Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 22! Introduction to Strategies, Practices and Approaches...
Here in northern New Jersey it is a cool crisp morning. Sparrows are singing in the shrubs. A dusting of snow might be coming. The cat is out sunning on the side steps. It is a good moment to finish writing this newsletter in the quiet of the winter dawn with coffee in hand.
This week we have been going back and forth on “what are some introductory tools and practices for emergence and creativity/innovation?”
In last week’s newsletter we focused on introducing the process and some useful ways to visualize what is happening with emergent processes. We got a lot of good feedback, questions and concepts from many of you. This helped us revise the newsletter into an article we published on Monday: How do we Effectively Engage with Emergence?
This all developed out of the previous week when we wrote an article introducing Emergence: Systems are Creative: On Emergence and Creativity. Which also led to great email and LinkedIn conversations with many of you.
What came up often was why?
Why make such a big deal out of emergence?
Which got the two of us talking quite a bit during the week about “what is the simple answer to why is emergence so important?”
Here’s what we came to: it allows one to radically and pragmatically reframe the question of where and how did something new happen?
It allows us to put aside that perennial western question “how can something come from nothing?”
Henri Bergson pointed out over a century ago that this is a false problem — we are mistaking the more for the less. We are assuming that nothing has to come before something. That, what is now, had to be there in the beginning. But, false or not, the question still persists — and so does the classical theologically inspired answer: “if something cannot come from nothing then it must come from the mind of the creator” — now we just switch out “the Creator” for “a creator.”
It’s still the same wrong tree to bark up.
Neither creativity nor innovation is ex nihilo — from nothing, rather they are ab initio — they are there from the beginning. Creativity and innovation have always been there and are ongoing spontaneous self-creative processes.
This is why emergence is important: emergent processes are what is driving the spontaneous worldly self-creative processes.
We can pragmatically move from ex nihilo to ab initio by engaging with and co-creatively joining ongoing emergent processes.
This is another aspect of the worldly nature of innovation/creativity, and a key aspect of why we term our general approach “worldly creativity”.
We really like how Roger Ames and David Hall put it:
Either everything shares in creativity or there is no creativity.
But — and it’s a big but — the shift to engage with emergent processes is a radical shift. It is not a tool to add to your existing tool box. It is part of an entirely distinct approach.
We need to shift from acting…
This is really a really big shift — and one that needs to happen in a holistic manner — after all, each practice is influencing all the others.
Which does not make things easier to grasp or put into practice.
In an attempt to make it “simple” we could also break it down into a list of rules for practice.
14 Key practices:
It sounds great. And each one is comprehensible on its own — but it’s a lot and it’s frankly overwhelming.
How to get started?
Play is a good answer. It can orient us to a new approach and layout and connect us to a landscape of possible practices.
One day we would love to do a whole creativity workshop in a spacious restaurant kitchen. Just experimenting and cooking.
(With a few bottles of “natural” wine added to the mix (if you’re interested in joining us - hit reply and let us know!)).
Let’s play with cooking — not recipe following (that’s just back to the god model of ideate, plan, execute…) — is an ideal space to entangle deeply with emergent processes in a joyful and low stress manner.
Cooking is an emergent improvisation — you have a general heading at the beginning and then the process starts to gain agency and horizons change, novel portals and paths emerge and suddenly you are sitting, eating and conversing with many things that surprise you.
We love playing with eggs, so let’s get cooking with eggs.
To begin, let’s orient ourselves to some of the basic concepts we will be working with (please zoom into the diagram). On the right are the parts of emergent systems visualized, in the middle are the terms, and on the right are the cook examples:
Let’s start at the “bottom” of the diagram:
You have some whole eggs in their shells on your counter. What are they? They are actual eggs and pure potential.
They are expressive self organizing matters: the eggs will behave in certain ways as you engage with them. They will congeal, thicken, harden, foam, separate, emulsify… these are all relational affordances. (Some weeks back we wrote a good overview article going further into self-organizing).
In some sense these eggs are at once something, nothing, and everything:
This makes it hard to act — the everything is already pulling us towards the known. Everything you know is saying “make me!”, “No, make me!” You are flooded with solutions: make a fried egg, no a poached egg or perhaps an omelet… We know so much — how can we be free to experiment?
This feeling of paralysis is how you know you are in the middle. In the middle we can’t ignore what has happened or pretend we can start pure.
Deleuze always talked about the problem of beginning in relation to painting — “the reason it is hard to begin is because the canvas is never blank…”
What to do? Ideate?
No — You have to put a stop to the easy process carrying us back into the known. This is where blocking or the making of an enabling constraint comes into play.
Try blocking something — in regards to our cooking — how about blocking heat?
Thus, we generate an experimental rule: no heat. Why choose this? Because we sense and disclose that this is a pretty big and consistent pattern in most cooking — heat is involved. (Here a couple more rules are being activated: work across multiple scales (we looked at big patterns (one scale) and brought this in the form of rule to another scale), and sense the logic of the whole system (for the great French anthropologist Levi Strauss heat was separates us from animals— the raw and the cooked…)
This will change our assemblage — the tight network of equipment, taskscape, things, practices, concepts, habits and environments. How does it need to reconfigure? What new tools and techniques? (Rule: Engage the agency of every component of the assemblage).
Blocking is an action but it is incomplete without us doing something
We have to do something — let’s start with the shell — how about we lick it? Perhaps you are thinking — that’s stupid, not worth it, why?
Just those reactions alone are sense making cues to something different might be possible here. Pay attention to your emotional valence, are our disgust, frustration, absurdity, boredom, etc. These are embodied implicit harbingers of possible novelty.
The licking is not an end goal — that is not what we are proposing as dinner. No, rather it is a probe — a way to agitate and perturbate the system as a whole into responding in novel and surprising manners. (Now we are working with rules 4 & 5: probing (not ideating), and trusting embodied states. This is also critical: Understanding, and shifting how we understand ourselves is really fundamental to beginning to engage emergent innovation.)
Where will licking lead? You don’t know.
Now you become a follower, actively experimentally probing in the dark. Have some rigor, do a variety of “licking” exercises.
This is the key aspect of a probe: because you cannot logically know what the radically new will be (which is why ideation will not help) — you have no choice but to poke the system and work with how it responds.
What is critical to understand about a probe: The probe is not a plan that has an end in mind, nor is it a prototype (a draft version of a possible solution).
A probe is a system perturbator that has two main goals:
Early on your probes should be semi-reversible. You are still testing the waters. (rule #4: Probe the system with semi-reversible intervention).
So we lick the egg, we are surprised by how much we sense roughness. We rub the egg to see what the roughness could do. The egg cracks. We stabilize roughness by removing and ignoring the filling. What can this hardness and roughness become? It begins to splinter and powder.
Now we are sensing and following things into a new terrain. Perhaps we are crossing a qualitative threshold — is this still about eating? We taste the powder…
As you sense propensities and emergent exaptations (unintended possibilities— we also wrote a longer piece about how the unintended plays a fundamental role in all innovation) — e.g. the roughness of the egg, your probes can shift variables across thresholds (rule #7: Experimentally play with variables while searching for thresholds).
Your probes become more established experiments. The goal is still not to solve something but to either expand the terrain or to push the system into a qualitatively new state (see diagram below):
Here by following our egg shell we are beginning to qualitatively reconsider “eating.” What does this mean? It is too early to tell — but perhaps a new world is emerging… (here is rule # 11 Co-evolve with your experiments).
But what we are trying to sense is new states and propensities from what new processes are emerging.
We like to call the set of experimental practices that are pushing a system towards a qualitatively new state: pirate projects. They are no longer interested in expanding a known world or building out new topologies of probability within an existing overarching emergent logic. Pirate projects develop from probes with the explicit goal of world disruption.
Our hope is that the above example begins to suggest “how to experimentally engage with emergence”. Get cooking in this manner. Set aside time, have no fixed expectations.
Over the next couple of weeks we will expand how we work with emergence in other contexts. This week it is all about practices that introduce one to a way of working.
Probes can take endless forms — they are responding to specific contexts. Here are some examples (we strongly suggest digging into these.
Good examples of this can be found in interventionist art such as the work of the Yes Men Bhopal Project, or in the Fluxus art of Alison Knowles - Make a Salad, and Yoko Ono Cut Piece. Or the crawls of PopeL.
The limits of these art projects as probes is that they do not involve carefully following and working with what emerges.
The sit-in movement of the 1960’s is a good example of a probe that pushes a system to reveal its various states and propensities.
The founding and early work of GreenPeace (this is a great documentary on how they developed out of a series of experimental probes). Their early work combines both forms of probes.
Next week we will go further into probes and emergence.
Till then, get experimenting in the kitchen and remember:
Begin this shift to a new model of working with ongoing emergent creative processes by first getting comfortable and situated in the practice in a tangible and playful context. Sense what happens when you probe and follow. So please get cooking (not recipe following!)— and let us know where you end up!
Till Volume 23,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
📚 P.S.: For a new model of worldly creativity – check out our book
❤️🔥 P.P.S.: Love the newsletter? Please forward to a colleague
🙈 P.P.P.S: All feedback, praise or criticism is really welcome
🏞 P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution