Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 39! Creativity after Individuality, Innovation after Nature...
Good morning worldly innovators,
We hope that you have had a good week going deep and wide while working sideways into novel emergent futures.
On our end it has been a busy week— we have been walking that crab walk we discussed last week.
Getting back from the retreat on rethinking the future of health proved a bit harder than expected with plane cancellations. And then it was off into leading a number of workshops on green innovation. These workshops and last week's weeks retreat led to a number of great conversations with participants first about how hard change can be (see our story about plastic bags below) and how our standard approaches to innovation and creativity are a critical part of causing the situations we find ourselves dealing with.
One of the questions that came up last week over dinner was “is there a link between our individualistic human centered model of creativity and human-caused radical environmental change?”
There is a link between how we innovate and the world we make.
The arguments over the right approach to innovation are not simply branding exercises or neutral debates about “what works best.” The question is never really “what works best” — we have to go deeper and uncover what is left implicit in these statements: “what works best to what end”.
The modern model of creativity as the mental capacity of individuals to ideate novel ideas did not emerge in a historical void. It was and is the product of the early twentieth century and especially the Cold War. There are a number of great books on this and we have written about this elsewhere.
The systematic study of creativity really began after the Second World War with creativity being assumed to be a human psychological quality. It begins in the United States and is heavily funded by the US military and even the CIA (primarily in the arts). American heroic individualism is seen as a necessary and critical counter to Soviet collectivism.
A second key early lineage in the development of creativity as a field of study and practice is from the world of American advertising: Alex Osborn, an advertising executive played a pivotal role in developing the study and systematization of many techniques of creativity during the immediate post-war period (he is most famous for the technique of brainstorming). The most important of which is the Creative Problem Solving Process (CPS).
Our human centered, individualistic, and mind-centered model of creativity came from a particular history and has real consequences.
Given this history it should come as no surprise that what we take as neutral, and objective is neither.
The evolution of cold-war models of individualistic creativity and world blind innovation has had clear outcomes: a model of unsustainable growth, expanding inequality, and “development”.
Today it is urgent that we critically judge approaches to creativity and innovation in relation to new metrics of transformative innovation: do they foster worldmaking innovations in multi-species equity?
Speaking very broadly, human centered design has non-human centered consequences.
To continue with our human individualistic mind-centered approach to creativity, and world-blind models of innovation in the hopes that they can solve the problems that they participated in creating is perplexing (to say the least)… This is especially true of the classical approaches that simply tack on “sustainability” to their methods.
We really saw this play out at the retreat we were part of on the future of health — almost all of the models of health that were initially proposed were individual, human centered and tacked on sustainability as an important additional criteria. For us the question of health has to be collective and more-than-human. We need to reinvent approaches to well-being that decouple well-being from the medical system, our anthropocentric bias, the service delivery model, and a universal conception of well-being.
For us, our development of models of creativity that begin with the understanding that reality is itself creative and that creativity is happening all around us all the time is not about simply developing the “correct” model of creativity. While distributed, relational, emergent and more-than-human approaches to creativity are astonishingly effective — they also open us up to ways of being alive that deeply connect us with other creatures, our immediate environment and the agency of things.
But our critical reconceptualization of the consequences of our approaches to creativity and innovation cannot stop there. When it comes to addressing the ecological crisis we need to ask:
Is “Nature” the right implicit conceptual framework to approach our pressing ecological crisis?
In our everyday lives and practices we take many concepts for granted and in our estimation none more so than nature.
But just like the concept of creativity, nature too has a history and non-neutral logic to it. (There are many great books on this, Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture is a good starting point).
What do we mean by “Nature”?
The modern western framework of Nature has a number of implicit problematic assumptions:
There is much more to this framework, but just laying out this much we can already see its Greco-Judeo-Christian heritage, and how problematic it is to divide reality into two domains: human and not human.
But that this mainly implicit framework has some of its origins in a pernicious myth of humans being exiled from a garden is not the real problem with this historic framework. What is at stake is that the kinds of crisis we face today cannot be addressed by assuming we are and should be separate from “nature”. Our reality and challenges are of a wholly entangled logic where humans, non-humans, and the agency of the things cannot be separated (not that they ever could).
We need new approaches to ourselves that recognize that the human is itself not a singular entity — rather we are a composition of other creatures that vastly outnumber us (our microbiome), environments and objects that are continuously co-shaping us.
We need new approaches to our history that recognize what we take to be our achievements — such as the domestication of plants — was in fact the outcome of the co-shaping of humans and other beings.
(We now know that plants shaped us as much as we shaped them and that this began long before humans became humans. There is a strong argument that grasses “domesticated” our pre-human ancestors along with other large animals.)
These alternative histories open us up to seeing that human agency does not exist in a void, nor is it separate from other beings. And in doing so they also open us up to seeing that our concept of Nature is not universal — it is not found in other cultures or times in history. There are two interesting books in this regards: How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human, and The Falling Sky.
The problem is that the conceptual framework of nature (and the assemblage of practices, tools, concepts and environments that is part of this) have a strong propensity to separation, purification, and exploitation/preservation. But if separation and purification are impossible moves that further the crisis — then perhaps a major part of the problem is how we are approaching the problem/reality?
We need to ask if deploying “Nature” was and is a critical part of the assemblage that has allowed such rampant destruction of this planet to happen?
We need to ask “what is the connection between our models of creativity and nature? How do they work in concert? — what are their collective propensities?”
For us, part of what needs to be invented are new or renewed alternative assemblages that refuse nature.
This brings us back to the very practical and concrete activity of making things and making pragmatic change happen.
We cannot assume any concept or approach is neutral — everything has a propensity. The idea of “utility” is perhaps the most clear example of this.
So often we just want to cut through all of the theory, and all the over-thinking and just do something.
This desire to act, to be practical and get on real things that can have a utility and an impact is understandable.
But “Utility” is not the measure of things. Simply asking:
“Is it useful?”
“Does it do what you intended it to do?” Or assuming that doing practical things will have clear effective and desired outcomes all take us away from understanding what actual things do — And they also take one away from the creative agency of things.
Adding additional criteria to the “core” of utility does not mitigate the problem. (E.g. “Let’s make it useful, AND sustainable, AND the right price point, AND beautiful…”)
Obviously you can answer all of these questions, and you can do things quite successfully in this manner. But they will not help you understand what is really being made or where innovation lies in the process.
Why not? — A chair is useful for sitting, we can make it sustainable, beautiful and come out at the right price point — so what is the problem?
Well, let’s ask these same questions of a handgun, an electric car, a Suvie cooking system, the like button in facebook, or a landmine… Does it still help us get at what they are— and more importantly what their effects are?
Now very few of us would say a handgun could be effectively understood by how well it meets the criteria of intended use, sustainability, price point and beauty. So why would it not be true of any other object?
We have to look at what they do — how they participate in actual ways of being alive. This is something relational, emergent and dynamic. It is not “in” the object nor is it “in” the intentions of the designer. Ultimately the measure of things is not “in” anything — it is relational — it is held across relations. These relations encompass things and are activated by the agency of things but are irreducible to utility and intention.
In a very real sense things are made by their use not by their designers. The assemblages that they participate in are what is critical.
The ban of plastic shopping bags is a great example. It is seen as a practical, effective and useful thing to do. Single-use disposable plastic shopping bags are a serious problem, so let's get rid of them!
But when you ban the bag does the problem just go away because the bag is gone?
Where bans have been put in place the actual use of plastic has increased. Why? People use those bags for many things from lining garbage bins to scooping up dog poop. When they buy them they buy thicker bags, thus more plastic is used.
This is why we have to look at what they do — how they participate in actual ways of being alive.
But that is not the worst of it, the relational assemblage is vast and the effects are equally vast and complex:
So what does the ban achieve? It tips the system into new equally problematic states making matters worse and giving people a false sense that something has been done.
Our particular consumer assemblage is highly resilient, and for those approaching it in a linear solution innovation manner (developing targeted bans, and innovating new sustainable products)— totally confounding. A series of bans (bags, straws, etc.), plus more recycling, plus new sustainable products does not equal environmental change — they are actually making things worse (while seeming to make things better — which is even worse).
For us, in this example we see clearly the fingerprints of our models of creativity, innovation and understanding of “nature”. We are thinking we can creatively solve problems separate from engaging with them, that our actions mirror our intentions and are neutral, and that agency resides solely with us, etc.
We need to change our approach to creativity, innovation and reality in general. It is not a question that we need more “creativity” and better “innovations” in general to help us “solve” our ecological crisis.
Our approaches to innovation and creativity are part of the problem. And because of this we need to critically reconsider and invent new approaches to change making and in doing so we need to let go of individual human centered models of creativity and linear world-blind models of innovation.
We need to invent new problems worth having for worlds worth making. The plastic bag problem will never be “solved”, but we can collectively and experimentally co-create ways of being alive that make those models of consumption beside the point.
To us — this is pragmaticism and innovation. This is a creativity and worldmaking that works and works in, of and for a more-than-human future. We hope that this gives you some inspiration for action, and much to think about over the next week.
Till Volume 40,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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