Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 34! Inventing Problems...
Good Morning to our fellow complex processes!
It is May — we are of May.
Last week we were about collaboration — our Dandelion Wine has spent a week of releasing, meeting and mingling. Tomorrow we will put it in a large five gallon jar with an air-lock to ferment for a month or so and then at the height of summer it will be ready to drink. A beautiful collaboration in the making.
This week we are continuing our journey into the astonishing landscape of collaboration and emergent processes by turning our attention to problems and problematization.
One way of looking at innovation is that it solves problems. It’s not always the best way to approach things — it can lead to a very linear and disconnected concept of innovation. But it is also useful to conceive innovation as being engaged with problems.
The Wright brothers were engaged with the problem of flight, along with many others. They developed this problem to be one of getting powered heavier than air objects carrying humans to move in the atmosphere in a controlled manner.
It was a problem that they never solved. Yes, they did build the first machine that could fly, and you could call this the solution to the problem of human flight. But, does this mean that flight is “solved” in the same manner which one could say “this new chair solved my back problem”?
Of course one could add nuance to the discussion of solutions: this was their solution, or this is one way of solving the problem of flight. But the focus on solutions and solving problems is a profound distraction from what is really going on when we engage with problems. Success with a problem is the opening up of a new world.
The early pioneers of flight invented a problem worth having to open up a world worth making. The well invented problem opened up a specific world of flight.
Problems have solutions if you are engaged with a problem from a developmental approach. If you are interested in approaching an issue as an incremental problem, say “this coffee cup gets too hot to hold — how can I fix this?” — then there can be a solution that solves the problem — say a handle. It is better to understand this as being “resolved” rather than “solved”. There are always many ways to resolve a problem.
An incremental approach can be discreet: you can work on improving one thing step by step. Such an approach leaves the general propensity and underlying logics of the problem unchanged.
But problems do not have discreet resolutions if you are engaged with a problem from a disruptive perspective. When involved in a disruptive approach problems are conjoined to worldmaking. The problem of flight is disruptive and its successful engagement opens up a world.
In everyday speech we are using the same word “problems” to discuss two very different things. It is all too easy to conceptualize all problems as the same thing from most to least novel and missing that there is a qualitative distinction between a developmental approach and a disruptive approach to problems in which the very nature of what is being addressed changes. Many of the fundamental impasses in innovation approaches stem from engaging disruptive and incremental change as if they were essentially the same thing just operating at different scales.
What Is A Problem When Approaching Reality Disruptively?A disruptive approach needs to frame what a problem is very differently.
From a disruptive stance a problem is an assemblage of habits, practices, concepts, institutional regularities, tools, environmental forces and designed environments that are manipulated to allow a novel world to emerge.
The assemblage is synonymous with the problem.
The innovation of the Wright Brothers was to invent the problem of flight in a very particular manner— they developed a very unique assemblage (this was the topic of last week’s newsletter, but it is also worth going deeper - David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is worth a read). Another way to put this is that they developed a unique manner in which to problematize a matter of interest (humans being airborne).
The “problem” is best understood as a relational assemblage that has a strong (but often invisible) propensity, and gives rise to the field of potential outcomes (resolutions) that are available to us at any moment and as a whole forms an emergent world.
The “problem” is best understood as a process — as a problematizing process that involves progressively and experimentally inventing a novel assemblage.
It is worth taking a moment to study the above diagram. Notice how a problem sits in the middle of a world. It develops out of self-organizing matter (from below), emergent processes (from above) and outside forces (from beside). These give rise to a field of potential outcomes — and actualizing any of these (e.g. building a certain airplane) is a resolution. And the dynamic totality of this is a specific world.
Our tools form, shape and ultimately give rise to our most basic concepts— but they do not do this alone — it is in concert with our environments, habits, practices, and institutional regularities. This assemblage is a mutually determining interaction dominant system (something the philosopher Michel Foucault called an Apparatus (Dispotif).
How we disruptively engage with a problem is at the level(s) of the assemblage/apparatus/network. “The nature of the apparatus is essentially strategic, which means we are speaking about a certain manipulation of relations of forces, of a rational and concrete intervention in the relation of forces, either so as to block them, to stabilize them, and to utilize them. The apparatus is thus always inscribed into a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain limits of knowledge…” (Foucault).
What Is The Role Of “Things” In This Assemblage? Let’s revisit the old NRA saying “guns don’t kill, people do.” At the heart of this argument is the concept that things (in this case, guns) are in themselves neutral objects that do nothing. Which on the face of it is relatively true. A gun sitting in the middle of the desert is “just” a hot piece of metal that might keep a lizard warm at night, but it won’t run around shooting anything by itself. And because of this, it must be the person that has all the agency. This argument can then frame the problem as being about what is going on inside a human: poor training, mental health, bad person, etc.
What this form of argument (and problem definition) fails to recognize is that when a person has a gun they are fundamentally changed, they become a gun+person+constructed environment unit (assemblage). This assemblage has its own agency and it transforms and remakes its parts (especially the human). It shapes habits, practices, subjectivities, and makes certain things far more likely than others. And in turn these new habits, feelings, practices and possibilities feedback into the assemblage and transform the assemblage. The relational assemblage when it comes into being and stabilizes has a dominant general propensity (some set of outcomes is always more likely than others). The assemblage is not neutral nor is it passive. The “gun problem” is about assemblages giving rise to worlds.
Where is the agency? It is not in the discrete components but in the relations and the emergent agency of the whole.
Where and what is the “problem”? It is not the thing (a gun, in this example) or the person, or a concept. Yes, each part of the assemblage contributes to the emergence of the whole — but in a non-linear manner. The “problem” is in very concrete terms the assemblage (and all that arises from this assemblage — again see diagram).
Problems are assemblages and what arises from the assemblage:
Plus — all of these emergent processes feeds-back into the assemblage and makes certain things far more likely than others. This feedback also feeds-forward moving the whole in a direction and strengthening the propensity of the system.
Problems (assemblages) are not “solved.”
Problems are remade —problematized and in this they are transformed. As the assemblage is modified the components are also changed and the field of potential outcomes is changed.
The radical remaking of a problem involves the qualitative transformation of the assemblage such that there is a qualitatively different field of potentials and qualitatively different subjectivities.
Working on problems — the act of problematization is an inventive act — it is not an action that could be defined as “solving”.
Innovation is the inventing of problems (assemblages) worth having for worlds worth making (what emerges from an assemblage).
Inventing problems is a critical component of any innovation process — let’s look at some key steps in this process:
The first step, engagement, requires that we understand a problem for what it is: an assemblage (Dispotif) that gives rise to a field of potential solutions and has multiple modes of actual resolution.
A problem (an assemblage) only becomes visible via engagement. Doing a workshop on reframing a problem that is based in ideation will leave you operating at a very superficial and ultimately false level.
We have to actively go below, beside and above the assemblage.
What becomes visible (and open to further experimentation) is the full space of “the problem”: The outside forces, the self-organizing materials, the assemblage, the emergent processes, and the field of potential solutions.
We need to be engaged — actively probing because of the emergent nature of the system we cannot know in advance and outside of action what it is and how it will behave.
The work of engagement involves leaving the space of disembodied concepts — the board room, office, studio and getting out and experimenting directly with components of the assemblage via a process of probing (this essay is worth a close read as it goes into depth on process of engagement and probing).
To Know is to Engage, this is both practical and speculative:
The goal of engagement is to become active in the assemblage in ways that you can both develop a new understanding and perturbate the system into new states.
Disclosure involves two things:
Getting a wide sense of the problem/assemblage gives one a clear sense of what can be experimentally blocked (see below).
Sensing the unintended (the exaptive) gives one an experimental place to being developing an alternative problematization.
This is a type of experimental “scouting” process. A scout is someone who goes ahead of the main party to discover a path. Here the scouting process is twofold: disclosing what exists and experimentally discovering exaptations (unintended possibilities). These can sound like to distinct activities, but they are deeply connected — the same act of probing gives one a sense of the system and brings out the unintended. Scouting is disclosing and exaptation collecting.
These activities of engagement and disclosure are also transformative of those involved: new habits, attitudes, practices, skills and capacities are forming. You are becoming someone else— and this really matters— you are not above or outside of the process. Innovators are not experts, puppet masters, or demi-gods manipulating or workshopping a process that they are not a part of— innovators have their boots deep in the mud and are consciously and actively becoming someone new. These new habits, skills and attitudes should be actively and incrementally cultivated. Develop and implement processes for this that work in the flow of the innovation activity.
Inventing a novel problem cannot rely on a process of reframing — this would be to leave the assemblage intact and simply look at it from a different perspective.
This leads to the great difficulty of disruptive innovation: if it is radically novel you cannot know in advance what it is.
The approach needs to be both negative and positive:
As a new assemblage is forming — as the novel problem is stabilizing we need to step back and start to get a sense of the propensity of this emerging nascent world.
A critical part of this process tool is to distinguish between the problem and a more general “the matter of concern”. All problems address a more general and necessarily vague area of interest or matter of concern. The word “concern” is used in a positive and constructive sense: it should evoke curiosity, and engagement. The Wright Brothers were concerned with how humans could move in the air. They developed this into a specific problem, but there were and are many other ways of problematizing this matter of concern.
Developing a Matter of Concern will allow you to gain a critical and creative distance from the existing all-encompassing logic of the problem you are inventing.
Developing the matter of concern (MoC) is an ongoing creative act — as you engage and sense the implicit and explicit logic of a problem (dispotif) your sense of the MoC will also evolve. It is important to keep this dialog between your problem , its emerging world, and the MoC dynamic. A note: we are taking this term “concern” and this approach from the work of A. N. Whitehead, specifically his wonderful late work Adventure of Ideas).
The process of disruptive problematization — working on inventing a new problem/assemblage is to work across scales: you need to focus on: what gives rise to the assemblage, the assemblage, emergent processes, the virtual field of potentials and any actual resolution that is developed — what John Protevi so aptly calls working “above, below and beside''. The totality of this is a novel “world”.
As this world gains a self-organizing tentative stability it is critical to begin to recognize it for what it is. The primary reason is that in actively working to sense and articulate this emerging qualitatively distinct world helps it resist falling back into old logics. This process requires an act of speculative articulation.
This is a second process of disclosure, but now it is the disclosure of what is not yet there. This is a delicate process — the danger is that you can easily lose your difference in the process of articulating that difference.
The problem is that the world that is emerging is new and old concepts will not apply. We need to invent concepts worthy of what is emerging. It is better to begin the process of speculative articulation with terms that are perplexing, hard to define and even harder to communicate than to default to a standard language.
In reality this process has been developing all throughout the larger and longer process of creative disruptive problematization (innovation). Novel concepts have been emerging in the midst of activities and are recognized. Now, we are speculatively synthesizing the holistic propensities and tendencies of the system (world).
This is a process of developing a conceptual feedback loop between the whole and the parts. It is also a process of giving the whole agency via the process of putting it into words. This is the work of keeping your difference alive.
We hope that this sketch inspires your experiments and allows you to fall in love with a problem as you invent it and let it invent you.
Have a wonderful week getting problematic and creative!
Good Friday Morning!
Till Volume 35,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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