The process of emergent novelty — how something new appears without being traceable directly to any set of component processes — is critical to all innovation.
In strong cases of emergence it’s not only difficult to trace a feature back to a specific source, it is fundamentally impossible — the novel emergent feature is truly an emergent property of the whole.
From the component processes a whole emerges. This whole is a novel emergent process that gives rise to novel possible outcomes. And this “whole” becomes distinct from and irreducible to the components. And ultimately the “whole” starts to even shape the parts.
Think of the behavior of a crowd at a large outdoor concert. Each person is a unique component of the larger group. At first crowd is just a large group of people milling about, but as the evening progresses and they attune themselves to the music, each other and the occasion they cross a threshold into a new state of organized behavior with it’s own propensities and disposition. Many unique events contribute to this new state and this state can easily be shifted by relatively speaking quite small events. Someone trips and cries out and suddenly the crowd is moving in a panic. Here we see the “whole” — the emergent logic of the crowd shaping the behavior of the components.
While crowds and crowd behavior are good examples of emergence, so too are all sorts of organizations. Such as:
- art practice
- a corporation,
- an individual
- a social movement
- a tool in use
- or a police force
These are all examples of complex systems that can be said “to have a mind of their own.” In each case (the individual who is alive or the art practice or the organization or the police force) there is a tight interdependent network that “individuates” or can be said to produce an operational separation from a related “outside” (that it also co-shapes).
We’ve outlined the basic logic of emergence and creativity in another article detailing what emergence is and how it works.
In this article we are going to focus on some basic principles of how to innovate with emergence. This article is meant to be an introduction, and in future newsletters and blog posts we will share more advanced tools and concepts.
Working with Emergence: Some General Concepts
Emergence challenges many of our standard ways of thinking and working. There can be a lot of misconceptions when you start to develop an innovation approach and take emergence into account. Given this, let’s start clarify some basic concepts and common misunderstandings:
- It’s not about scale: when everything is about systems, fields and multiple possibilities it is easy to assume we are talking exclusively about large scale systems. But emergence happens at all scales and it is much easier to get a feel for how to work with it by beginning at a small scale. Making a meal or sharpening a pencil both engage emergent logics. We wrote a blog post about taskscapes and cooking eggs that is a good introduction to this.
- It’s far more hands on: while the classical linear and ineffective innovation methods have a clear beginning (ideation), and a far more abstract logic, — working with emergence means lots of hands on engagement. You need to get a sense of the systems and this can only happen via active probing and sensing. Emergence is surprising and these surprises emerge only in response to some action. You need to do a lot (in a considered manner). There is little place for arm-chair speculation, grand visions, and removed discussions of possible futures — especially at the beginning. You need to develop an active and experimental approach where novel emergent outcomes lead; not predefined ideas. The fundamental question is always: “What can x do? And what else can it do?” We have written extensively on the concept of affordance in regards to the unintended and the exaptive process of design.
- It’s not about singular outcomes but multiplicities: The classical way to imagine innovation is that some singular thing is being made — an airplane, a smart phone, a drug. But this is never the case. Any one action or outcome is but a single point in a field of potentials. A singular outcome arises because we actively and momentarily constrain a dynamic process to one outcome.
Any one outcome is because of an emergent process arising from an assemblage. These emergent processes always give rise to a field of mutually arising potentials. Even if we understand ourselves to be making a solitary object — it is “haunted” by a field of potentials. You might not know this, or you might not care to engage these other potentials but they are as real as the potential you are actualizing.
Emergent “wholes” have propensities, and dispositions — multiple distinct states they “gravitate” towards. There are never systems that have only one stable state.
For example: you are making the perfect sunny-side up egg — but you could flip it, or scramble it, or even burn it to carbon. These possibilities are there the moment the assemblage of egg + pan + oil + heat, cooking, etc. are in place — they are just not “actualized” and remain “virtual”. The assemblage affords all of these potentials — they are the constrained patterns of possibility into an emergent field of probabilities. Everything is variation and contrast.
Accidents and mistakes are part of this field — simply as other emergent probabilities of the assemblage waiting to be realized. And it often takes great effort to constrain an assemblage from giving rise to accidents. The burnt egg haunts the inattentive cook.
- It’s about playing with relationships more than things: think about our egg cooking example — none of the “things” are changing — the pan, oil, egg and heat stay the same — just their relations change. An over-easy egg is about developing a relation of both “sides” of the egg to the pan. Cracking the egg lets it have a new relationship with gravity (the flattening of the egg into its classical disk shape). Now we are in a work of events — affordances: congealing, burning, carmelizing, etc with thresholds and multiple distinct states — it is less about things and far more about processes and events. Working this way also means working both more indirectly (say making new tools), and at multiple scales (rethinking the process i.e. the recipe).
Even the seemingly solid things — such as the pan or the eggs are better thought of as relational events with distinct possible states. We need to be asking: what can this afford us in this state? For example: what will separating the yoke from the white afford us in relation to a blisteringly hot pan?
- You know the negative much better than the positive: True emergent novelty (the goal of innovation in this case) cannot be known in advance — it will surprise you. This is why strong ideation is such a poor technique for innovation.
While you cannot know what novelty will emerge, you can know what you do not what to repeat (the old). Refusing — blocking while refusing to confine the future to what might want (ideation) is critical. You are attentive to what arises, open to actively following the novel and actively resisting the know. Blind to the future, and clear eyed about the past. This is very different from classical creativity which presumes to know the future and acts from a visionary (future seeing) perspective — god-like and free of curiosity… (enough said).
Eleven Key practices:
- Work at multiple scales
- Probe the system with semi-reversible interventions
- Engage, create, and experiment far more than ideate
- Experimentally play with variables while searching for thresholds
- Follow what arises in experiments
- Sense and articulate the logic of the “whole”
- Experimentally block processes that give rise to key aspects of the whole
- Co-evolve with your experiments
- Consider the total field of potentials
- Maintain an open approach of curiosity
- Suppress the desire for latching onto single solutions
Understanding the Components of Emergent Systems
We have already introduced many of the key components (fields, assemblages, the virtual and the actual, etc.) in passing. Now let's really get to know them and how we work with them in more detail. Let’s walk through emergence region by region, identifying the components, and noting some key practices:
Assemblages, Networks and Taskscapes
From the perspective of our everyday engagement with emergent systems assemblages are what we mainly encounter: a tight network of things, practices, concepts, habits and environments. We live in and of assemblages.
Think as you reach for your coffee - consider the organized web of interacting relations: Coffee beans, roasters, grinders, water, stovetops, filters, cups, drinking, bodies, habits, histories, etc.
All of reality is connected and organized in networks of processes. Nothing is solitary— everything is configurations— an organized and stable pattern of process. These webs of process entangle everything. But reality is not simply one massive undefined web of relations. Networks of relations individuate, and have a distinct character. Some of these networks form in ways that cannot be easily separated— these semi-non-decomposable ones are “emergent”.
Our daily lives are full of these — in reality it is pretty much everything — we are always in a complex highly dynamic emergent situation. Some of these can be so strongly constrained that they act like simple systems — but they always sit close to the edge of tipping into disorder and new forms of order. It is best, from the perspective of innovation, to sense the highly dynamic possibilities of assemblages rather than taking their stability as a given.
We as individuals are also assemblages. Understanding, and shifting this logic at the level of ourselves is really fundamental to beginning to engage emergent innovation.
Assemblages emerge from constrained self-organizing material processes and give rise to emergent processes.
- “Below” are self-organizing material processes
- “Above” are emergent processes (a field of potential outcomes)
- “Beside” are constraining forces
- “Nowhere” are radical novel emergent possibilities
What this means for innovation:
- The key for innovation is to actively and experimentally sense, see and understand the assemblages that most directly impact your endeavour
- Probe the assemblage (good examples of this can be found in interventionist art (affiliate.)
- Diagram the assemblage
- Sense what happens when you change parts (substitution, intensity, etc.)
- Be experimental — this is the level you can have the most effect.
Identify probable component process to block and novel affordances (exaptations) to augment
”Below” the assemblages of everyday life are the constrained self-organizing practices of matter that all these assemblages emerge from. Materials stabilize with phases, states, properties: liquid, solid, flexible, brittle, absorbent, etc. (We have written an article going further into this).
What this means for innovation:
- From the perspective of an assemblage — we work in two directions: “below” at the level of self-organizing matter and “above” at the level of emergent processes and their emergent outcomes
- To change assemblages is to work with how matter organizes itself to coax new states and properties
- Blocking how matter stabilizes into certain states will open up the exploration of other possible states
- Noticing an unintended quality or affordance arise from an assemblage can be traced back to the constrained states of matter (an exaptation).
