were habits, practices, transformations of the immediate environment, and the emergence of proto-concepts: hitting, crushing, cutting…

In our previous discussion of embodied cognition and the self-organizing nature of reality (see parts three, four, and five in this series)  we laid out how conceptual thinking arises in a distributed manner from acting and doing --situated know-how which itself is embedded in and arises out of the spontaneous and self-organizing processes of reality. Now with the concept of affordances, we can add a clear diagrammatic explanation of how that process works:

Individual in Action
Individual in Action with Abilities
Affordances Abilities and Properties

Here perhaps it is useful to amend our earlier quote from Micheal Anderson (Newsletter #7):

“ We are [embodied] social environment-altering tool users [directly engaging with and supported by a dynamic highly creative self-organizing reality].  [Engaging with this creative novelty infused reality via stabilizing habits and] tools give us new abilities, leading us to perceive new affordances, which can generate new environmental (and social) structures, which can, in turn, lead to the development of new skills and new tools, that through a process… of scaffolding greatly increases the [novel] reach and [creative] variety of our cognitive and behavioral capacities.”

This never ends:

As we saw with the traffic intersection, all intentionally designed things have as much potential for becoming a new affordance as bare rock. While my coffee mug has a fixed form and purpose, it is infinitely haunted by as yet non-existent possible affordances. If we change our habits, practices, or even our mode of embodiment this will lead to the emergence of radically novel affordances. These will be events at the edge of our perception and sensing -- that oddness whispering to us:

Here is another path…

Here is a portal to the new...

A Crow looking to the Right
Be Like a Crow - Look for Affordances in all you Encounter

Really Be Like a Crow

To “Be like a crow”: don’t fixate on purpose, intentions, or identity — rather start using things in novel ways to discover what all else they might afford. But don’t stop at one possibility — keep experimenting to discover more and more non-intentional possibilities.

For us, becoming a crow is to realize that:

  1. nothing is reducible to its seeming purpose or intention
  2. the discovery of new possibilities can only happen through our experimental use.
  3. The new will not emerge as a concept
  4. Sensing novel affordances is to sense a provocation for action
  5. Late in this adventure novel concepts might start to emerge
  6. It's not about “ideating” but doing and following while keeping the difference of a novel affordance alive long enough to allow it to make a world

From “What Is It?” — to “What Can It Do?”

We, as innovators, are ultimately simply interested in affordances and effects and working with these to have a novel effect on something. We wish to judge things not by “what they are” in perfect isolation — but by what they afford and what effects they can produce in specific circumstances.

Not “what it is” — but “what can it do”...

But this never stops: “And what else can it do?” — This question keeps repeating as novelty emerges in experimentation…

Developing a way to “be like a crow” — a “crow becoming” so to speak is a critical first step of innovation.

And what all else is possible?...


This is the sixth of seven articles critically deconstructing the concepts of creativity and innovation as they have historically developed in the west with the goal of proposing alternative approaches.

Part One we look 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 that for the previous 2,000+ years to create was to copy.

Part Two we delve into “Where did your Big Idea come from? We go on a genealogical journey to discover how we came to believe those big ideas are both the source and goal of creativity and innovation.

Part Three we unearth the overlooked "Thinking is not in your head" – Thinking, especially creative thinking happens in the middle of acting and doing.

Part Four we examine "The New Cannot be Seen or Thought" -- so how does the new emerge if it cannot be seen or thought?

Part Five is an examination of Reality is Creativity -- on creativity being a fundamental aspect of reality itself.

Part Six questions Creativity: “and what else can it do?” -- introducing the concept of affordances and its relevance to creativity so that you can be more creative and innovative.

Part Seven - Creativity is Less - dives deeper into affordances introducing constraints and how they are the unheralded secret to all innovation

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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