Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 14! Other Worlds are Possible...
The Darkest Day of the Year
Tuesday is the winter solstice. An important day to celebrate the night -- and the power and beauty of darkness.
During this period when night falls and the earth has turned from the sun -- when we can no longer see things this is when the sense of possibility is most alive.
This week we have been going further into the importance of the unintended and its importance in aiding in the creative production of the new that exceeds potential, prediction and what could be known. This radical newness is always possible if wholly unknowable. And it is this that we celebrate this week with the winter solstice -- an unconditional hope that new worlds and new futures are possible.
This is a radical hope that puts faith in possibilities beyond what is imaginable, and that these can be realized.
This week let's prepare for Tuesday night:
Paradoxes of Empty-fullness
Over the last few weeks we have been focused on the unintended: that which is irreducible to intention and purpose.
The importance of the unintended to creativity is that it allows us a tangible beginning to sidestep the problem that ideation will always draw us back into the known (via its deep reliance on existing words and concepts).
The unintended is everywhere and in everything, at every scale, and part of every process and event. And because of this it is both part of how we cope with everyday situations (when there is no step stool available we reach for a chair and put it to an unintended use), and it is continually surprising us: things go wrong -- something unintended happens and a new possibility reveals itself.
The non-purposeful and the unintended are everything including the intended.
This is the powerful dual nature of everything -- at once full of purpose, goals and potential and equally empty of that purpose: we do and do not know what a thing can do. Ultimately, we cannot know what a thing can do until it is being done. Emptiness is always a fullness: a fullness of the possible that arises from the unintended.
To see this we need to define two words more precisely: potential and possible:
With creativity and innovation we are always flipping between the two sides of the same thing: the intended and the unintended in the intended -- potential and possible.
DEFINING THE NON-INTENDED
The first step in moving from potential -- the known to the possible -- the unknown -- where creativity and novelty really thrive is to have a nuanced understanding of the full scope of the unintended.
1. Remembering the Context:
The example we are using in this diagram is the simple act of making coffee.
We are always situated in a specific and ongoing Event (making coffee) that has its own logic that requires an Environment which gives rise to us -- a situated Agent which in turn entails this environment and co-emerges with the Event.
Underpinning this is an Assemblage of equipment, practices, contexts and larger forces that stabilize, constrain and channel the spontaneous Self-Organizing properties of matter into intentional potentials.
This gives rise to a real but Virtual Field of activity (all the potentials of the assemblage to do certain things). For example all the forms of coffee beverages that the assemblage allows: a pour over, an espresso, milk based coffee drinks, etc.
We termed this whole situation a Taskscape.
2. Engaging the Unintended
In this context of a taskscape we can delve into the unintended:
Innovation and creativity wander this diagram -- looping through the potential and the possible continuously. We do this everyday all day with great embodied skill to such a degree that we rarely even notice that we are part of any of it.
Now the hard part from the perspective of creativity and innovation is that the intended -- the potential overwhelms the unintended and the possible. This is obviously great for everyday life -- things are stable and not shooting off into the unknowable at every moment. But, for creativity it means that we need to develop quite powerful techniques to stop the forward momentum of the total system.
On Blocking (Part One)
This brings us to the practice and tools of deliberate constraints -- Blocking. To coax novelty into existence we need to block the overwhelming power of intention and purpose. These constraints are enabling -- they allow the new to have space to transform the totality of the taskscape.
Blocking is not a single act but a five step process:
Knowing and using this process is powerful. When you can connect the full logic of the taskscape (diagram one) to the full logic of the unintended (diagram two) and put it into a process (diagram three) creative magic starts to happen. Over the last couple of newsletters we have offered various practices to test this out.
Now if you have tried any of these you will notice how hard it is to engage with unknowable creative possibilities in an everyday context dominated by the probable.
Something else is needed.
On Blocking (Part Two)
What is needed is even more blocking. You need to wall off your experiments from all the forces that will pull them back into what exists and how things “should be.”
We need a time outside of time.
This is some form of “workshop” that is specific to the matter of interest but where there is no set purpose or known outcome.
This might sound easy and obvious but in practice it is very hard to do. What makes it so hard is that the goal is to live in darkness -- to live in the possible and to stay with the unintended long enough and with the right skills to coax it and the whole system towards becoming a world that as yet does not exist.
In the workshop a whole new ethos is needed -- as well as tools, skills, habits etc. You have to make a taskscape for the unknowable. It sounds crazy, and for many it feels impossible (it is easy to lose hope). But it can be done and it is done.
This is why this week we wrote about the famous restaurant El Bulli and Ferran Adria. They are the perfect example of this process.
They did this in a very powerful manner -- they came up with a system to close the restaurant each year and spent six months in their workshop reinventing and developing a new world of what it is to eat. Their goal was to each year have a new restaurant that never repeated what they served, how they served it and what it ultimately meant. This highly ambitious creativity goal meant that they needed a rigorous methodology.
We suggest watching the documentary on a whole year of the El Bulli process: Cooking in Progress (here is an alternative link). We feel it is essential holiday viewing. Take some time, watch this documentary, and make notes. Print out these diagrams and see how they methodically engage in every aspect of each of the three diagrams. Develop your own list of tools, techniques and processes while watching it.
But back to their famous workshop -- you could have a mistaken idea about this experimental workshop and most people do --you could think “that's where they invent the new dishes for the next year.”
But that's exactly what they do not do. What makes a workshop a radical creativity workshop is that the key rule (blockage) is: no final products will be allowed to be considered ever in the workshop. None. Why?
To bring the “end” into the beginning is to already determine what will be done. This is to let the past determine the future. Final “products” -- what ever they might be (in El Bulli’s case it is “dishes”) are only addressed after you leave the workshop. They come in the next phase of innovation (if you wish for genuine novelty).
This means we need to revise our previous diagram and add a new key step to the process:
Before engaging with the unintended you need to step away from existing conditions -- you need to set up a Workshop that blocks and insulates you from purpose and potential and gives you the space to genuinely experiment with the goal of not developing a new product but developing the possibility for a new world to emerge.
A workshop can be quite simple or it can be highly developed like El Bulli. The key is the concept of blocking:
On Blocking (Part Three: Fields and Worlds)
In the “workshop”: whatever you do -- stop doing it.
If you are a furniture maker stop making furniture, if you are a chef stop making dishes, if you are a smartphone maker stop making them! So, what should you do?
An Approach Emerges
We see this larger approach that is outlined in the previous as being composed of four very general tasks:
Returning to Possibility
This whole approach of developing novel worlds that exceed the knowable is premised on a form of hope -- on a faith in the unknowable future. This ethos is just as important as the method.
You need to ‘know’ that other worlds are possible -- even if they cannot be imagined. This is not a naive hope -- it is not an optimism that things will work out or be better.
But nor is it a specific hope -- a hope that this or that event will come to pass. That is the limited hope of the imagination. That is really no hope at all -- it is a form of resignation: the future can only be what can be imagined.
But, as we come to the darkest day of the year, can we entertain the thought of an unconditional hope -- a radical hope that connects to a radical creative model? Are we willing to embrace and live in a manner that believes that other worlds -- beyond the known are really possible?
This is what Ferran and El Bulli asks of us -- to believe in the future.
Can we transcend a hope that is tied to intentions, the known and the limits of our imagination?
Can we let go (block) imagining and enter the stream of experimental becoming to move towards other possibilities?
Can we believe in a creativity and hope that is more than ideas, techniques or even practices -- but is rather a mode of being alive?
This can sound irrational or simply unworkable. We have been deeply inspired by the work of Evan Thompson and his recent reflections on ethics: here is a very powerful and moving lecture by him on this Enacting Hope . We highly recommend it. As you listen to this, consider it in the same way -- and as being deeply connected to the El Bulli documentary. The two go together: the ethos and the practice of creativity as a way of life.
For this week our suggestion for a practice to engage with this is to treat this week as one of study and reflection on the question of ‘what is the ethos and practice necessary for innovation and creativity?’
Do watch the documentary and the lecture in tandem. Print out the diagrams. Make notes. Develop your own thoughts on process and ethics.
Make Tuesday a special night. Share this time and your reflections with others.
This is what we will be considering and celebrating this week.
Special thanks to the following members of our community for their meaningful contributions as we crafted and evolved volume 14 this week: William Willis, Tobias Burkhardt, Tim Giordano, Bruce Waltuck, and Oliver Ding.
Holiday Gift Ideas
December has become a time for gifting as a means to acknowledge someone for something they’ve done or what they mean to you. Emergent Futures Lab prefers a less material existence. So we have some unique gift ideas for you to consider:
First, don’t focus all your efforts on buying things — give experiences — we like to give adventures and treasure hunts — seasonal wanderings into curiosity and engagement. The time to invent and develop but things will never be the same!
But if you do wish to buy things here are two suggestions:
A Creative magazine for big picture visionaries – Unique perspectives and design – worth your time: Dense Magazine is a ten-issue biannual magazine that ripples across ten milestone events in New Jersey's past and future, daring to redefine design's role in a future that's messy and equitable.
Our Book for Innovation & Creativity: Innovating Emergent Futures: The Innovation Design Approach to Change and Worldmaking.
Some of the drawings this week include some hard to see details. Here we offer you Volume 14 drawings in Hi-Resolution.
Here’s to a weekend filled with creativity and hope.
Till Volume 15,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
📚 P.S.: If any of this resonates – check out our book Innovating Emergent Futures
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