- Exaptations (unintended novel states) can be activated and stabilized to give rise to new assemblages.
Emergent Processes & Fields
Emerging out of the dynamic relations of an assemblage are constrained processes.
While we most often sense what is emerging from an assemblage as a singular and solitary “thing” — think back to the above egg example — these processes are giving rise to a field of related probabilities.
It is helpful to understand this “field of related probabilities” as a type of landscape formed of peaks and valleys. Valleys are stable states of the system (the most likely outcomes), and the peaks and ridges are the thresholds between differing states or possibilities of the system (where things “tip” from one state to another).
If an emergent outcome is the ball in the above diagram it will tend to roll into the deepest and most stable valley and stay there— hence statistically this field will most often give rise to this outcome.
Emergent systems are always in a state that will have stronger and weaker tendencies or propensities.
The danger with this landscape image is that we conceive of this “ground” as stable. In actuality the ground is dynamic and highly responsive to changes to the assemblage. For example: if you increase the heat in your pan the basin of attraction that equals “burnt” will dynamic expand and deepen…
The “ground” is more like a highly stretchy sheet undulating in the wind.
The key is to sense your actions at the level of the assemblage and at the level of outcomes shaping a dynamic topology of multiple novel probabilities. Beside any singular novel outcome is a fast field of potentials that need to be realized/explored — stabilized and made as probable as your initial discovery/invention.
These multiple tendencies can be diagrammed as a open and dynamic topological field of possibilities. And this field will be enlarged or changed via experimentation (at any and all levels).
Going back to our egg example we could diagram the emergent state of the field of probabilities as this:
Here it is important to see the relation between the levels (see below):
The assemblage gives rise to processes that constrains a field of possibilities that lead to an actual outcome that in turn becomes part of the assemblage (the thin blue arrow on the left). This is why it is inaccurate to speak of “above” and “below” — for all components are looping — what was above goes below — a looping of difference differing… with the field in continuous topological deformation.
What This Means for Innovation
- You can act at different levels with very different effectiveness
Act at the level of the actual and you are moving one thing towards a new basin (change in degree). This is like making an actual specific cup of coffee. The assemblage is all in place and you are carrying out the steps to actualize a specific possibility.
The advantage of this is it is immediate. The disadvantage is that it is not novel — you are going from one existing state of the system to another. The basin of attraction you are moving into might be new to you — but it is not actually new.
That said, this exploratory behavior is critical to exploring and discovering the possibilities of an emergent system. You have to experimentally “walk” the terrain: what are all the potentials of this configuration of the assemblage?
The language of exploration is correct but it can be also misleading if we imagine that the form of exploration is one of traversing an already existing landscape. With novel emergence — to explore is to make the landscape as you go. Exploring can only happen via direct experimentation. You are enlarging and stabilizing the given field. Again this form of activity needs to be multi-scalar (above, below, and beside what is actual) and multi-modal (you are doing many distinct activities — inventing tools, processes, concepts and developing environments, etc.).
But — for genuine novelty — you have to first participate in the emergence of a new field:
This happens at the level of the assemblage. Change the assemblage and you will change the field (change in kind). Here a dialog — really a dance emerges: tweak the assemblage, then experiment in actualizing within the field, then fold that back into the assemblage, etc. You are working in, across and between the levels. You are changing hats and methods rapidly. You are becoming an expert at the indirect and the direct — acting on the particular and seeing the emergent field.
As you get good at this dance of multi-scaled, multi-modal, multi-skilled co-emergence for novelty you sense the agency of system level of emergence: the whole is “making” the “parts”. (We discussed this in detail in this article on Emergence).
What this Means for Innovation:
How to Innovate with Emergent Processes?
Hopefully this introduces how you can work with innovation and creativity as emergent processes — and helps you see that there are clear and effective ways to engage with emergence.
- As you sense the emergent logic of a system (its dispositions and propensities) as a whole you can experimentally block assemblages that play critical roles in the resiliency and stability of the emergent system.
- These experimental blockages will open up a space to sense, probe and experiment with novel possibilities latent but suppressed by the previous state of the system.
- These in turn are coaxed, stabilized and integrated into novel assemblages.
- How to Innovate with Emergent Processes?
- Hopefully this introduces how you can work with innovation and creativity as emergent processes — and helps you see that there are clear and effective ways to engage with emergence.
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