Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 21! Key Tools for Emergent Innovation...
Well, it's been a week! Lots of things have been going on in our world, but…
First, a happy New Year and a happy beginning to the year of the Tiger. Another new year, another beginning — and for us another beginning in the middle. We are in the midst of storms and rains, ice, and snow, spring semesters under full-sail now and much else.
We’ve been extra busy designing curriculum and programming for the Picatinny-Arsenal in addition to a 14-day international innovation bootcamp from New York City to Austria. But what has really been getting us up in the morning is reflecting on the how of emergence…
To ground this week’s newsletter in what and how to innovate, we’ve outlined the basic logic of emergence and creativity in an article detailing the general logic emergence affords innovators.
It’s worth taking a moment to return to a quote from Gary Tomlinson we used last week, as he gives us a good simple definition to begin from: “Emergence denotes the presence of properties, features, behaviors, or capacities that appear in systems but are not easily traceable to their component parts.” (Tomlinson).
This quality of “not being easily traceable to a specific source” becomes the definition of emergence. In some cases of emergence it’s not only difficult to trace a feature back to a specific source, it is fundamentally impossible — the feature is truly an emergent property of the whole.
From the “parts” a whole emerges. And this “whole” becomes distinct from and irreducible to the parts. And ultimately the “whole” starts to even shape the parts.
While life and consciousness are good examples of emergence, so too are all sorts of organizations. Such as:
These are all examples of complex systems that can be said “to have a mind of their own.” In each case (the individual who is alive or the art practice or the organization or the police force) there is a tight interdependent network that “individuates” or can be said to produce an operational separation from a related “outside” (that it also co-shapes).
But, enough with the “what” — today we are going to focus on some basic principles of how to innovate with emergence. In future newsletters and blog posts we will go deeper.
There can be a lot of misconceptions when you start to develop an innovation approach take emergence into account:
Seven quick takeaways:
We have already introduced many of the key components (fields, assemblages, the virtual and the actual, etc.) in passing. Now let's really get to know them and how we work with them in more detail. Let’s walk through emergence region by region, identifying the components, and noting some key practices.
From the perspective of our everyday engagement with emergent systems assemblages are what we mainly encounter: a tight network of things, practices, concepts, habits and environments. We live in and of assemblages.
Think as you reach for your coffee - consider the web of interacting relations: Coffee beans, roasters, grinders, water, stovetops, filters, cups, drinking, bodies, habits, histories, etc.
All of reality is connected and organized in networks of processes. Nothing is solitary— everything is configurations— an organized and stable pattern of process. These webs of process entangle everything. But reality is not simply one massive undefined web of relations. Networks of relations individuate, and have a distinct character. Some of these networks form in ways that cannot be easily separated— these semi-non-decomposable ones are “emergent”.
Our daily lives are full of these — in reality it is pretty much everything — we are always in a complex highly dynamic emergent situation.
Assemblages emerge from constrained self-organizing material processes and give rise to emergent processes.
What this means for innovation:
The assemblages of everyday life all emerge from the constrained self-organizing practices of matter. Materials stabilize with phases, states, properties: liquid, solid, flexible, brittle, absorbent, etc. (We have written extensively on this. Here is a good article.)
What this means for innovation:
Emerging out of the dynamic relations of an assemblage are constrained processes.
While we most often sense what is emerging from an assemblage as a singular and solitary “thing” — think back to the above egg example — these processes are giving rise to a field of related possibilities.
It is helpful to understand these as a type of landscape formed of peaks and valleys. Valleys are stable states of the system, and the peaks and ridges are the thresholds between differing states or possibilities of the system. If an emergent outcome is the ball it will tend to roll into the deepest and most stable valley and stay there. Emergent systems are always in a state that will have stronger and weaker tendencies.
The danger with this landscape image is that we conceive of this “ground” as stable. In actuality the ground is dynamic and highly responsive to changes to the assemblage. For example: if you increase the heat in your pan the basin of attraction that equals “burnt” will dynamic expand and deepen…
The “ground” is more like a highly stretchy sheet undulating in the wind.
These multiple tendencies can be diagrammed as a open and dynamic topological field of possibilities. And this field will be enlarged or changed via experimentation (at any and all levels).
Here it is important to see the relation between the levels (see above): the assemblage gives rise to processes that constrains a field of possibilities that lead to an actual outcome that in turn becomes part of the assemblage. This is why it is inaccurate to speak of “above” and “below” — for all components are looping — what was above goes below — a looping of difference differing…
Act at the level of the actual and you are moving one thing towards a new basin (change in degree). This is like making an actual specific cup of coffee. The assemblage is all in place and you are carrying out the steps to actualize a specific possibility.
The advantage of this is it is immediate. The disadvantage is that it is not novel — you are going from one existing state of the system to another. The basin of attraction you are moving into might be new to you — but it is not actually new.
That said, this exploratory behavior is critical to exploring and discovering the possibilities of an emergent system. You have to experimentally “walk” the terrain: what are all the possibilities of this configuration of the assemblage?
This can only happen via direct experimentation. You are enlarging and stabilizing the given field. But — for genuine novelty — you have to first participate in the emergence of a new field:
This happens at the level of the assemblage. Change the assemblage and you will change the field (change in kind). Here are dialog — really a dance emerges: tweak the assemblage, then experiment in actualizing within the field, then fold that back into the assemblage, etc. You are working in, across and between the levels. You are changing hats and methods rapidly. You are becoming an expert at the indirect and the direct — acting on the particular and seeing the emergent field.
As you get good at this dance of multi-scaled, multi-modal, multi-skilled co-emergence for novelty you sense the agency of system level of emergence: the whole is “making” the “parts”. (We discussed this in detail in this week’s article on Emergence).
What this means for innovation:
Where do we turn when we run out of ideas?
How do we keep up & stand out among our peers when novelty is required?
It boils down to a numbers game:
If the number of ideas one can generate are limited (see brainstorming for more than 5 minutes.)
And the number of good ideas are a fraction of the ideas you output and develop.
It won't be long before you're sitting there without much to contribute to the team.
But, worse than that, at some point you and your team will realize that ideas are inherently conservative and are reflective of the existing possibilities of a system.
So you need new ways to generate genuinely creative opportunities.
Where can we turn?
Tools that offer an actual connection to novelty. These are tools for engaging with emergent innovation.
The focus shifts to working directly and experimentally at many levels at once across the system.
Creativity is about experimentally developing new systems level emergent processes.
Creativity — emergent novelty — has always been part of reality, it is ongoing. We are a product of emergent processes and an agent (one of many) in their on-goingness.
When we step back to consider the 7 interlinked components of emergent systems against an issue that requires new approaches, we can begin to see the limitless possibilities any matter of concern offers.
Working with worldly innovation tools can distinguish and catapult everything from a career, to large scale ecological change.
Please try out these tools this week. Be in touch. And let’s keep experimenting!
Till Volume 22,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
📚 P.S.: For a new model of worldly creativity – check out our book
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🏞 P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution