Do We Make an Innovation? Or Does the Innovation Make Us?

Nikola Tesla contemplating how to invent Alternating Current electricity

The long list of “geniuses” is less a list of individuals who were responsible for some unique creative outcome than a list of people who were themselves the outcome of creative processes.

This becomes particularly clear when we recognize that an innovation emerges. And as an emergent process it is fundamentally non-linear and in such cases causality cannot be traced back directly to any source. The relations between the parts come to dominate and the whole develops a logic of its own.

And if genius means genesis – where we ascribe the role of genesis to a human – that they are the cause – the source – the spark of creativity – then this is also wrong. In emergent systems the genesis is held relationally across the system.

Emergent Systems

One of the most astonishing properties of emergent systems is that they possess “system causality” – the processes where the emerging novel state produces its parts (what is sometimes called “downward causation”). Given that the multiple human agents involved in an emergent innovation process are parts of the system it would be correct to say that they are both part of the making and the outcome of what is made.

Ultimately the person we recognize them to be (the "genius") – is itself the product of the event. The so-called genius is less the producer and more the product.

That we ascribe an innovation causally to a person is more an artifact of our problematic historical bias towards human exceptionalism and individuality. Of course people play many roles in making all sorts of things happen, and chicken vs egg questions can lead to false dichotomies. But this question highlights something fundamentally flawed about how we tell innovation stories (which in turn shape how we approach innovation…).

We need to tell innovation stories differently in ways that focus on the distributed agency of assemblages across multiple scales, consider differing speeds, give agency to more than humans and focus more closely on the processes, etc.

For more on individualism and emergent systems have a read on Emerging Futures - Volume 81 - Who Is the Individual and Who Is Creative?

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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