Definition of Agency

What is Agency?

Agency is the power of anything to affect and be affected by anything else. Things - objects, people, events all shape us and everything else. We are not the only things with agency or the power to produce changes.

Agency is always relational; it is coming out of the holistic emergent dynamics of an assemblage of things. 

How Does a New Model of Agency Affect Invention?

The classical way we tell the stories of great inventions and the emergence of new creative practices, is to talk exclusively about the people involved, their ideas, and their struggles. But almost nothing is said about the objects, materials, tools, and environments involved. Equipment of all kinds has surprising powers to shape outcomes and plays a fundamental role in innovation. What do we mean by “powers”? 

Put simply we mean that things shape us. Contemporary studies of cognition have shown that the objects (and environments) we use, fundamentally shape and transform our thinking. 

Tools and their use rewire our brains, change our muscles and skeletons, remake our organs, make new patterns of thought, change our sense of self, and as Marshall McLuhan argued “leave no part of us, or our culture, untouched or unchanged.” 

To be human is to use things — lots of things, and these things – and environments – that we make and then use, change us. 

Objects don’t merely support or extend existing human capacities but fundamentally transform us: we are what we use. 

Critical to innovation is that we recognize that the things we make in turn make us. We are not merely making things that solve problems but we are always making new things that change us and our surrounding environment to such a degree that new worlds emerge. 

Examples of Agency

Smartphones have transformed us extending our brains memory from inside our heads to on the phone (phone numbers are a great example.)

A less obvious example of agency, but perhaps more profound are the tools that we seldom notice such as our alphabet. 

Creativity is more than ideas or reducible to the . We must turn to things as our partners in experimentation and invention: Making is thinking. 

See: Affordances, Emergence, Feedforward, Assemblage

For more, navigate to our complete list of articles on Agency for Innovation.

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

Delivered Every Friday