The contrast between how one approaches creativity and innovation is clearest and strongest when we consider the question of authorship: who invented this? How did they do it?
The classical contemporary western approach to creativity answers this question without a second thought:
“Of course it is a human, and of course what they are doing is having a novel idea”.
Looking at the standard definition of creativity is helpful:
- Oxford Dictionary Defines Creativity as: the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.
- The Cambridge Dictionary definition of creativity: the ability to produce or use original and unusual ideas.
Notice how deeply the author is assumed to be a human that it does not even require mentioning.
The classical model of creativity comes down to this: a human having a novel idea.
It is a hard model to shake. Even when it is understood that ideation cannot directly lead to novelty, that thinking emerges from an extended environment, and that creativity is the outcome of complex set of forces — still when pushed the answer is:
“Well, that might be true, but somewhere in that system someone had to have had an idea that sparked something— things have to begin somewhere.”
Self Organizing Systems as a Worldly Answer:
It’s a good question— in fact in many ways it is the most relevant question to getting a grasp on how creativity happens: do things have to start somewhere? Do things have to literally have a singular definable source? If the answer is yes then the classical model makes sense: somewhere in that complex system someone did something that got it all going: there is a singular author having a transformative novel idea.
But, if the answer is no— well, then everything has to change.
And the answer to the question: do things have to start somewhere? Is NO— no they do not.
Once a complex system is up and running (and we are always in the midst of many of these) — it has, as they say, “a mind of its own”— meaning that it is self-organizing.
In self-organizing systems outcomes occur “through interactions internal to the system, without intervention by external directing influences” (Haken).
The system is the author. And the direction/control of a single human, that “external directing influence” is neither needed nor relevant to answering the question: Who and how was this invented?
The proper answer is: the whole system— a world invented this.
Did something start somewhere? No, it emerged from the whole system.
But surely we can trace this back to a source within the system? Isn’t it unsatisfying to leave this nebulous? What does it even mean to simply say “the whole system is responsible”?
In complex systems, which underpin even the most stable and simple systems, causality is non-linear. You cannot trace anything directly to anything.
It really is the system that is innovating.
Someone will take credit for things. And someone might even genuinely imagine that they are responsible—that they are the inventor — but this is not the case.
We can carefully re-write histories to make Steve Jobs or Elon Musk the source — the genius — but that’s just a fable that benefits someone — and a fable that keeps the who and how of creativity obscure.
To realize that causality is not linear, and that it is not about tracing things back to imaginary sources frees us up to actually engage in creative processes free of disabling illusions.
How Does a Self-Organizing System Generate Creativity
Well, now we have an “author” — but we still have not answered the how— how does a self-organizing system generate novelty? The answer is: emergence.
“Emergence denotes the presence of properties, features, behaviors, or capacities that appear in systems but are not easily traceable to their component parts” (Tomlinson).
In cases of “strong emergence” the emergent feature is wholly untraceable — the outcome is genuinely a systems outcome. Human cognition is a classical example of strong emergence, so would be the invention of the wheel. And critically for us, so would most major innovations.
There is much more to be said about emergence, but that will have to wait for future articles. Our focus is on the big picture, and we can now say two critical things about the who and how of creativity and innovation:
- Systems are authors of innovations
- Self-organizing systems produce novel outcomes via indirect emergent processes.
What Do We Do When Worlds Create?
These answers can be frustrating — we know what to do in the classical model of creativity (even if the creativity outcomes were actually happening for other reasons) — but now what do we do if the system is seemingly mysteriously doing all the real work?
In the classical model there are familiar tools and methods: ideation, empathy, prototyping etc.:
These are all methods for a universe of simple linear causality.
What complex systems require are wholly different techniques— techniques that work on the whole to co-shape the system from inside the system. This is done via experimentally nudging and dampening feed-back, while co-evolving with what emerges.
It requires new senses and sensitivity.
We are very much involved, we are active, experimenting and responding. But we are not imagining that we are the sole captains and authors.
- We experimentally act and wait to sense how the system responds — we are partners in a complex dialog.
- We are comfortable being blind to causality, and pragmatic in our skills for stabilizing novelty as it emerges. (We like to term this “surfing emergence”).
- We develop collective systems and processes that recognize the role of humans but equally the critical authorial role of tools, environments and processes.
We are far from irrelevant — and we are equally far from authorship. We are worldly, and worldly creative and this is a wonderful thing.