Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 36! Why Reinventing Problems Matters to Innovation...
Good morning creative processes who might self-identify as humans!
We are on different continents this week — iain is in west-Asia wandering the hills of the Scottish highlands and Jason is in North America wandering the dales of central Jersey (NJ).
This week we want to step back and consider why do problems matter to innovation? And why does it really matter that we invent problems.
One could approach the innovation process as being about inventing something: “Just invent something new!” And just dive into our personal approach to creativity — we just get on with the business of making something.
This “just do it” approach is what we term “solution thinking”: we see an issue and we just solve it. It does very often work, at least in the short term.
But, as we know, things are not just “there”. Every thing is connected to other things, practices and environments and that this totality has a logic of its own — of which we are not independent. The whole is making us even as we are making.
And our solutions are not unique or disconnected.
An example: Iain has been sketching as he wanders around Scotland.
We could say he is being creative by just sketching — drawing what he sees and that is his unique creative process, end of story.
But is it really that?
It is clear that if iain is “just” sketching, then he is naively accepting a whole assemblage of tools, techniques, concepts and purposes without much thought.
This is what happens when we simply do things; we are falling into well established pre-existing solution potentials.
Which is fine if the goal is to do just that, but if the goal is even slightly more ambitious in terms of innovation — then it is time to understand what the problem that this assemblage is allowing to emerge (as well as what world it participates in producing and what potential field of solutions are probable). See below:
Every problem is an assemblage that produces a field of solutions and simply solving the problem is to actualize one of these solutions — which does very little to change the likelihood of any of the other solutions being actualized or not in the future.
Iain is working within a problem of representation that emerged in the late 1700’s with the Romantics: how can one visually represent the oneness of place and person as an event? This problem has an implicit and explicit associated set of tools, habits, concepts, practices, modes of circulation and general motivations.
This problem has been very productive — allowing for a whole field of practices to emerge from Turner to Van Gogh to Giacometti and much else (including iain’s sketches— see diagram below). But, like all problems the potential practices that can emerge are infinite but circumscribed.
What does it mean to say “infinite but circumscribed”? The problem space is fixed, like the space between the number one and two, but between these two numbers there can be infinite points.
Just as one can infinitely generate numbers between one and two one can wander in the field of problem and forever vary what can be done, but — there is a qualitative limit to what can be done with a problem.
The other thing to remember is that a problem is dynamic but constrained. What one does (the exact composition of the assemblage) is always in variation which modifies the field of possible outcomes, and the actual outcome one makes feedback into the problem/assemblage in real time. Then there are further forms of feedback as things circulate in a larger world of responses.
What limits a problem? Remember that a problem is an assemblage. The emergent logic of an assemblage constrains the space of potential outcomes where certain outcomes will be more likely (see above diagram).
Working at the level of solutions (let’s just get on with solving the problem) usually reinforces the system and the likelihood of other outcomes.
The classical example of this is the plastic bag problem:
Single use plastic bags are a huge issue for now obvious reasons.
The common solution is to ban the use of plastic bags.
But what happens when we do?
The bags are gone but nothing in the composition of the problem has been changed. By choosing one of the solutions from the existing field of potential solutions we most often simply strengthen other parts of the field of potential solutions.
Jumping in and just getting things done — solution thinking — is most often neither innovative nor an effective response when real change is necessary.
But, when one can see the whole general scope of the field of potentials that a problem-assemblage produces one can recognize that something else must be possible.
And this gives us a way to invent new problems without having to pretend we can imagine where we are trying to go when engaged with the innovation processes.
Where Does All Of This Get Us?
Back in Scotland, iain can play with the problem.
If the matter of concern is developing an aesthetic practice that connects person to place then we can experiment with the assemblage:
What can we block to push the system towards novelty?
It needs to be something significant: How about the practices of representation?
Same paper, same pens, new experiment:
What if we allow the movement of the body in the environment to directly produce the marks?
Thus movement + new actions are added to the assemblage:
Walk holding the pad open and without looking make marks.
Now new questions emerge:
We have produced a difference. But what kind of difference? Is it a qualitative difference?
It is hard to tell with one new sketch, but i think we can sense a difference emerging — one that we can nurture and keep alive by further developing the feedback between more experiments and the changing problem-assemblage. We will need to sense who is also already in this space with us (we will not be the first to do whatever we are doing). We will need to recalibrate and discover novel unintended capacities (affordances) to follow.
Our eventual goal is a novel world (but that is going to emerge on its own calendar).
Clearly, we are not done — this sketch — nor any outcome — is ever the final resolution of the problem. The sketch is one outcome in an unknown and as yet non-existent field of potentials. We need to probe and experiment further. We need to develop a field of potentials by co-evolving a problem-assemblage (it is never about one outcome). We oscillate between altering the problem-assemblage, developing experimental outcomes to sense novel unintended affordances that are then speculatively folded back into transforming the problem-assemblage.
We are also changing — our likes and dislikes, our habits and practices are all shifting as this novel problem practice emerges.
What makes it good or bad? From the perspective of innovation it is simply its difference — is the process evolving a difference that makes a difference?
Sketching in Scotland or anywhere else won’t make much of a difference in regards to any pressing issues, but it is a modest practice that lets us directly engage with this perspective on innovation.
And that is the goal: understanding the what, how and why of inventing problems so as to make a real creative difference in things that matter.
Well, that’s a wrap on the why of problems and problem invention. We hope that you have a wonderful weekend wherever you are and whatever you are doing — just remember: invent problems worth having for worlds worth making.
Till Volume 37,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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🏞 P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution