Creativity does not begin with humans, our concepts, plans, and inventions.
We swim in a deep and infinity wide sea of ongoing wondrous creativity.
Everything everywhere is changing, transforming, mutating, coming into being, and disappearing.
Our very beings are in dynamic states of becoming.
Nothing is the same from one moment to the next. Everything that exists is part of a process that repeats -- and in each repetition, there is a difference.
Heraclitus, the early Greek philosopher famously said “you can never step in the same river twice” -- perhaps it is closer to “you can never step in the same river once”?
Obviously, everything is not radically changing from one moment to the next, but change and the emergence of novelty, however slight, is the fundamental characteristic of reality -- reality in all of its aspects is creative.
- Landmasses are transforming
- The composition of soils are reforming differently
- Novel plants are evolving
- Whale songs are changing
- Solar systems are forming
- Octopus intelligence is mutating
- The Black Lives Matter movement is changing how we develop city budgets
- Smartphones are rewiring brains
- Slime molds are inventing totally new solutions to mazes
- Bird wings and dragonfly wings, those astonishing acts of invention and creativity, are transitioning towards new unknowable possibilities, as are cell walls, and bacteria signaling...
Everywhere we look creativity is happening.
When we account for and understand human creativity it needs to begin from within this perspective: the most fundamental thing about reality is that it is creative.
Human-driven innovations emerge from within a creative reality.
Reality is Chaotic, Complex and Self Organizing
How is the world around us organized? Why does it have a pattern and a form? Why is reality not simply a pattern of random atoms whizzing around in a void?
For far too long in the west, we assumed that “something cannot come from nothing” and that there needed to be an originator and a plan that was unfolding. This framework has shaped both our understanding of reality and how we approach creativity.
Over the last hundred years, an alternative approach has emerged to answer these questions.
Chaos is not random: even in what seems to be the most random or chaotic we find dynamic patterns, feedback loops, moments of self-similarity, and fractal repetitions.
Chaos is not the opposite of order, but a form of order which cannot be predicted in any specific manner.
Patterns are emerging and dissipating. Islands of stability are self-organizing. We see this in how a whirlpool or hurricane will emerge as a distinct entity, exist for a period, and then dissipate. All stable things are stable processes that are the emergent and self-organizing outcome of complex non-linear forces.
All around us we see examples of complex things that emerged following or responding to local conditions: Termite mounds, Trees, Brains. None of these are based upon the following of a plan. Complex Systems such a culture evolve regularities without plans.
The ordered and dynamic world around us and in us emerges into glorious patterns and dissipates back into chaos without any reliance on top-down plans, ideation, visionaries or creatives.
Creativity Involves Attunement to Realities Ongoing Inventiveness...
Now, for many, this might feel interesting but beside the point — “sure the world is also creative, but what does this have to do with how humans are creative?”
This is a fair question, but if creativity is an environmental and worldly phenomenon then our practices of creativity cannot be thought of as being in a separate realm.
If creativity -- the process by which novelty comes into being follows logics, such as self-organization and emergence, which contradict, go against, and fundamentally undermine the logic of how we have historically approached creativity -- don’t we need to reconsider our basic assumptions?
Human creativity is the skillful participation in, and collaboration with, dynamic systems and emergent phenomena.
Thus human creative practices are first and foremost processes of active attunement and experimental engagement with complex worldly events of ongoing creativity. We are less the originators than the skillful joiners and participants in creative journeys that will shock all of us.
To love and become actively creative is to shift our senses from a focus on the self, ego, or any one thing, to an emancipatory vision of ourselves swimming in, carried forward by and changing in response to a vast creative engaged open-world bubbling with inexplicable novelty.
Creativity is a Worldly Event
When we talk in general about inventions and creativity most of us would assume we are talking about someone who came up with a great idea who invented something.
Why do we assume that creativity is individual?
Why do we so quickly get to the point where we are asking “who invented this?”
Our stories of creation and innovation keep trying to discover the discreet origin, the singular source, and the ultimate human inventor, author, or maker — and it is only once we claim to have found this singular source do we begin our explanation of creativity and invention.
Creativity is Not About Individuals
Pick up any book on creativity and innovation and notice how we as a culture are forever talking about “creatives'' — those heroic individuals, with their special brains, rare intelligence and their unique essences. From Archimedes to Steve Jobs there is always someone (and ultimately someone's brain) behind everything new.
There is a fatal problem with this approach of connecting complex creative events to singular (human) sources: nothing is ever so simple; we now know that causality is not linear. In every moment and in every event countless factors and forces are involved in very unpredictable manners — and countless other possible outcomes could have happened. All of these factors are non-linear, indirect, contingent, emergent, multi-scalar, collaborative, self-organizing, adaptive, and irreducible.
Even the simplest moment of reality is a shit-show of complexity, and it is never possible to reduce this to a singular origin.
The Counterargument for Ideas Tied to People and Moments
A counterargument is often made: yes everything is complex but only that specific individual at that specific moment had that idea — while many others were in similar circumstances but they did not come up with anything novel and therefore it must be something unique about that person. But, this is to both misunderstand and dismiss complexity and emergence: you cannot separate a person from all the other forces that collectively make up a unique event. It is the holistic uniqueness of the event and not the individual that gives rise to the outcome.
Once we realize this, we can take a pause on our ego-driven stories of creativity and invention. We can let go of the simplistic idea of linear frameworks and heroic individualism — they have led us totally astray for far too long. The closer we study inventions and creativity the more we will see that things have no singular author, are not invented in one singular moment, nor stem from a founding idea.
Creativity is always the synergistic emergent outcome of a complex set of factors. This insight is a complex one based on many other insights: understanding emergence, how complex systems work, and the agency of things for example — all of which we get into in this essay.
Why Does This Matter?
Why does it matter that we put aside our heroic individualism, the quest for singular sources, and the assumption that the universe is passive and has no creative impact on “our” designs?
To understand and more importantly to be creative we need to be humble enough to see that no one “invents” anything or is “creative” separate from a complex messy world of forces that are just as much — if not more — the “author” than us.
And if we wish to be involved in creativity we need to figure out how to work in harmony with and become part of this complex emergent association of forces.
Not About Lip Service
Ultimately, it is not about paying lip service to a bigger vision of creativity and a series of shiny new concepts. This approach to creativity as a fundamental worldly phenomenon and these concepts of dynamic systems, chaos, self-organization and emergence radically challenge nearly everything about our classical models of creativity and the methodologies we deploy to develop creative outcomes.
This is not an academic or territorial argument about what is “the best” or “correct” way to approach creativity.
Our linear, anthropocentric models of creativity and making have played a significant role in shaping our current reality of radical disparities and massive climate change.
Without the willingness to change the underlying rationality and logic of what creativity is and how it works we will go on reproducing failed tools and get no closer to a set of practices that would allow us to fully and actively participate in co-creating this wondrous world in a less destructive and far less anthropocentric manner.
Other worlds are possible when we join this world in its wondrous creative becoming.
This is the fifth 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