Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 30! Strategic Blocking for Innovation...
Good morning everyone,
It’s Friday and we are digging into and swimming with our favorite process: blocking. Let’s just jump right in:
The new is puzzling:
If it is genuinely new and not just an improvement of what existed then it is something that prior to the moment it came into being it did not exist.
How can something come seemingly from nothing?
If that is not bad enough — how can we participate in a creative process where we don’t — can’t — know anything about what was not there but now is there?
Last week in the newsletter we looked at a really interesting example of innovation researchers using evolutionary processes to innovate outside of knowing. This week we want to unpack this process in more detail.
The real difficulty with the new is that it does not exist, but something exists.
The new is not materializing out of thin air, it is emerging from the middle of existing things, habits, processes and environments.
It is there but it is not there. So what is there?
There is a possible unintended capacity immanent in something (really in some relation) ready to be creatively co-opted.
It is hiding in plain sight.
But, this is not quite right, the metaphors of seeing and hiding suggest a far too passive and far too conceptual approach is possible to get to the new. What is required is less about being able to “see” the new — but enact the new — it emerges via engagement.
Better than “hiding in plain sight” would be “it is lurking in everyday engagements.” And perhaps better than lurking which still suggests it is already there in some fully formed manner would be “nascent” — something is there awaiting a journey of possible emergence.
The co-option and emergence of a novel affordance happen (and become visible) in the act.
Unintended affordances “shimmer” dimly as a something that pulls on us in a vague and under-defined manner all the time. We are drawn toward them often in accidents, errors, crisis moments, play, horsing around, improvisations, boredom. But they are never something just waiting out there to be “discovered” the way a lost shoe lurks under the bed.
You have to do something. But it is not enough to leave it there — as if it were that simple (“just horse around more!”).
The initial moment of co-option is never anything big — it is not a “discovery” or epiphany — no angels will sing.
When will that come?
As we saw in the example last week it is going to take a lot of iterations: A thousand parallel co-options and iterations and a path is being made in the walking that slowly expands into a terrain… (a couple of months back we also look at an example of this in evolution).
In hindsight, and only with the knowledge of having done something will you be able to look back and recognize the initial accidental enactive co-optation of an unintended affordance as being consequential. But in the moment if you notice it at all it will more likely than not register as stupid, trivial and inconsequential.
We are getting ahead of ourselves.
A big part of why it is so hard to sense the faint glimmerings of the new is that we are so fully of the old. We are made by the environments, tools, habits, practices and concepts of the old. We are not just “in” the world of the old — we are part and parcel “of” it.
Our sensing and thinking arises from how we are embodied, embedded, extended and enacted in a dance of co-shaping with our immediate socio-material environment. Without a really deep understanding of how we are an extended environment and that meaning is not something in our heads but part of the fabric of our world — it is impossible to properly understand how we have to actively set out of these assemblages that are us (another paradox).
We are emergently shaped into the beings we are by a set of constructive constraints. The dynamic interaction of tools, habits, environments and concepts give rise to a living field of potentialities which is the terrain of our lives.
A key to this process of being open to the new is being able to constrain the old. We call this “blocking”. Blocking pushes one to do something different. It does not need to be something grand, revolutionary, or massive. Blocking needs to be specific, blocking Capitalism for example, sounds great but it is just a vague and general statement that cannot be operationalized.
Experimentally stopping using money — that could lead to something novel and interesting (again the novelty is not in this action but in what might follow from a longer iterative experimental process).
With a really well aimed and specific blockage (that is applied in a rigorous manner) you are forced to do something else and in that doing something else you enter into and open yourself up the world of the unintended.
A wonderful and simple, but very powerful example is the novel A Void by Georges Perec. The entire novel was written without any words containing the letter E. By blocking the letter E, which is the most used letter in the alphabet, he was forced into conspiring with language to invent a whole new lexicon, phraseology and style.
An example of blockage larger in scope, but still very concrete, would be the composition 4’33” by John Cage where he blocks the production of sound by the musicians to allow everything to become music.
What is important to remember here is that reality is built via constraints — the chaotic dispersion of energy is constrained into forms and patterns that give rise to emergent forms of order and as these are further constrained give rise to living systems. By constraining constraints we are pushing systems to find new affordances, patterns and possibilities — in effect we are pushing the system to find new constraints.
The question that emerges is “what to block?”
Discovering what to block requires the disclosure of what exists — the underlying and usually implicit habits, tools, processes, environments and concepts. All of these need to be made visible (knowing that some things cannot be explicated). It is important to remember that this will start as a focused activity — it is not about innovating everything all at once — but on a targeted innovation — an innovation in some field or area of interest.
What you are blocking is an existing affordance. Affordances are relations between the environment and an agent that allow for emergent opportunities for patterned action. The coffee cup affords grasping to an agent with a hand, skills, senses and need to grasp. The affordance emerges out of engagement. It stabilized to such a degree that we confuse the affordance with the thing-in-itself. But it is important to remember that every thing exceeds its current purpose/identity.
What to block is an empirical and experimental question — you need to test things out. What begins to emerge when you block X?
Most often you will need to block a set of things. And you will need to tune your blockages.
The goal is not the emergence of the radically new in one miraculous step or an earth shaking epiphany that gives you insight into a wondrous new world. But something very modest — something odd and different that you can follow.
The odd and different will be some form of novel affordance that is emerging because you are developing new skills, ways of sensing and acting because the normal sets of skills, and habits are blocked.
What is critical in the following of a novel emergent affordance is that the blockage remains active. Systems have strong propensities and to overcome these a suite of blockages needs to be developed and maintained if you wish to keep your difference alive.
Blocking is an ongoing activity of sensemaking.
You need to be vigilant to the trajectory of the novel tendencies of what is emerging: are they pulling you back towards what you are trying to leave?
Here is where blockages can be tuned or added to — as you sense and shift the propensities of what is emerging you might need to make a blockage more encompassing or add another blockage or even remove one.
It is all an experiment in a complex non-linear environment where context (what the environment is doing in real time) is everything.
As one iterates new blockages needed:
With each development and stabilization of a novel affordance new unintended affordances glimmer. The stabilized novel affordance becomes the new normal. And the process begins again: what could be blocked? New blockages are developed and new affordances discovered.
Iteration by iteration a system is pushed towards an emergent threshold of qualitative difference.
Blocking and following are dance. You don’t just block once and then get into the activity of experimentation, never to return to blocking.
Iteration is a creative act, not an act of improvement or perfection.
Each iteration is a creative deviation that involves a new blocking and experimentation to sense and co-evolve with a new emerging affordance. This affordance is stabilized. Then the process of iteration and deviation begins again. The dance changes when one senses a qualitative threshold. Now the constraints are back to their “normal” job of stabilizing a world. But this takes us into a very different set of tasks (which we will get into in later newsletters and articles).
For innovation there are two contrasting activities that drive the experimental process forward:
These are not one-off practices but iterative partners in the dance of novel co-emergence. One does not happen without the other:
This is a big part of what fundamental innovation research looks like. It is not something that emerges from a creative ideation workshop — but really develops best via the implementation of a broad set of designed scaffolds (another term for a constraint), highly iterative experimental procedures, and a holistic strategy.
All that said — you can get good at this dance by just playing with blocking — block something today, follow and stabilize what emerges, then block some part of that in a way that pushes things further — then keep going. Don’t over think things — do something. The key is: be iterative. It is not a one-and-done procedure. Set yourself a goal of five iterative deviations. Tell us where you end up!
Have an amazing weekend and a great week out there.
Till Volume 31,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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