Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 33! Collaboration Made You...
Good Friday Morning!
I hope that you are excited about your weekend. Here on the East Coast of North America in New Jersey everything is in bloom — the Dandelions are speckling lawns bright yellow, the lilacs drift towards one in invisible clouds of fragrance, and wondrous green shoots of knotweed signal that it is high time to get on with spring foraging. It is like greeting old friends to walk through the neighborhood. We will be making Dandelion wine this weekend.
Dandelion wine is a beautiful collaborative dance between weed blossoms, water, airborne microscopic fungi, and honey. When these things come together in the right way for the right amount of time magic happens.
This collaboration brings us to what has been on our minds this week: what is the importance of collaboration to creative processes and innovation?
Last week we were discussing in the newsletter “where is innovation” and how we cannot find creativity “in” anything. We used the analogy of looking for flight in the feather or wing of a bird. And how just like you cannot find flight in the bird wing you cannot find creativity in the head of a human.
If we wish to say that creativity and innovation are “in” anything, then they are in events and their ongoing processes. And to illustrate this we looked at the event of “Kitty Hawk” in the development of human heavier than air flight. By saying this we do not mean that the place in North Carolina created flight. Here “Kitty Hawk” is shorthand for the emergent event that encompasses the place and its forces (dunes, birds, prevailing winds, privacy), histories (other experiments in flight), key objects (box kites, bikes, wind tunnels, aluminum blocks, cardboard boxes), creatures (people, soaring birds), and experiments (bird emulation, kite flying, wind tunnel testing…).
And like flight being the emergent outcome of many things coming together so too is creativity. And this is where we get to collaboration.
We are interested in expanding who and what we consider to be collaborators. But, and this is really important before we consider the question “who actually counts as a real collaborator?” — we need to understand how collaboration works.
Collaboration is an emergent process.
Collaboration is not an additive linear process: it is not people + their ideas + things + the right supporting cast + some work = a cool innovative outcome.
The additive model misunderstands/mischaracterizes emergence which is at the core of collaboration.
The critical quality of the process of emergence that characterizes collaboration is that it exhibits “global to local” influence (what is also called “downward causation”).
What does this mean?
Once the parts come together as a whole they cease being a simple collection of related but separate entities and act as a cohesive whole. We see this collaborative whole in the improvisations of great jazz ensembles — the Art Ensemble of Chicago — they are no longer a collection of individuals, instruments and traditions but something else. Or rather, they are still a collection of individuals that could go their own way but together they have become something altogether different. This “whole” that has emerged from the group is irreducible to any part of the group — it is an outcome of the relational mix. The whole is different from the sum of its parts. Yes, it arises from the parts — but it is not a linear addition of parts. The whole exhibits its own unique identity that can only be understood and engaged with effectively at the level of the whole. The whole comes from a history, but it is not its history.
“Kitty Hawk” is the same as the Art Ensemble of Chicago — we have the “flight ensemble of Kitty Hawk” giving rise to a relational emergent whole where each experiment is like a free-jazz improvisation. The first human flight at 10:35am on December 17th 1903 was not “by Orville Wright” in the sense that he was the author — he was one of the participants in this particularly important collaborative improvisation by the Flight Ensemble of Kitty Hawk.
While this emergent whole is critical, this is not the most important quality of emergent collaborations (we haven’t gotten to “downward causation yet!). This distinct and separate, but not separable “whole” has its own independent agency. We feel this when we are really in the flow of things with others — or even when we are working on something by ourselves — the event takes over and unexpected things happen. This agency of the emergent whole is exerting a shaping force on its component parts.
What does this mean?
You are made by the collaboration. You might have been responsible for bringing together other people, equipment and setting up an experiment — but when the collaboration synchronizes into an emergent whole — it is no longer about you. And then as this whole takes over and has its own propensities and agency it transforms you.
The event of “Kitty Hawk” made Orville and Wilbur and its unique wholistic creativity gave rise to flight.
The creative abilities, skills, practices and habits you possess are not “in” or “from” you — they are themselves emergent outcomes of relations.
This process has no identifiable beginning: we are already the outcome of relations (collaborations) — and our “identity” and agency are not “in” us in some essential manner; they, like all the rest of ourselves, are of the relations.
Thus for us to claim that we (or someone) had a creative idea and that this is the source of an innovative outcome is doubly false and wholly alienates us from what is actually happening.
It is false first because the you who believes they had an idea was already part of an emergent collective of things, practices, habits, tools, concepts and environments — a relational whole from the middle of which the concept arose.
And secondly as you went to put that concept into practice another emergent whole formed — and that whole from its own emergent agency gave rise to the novel outcome and the new you who could recognize and engage with it.
In general, we pay far too much attention to individuals and far too little attention to relations and process — and because of this we completely miss what collaboration is and means to creativity and innovation.
What matters to innovation is relations, process, and the agency of the emergent whole (the engagement).
We need to pay attention to collaboration — but in a different manner — it is not simply about crafting/curating the things that show up. It is not about classical authorship or management. It cannot be about patriarchal authority, ownership of the process, or ego driven individuality and “genius”.
We need to sense and nurture the emergent propensities of the whole. We need to let go of our identity and act in a distributed manner for what is emerging. We need to care for, shepherd, follow and be subsumed by the difference that is emerging. The novel emergent event is our mother as it is the mother of all innovation.
It is not enough to stop our discussion of a new model of creation here with what could seem like a very human centered idea of collaboration. Yes, people really do matter but what of the box kite or the bicycle or the wind? Were they mere instruments in the service of human agency on the way to inventing the first plane?
Very little thought in the world of innovation has been given to the role of objects as agents in the collaborative/creative process.
Objects are far too often still thought of as merely the things we make and use via our skills, genius, and needs.
This now outdated approach rests upon a number of false assumptions. The main one being that the locus of creativity is in our mind which is really in our brain, and all of this is far away and wholly separate from the object being innovated.
We still imagine that “we” are the sole independent author of our thinking and that it arises independently from our brains.
But our brains are not in a vat. And we know from the radical rethinking of Enactive Cognition that our minds and our thinking emerges from a necessary network that extends far beyond the firing of some synapses.
Thinking is embodied, embedded, extended, and enactivly engaged with an active environment and things. And from our previous discussion on emergent collaboration we know that this extended network is constitutive of our thoughts.
This means in very concrete terms that objects — stuff — plays a constitutive role in our thinking because they are literally part of our “minds”.
Our initial ideation — that hunch or spark or brainstorm is the outcome of an collaborative emergent event that required and was actively shaped by mere stuff.
Changes in objects and our use of objects change our cognitive capacities and processes.
If the things that we make, or even just the things in the materials world that we find and use change us and our thinking at a constitutive level — is this not a case of the thing “being innovative”?
Or, at the very least it should lead us to question that creative agency is only in us and that matter is a nearly passive partner in the dance of innovation.
Are we fetishizing our powers, misunderstanding the actual process of innovation and thus developing innovation processes that are based upon a house of cards?
How can we begin to be innovative? Start by embracing, understanding and genuinely welcoming the agency of things into the collaborative process — objects are forces of creativity.
As Lambros Malafouris says in the wonderful book ‘How Things Shape the Mind’:
“Agency and intentionality may not be the properties of things; they are not the properties of humans either; they are the properties of material engagement.”
If agency, intentionality, and thinking are the outcomes of a collaboration with things, objects and environments — then so too is creativity and innovation.
If your innovation process begins with primarily disengaged highly abstract processes of ideation, problem reframing, or research prior to genuine enactive material engagement, then the question you need to ask today: “how and why are we still using a method that reflects an incorrect understanding of reality and hoping to be innovative by anything more than luck?”
As Edwin Hutchins in Cognition in the Wild argues: Human innovation is permanently intra-woven with the active collaboration of things and environments.
How are you giving things and environments a seat at the table in your innovation process — or are you still thinking that it is all about humans?
This is not a theoretical question, it is a very practical one. Far too many innovation processes — all the major ones from Design Thinking to the Double Diamond — begin in practices that assume doing, experimenting and making with things comes later — often much later in the process. We have never seen a mainstream innovation process that acknowledges and begins with meaningful material engagement. But if material engagement is always already there and is already playing a significant role in our thinking — how can we afford to be willfully blind to its presence?
We need to push this further — how can we afford to be willfully blind to the reality of collaborative emergence? The early phases of the creativity processes need to focus on the development and nurturing of a collaborative network so as to give rise to a robust emergent event. Jumping into exercises of problem identification/ reframing, research, empathy and ideation is to go too fast too far too soon — and in doing so we skip over enacting the processes that will give rise to a generative self-sustaining creative processes that can lead to genuinely novel and innovative outcomes.
First: there is only collaboration — individualism is an ideology and not a reality. All actions are deeply collaborative even when we glibly ignore this with a stance of heroic individualism. Our individuality is an outcome of, and dependent on, our deep collaborative reality — we are intra-subjective beings.
Second: collaboration is more-than-human. No we are not getting new-age — the simple fact is that things — from critters to objects to systems to events to forces to actions all have agency and this agency plays a critical active role in all innovation.
Third: Collaboration produces a distinct emergent whole — the quality of a dynamic system that is irreducible to any of the parts or even the sum of the parts. Innovation emerges from the collaborative whole in a way that cannot be reduced to a single cause or linear series of causes.
Fourth: The collaborative “whole” makes its parts — once parts collaborate and a distinct “whole” emerges it exhibits “global to local” agency and makes its parts. Both the innovation and you are the outcomes of the same collaborative creative process/event.
Fifth: Creativity is a worldly phenomenon — the event of reality is involved in ongoing creativity which is all around us (and in us) at all times. Our collaborative creativity involves skillfully joining (e.g. collaborate with) realities ongoing creative processes. Our innovation practices begin in and emerge out of collaborations with realities ongoing creativity.
Collaboration is not something we add to our individuality (which we incorrectly assume was there first). It is not a useful additional tool to add to our innovation toolkit and pull out at some key moment in the process. It is far more and quite different than any of these problematic habits.
We need to embrace the deep, wide, and entangled collaborative nature of our reality and make this an active and conscious part of our practices of innovation.
How we understand ourselves, reality, creativity and innovation changes when we come to actively realize that reality in all of its aspects is collaborative and emergent.
For us, and we hope for you as well, this is a wondrous thing. The dandelions and the lilacs we meet on our walk are not just representations of reality we are conjuring up in our heads via sense organs as we pass though life — but they are active things welcoming us into reality and welcoming us into a creative process.
Have a wonderful week, keep consciously welcoming your mother — the event — back into your creative lives and processes — and keep letting yourself be born of the event you participated in forming!
And if you are curious and so inclined, here is the Dandelion Wine process we will be following this weekend.
Till Volume 34,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
📚 P.S.: If this resonates - check out our book
🔥 P.P.S.: Love the newsletter? Please forward to a colleague
🙈 P.P.P.S: Any feedback, praise, criticism is really welcome
🏞 P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution