Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 44! Folding In And Out Of Exaptations...
Good morning more-than-intended becomings! We hope that you have had a good week in our wonderous and deeply challenging worlds.
This week we were busy leading community design workshops around urban planning.
Next week, we are running a short two-day workshop on how to innovate with digital tools. Both of these workshops have us fully immersed in the world of exaptations.
So it should not come as that much of a surprise that in this newsletter we are back into the thick of exploring and experimenting with exaptations.
NOTE: If you are coming to this topic without having participated in the longer discussions, here is a short definition: Exaptation being the co-option of unintended effects for novel outcomes, which stands in contrast to adaptation: the stabilization and improvement of existing functions.
Exaptations play a pivotal role in all (human) creativity. This is not stressed enough — we have yet to find any example of creativity that does not involve many exaptations. (And we have been deliberately working with and studying exaptations for over 25 years).
Getting a feeling for how richly exaptations shape all life and all creativity is critical to participating effectively in creative processes. We swim in an exaptive ocean and wander through deep thickets of exaptations in every moment of every day.
Part of getting a feel for this is getting a feel for how human innovation — even the simplest forms of creativity that we do constantly in coping successfully with everyday circumstances — is always engaged with non-human exaptivity.
Some thing is always joining us and is pushing us in unintended ways.
We are always in a dance with the agency of more than us — bacteria, tables, pens, fungi, systems, rocks, our phones, habits, plumbing, drawing, rituals, etc. — they are making and radically remaking us exaptively as much as we are making them.
This is obviously true of every moment of life, but it is especially true when we participate in creative processes.
When we look at the more-than-human logic of creativity and innovation, the more-than-human “things” become critical in a very particular manner — they show up as exaptations.
Every exaptation involves the agency of non-human things.
Whether it is the collaboration with multiple fungi (and a cantaloupe) in the invention of penicillin or the oscillation of certain crystals in sensors, in every case the critical agency is outside the human and is exaptive.
Our agency and our capacities for conceptualization and abstraction — what is often called ideation or “know-what”— is but one tool in a much richer and more complex experimental dance with far more agents and relations than we realize. We are obviously critical (and so is our ability for conceptualization), but we are not alone, and we are far more entangled + distributed + mutually catalyzed by exaptive others than we acknowledge or most often actively practice.
We would argue that creative processes involving humans work best when we get out of our heads and the environments best suited for abstraction and get deeply engaged in ways that both recognize and welcome the agency of things beyond the human — attuning ourselves to the rich diversity and collaborative possibilities of the exaptive becoming of things.
We began two weeks ago by introducing exaptations in biological evolution in Volume 42 - What is the Use of Half a Wing? Why Ideation Misses the Point.
We went back to Darwin and the evolution of feathered, winged flight.
The modern bird feather began as a scale on a dinosaur that evolved to help sequester toxins. It did not begin as anything to do with any version of anything related to flight. The feather and the feathered wing then fully evolved with nothing to do with flight— sexual selection, thermo-regulation, egg warming, etc.
Feathered winged flight comes much later as its own exaptation of wings for other very successful purposes.
Each change in form and life took advantage of unintended capacities in what existed to go in another totally different direction.
In this, a shift is made from an exaptation to an adaptation:
Once an unintended effect is engaged, the process shifts into a developmental process of stabilization, improvement, and diversification of a feature. Once the feather is exapted for sexual differentiation, it begins to be adapted to further this end: more and more colorful feathers emerge. In evolutionary innovation there is an iterative dance between exapting novel effects and subsequently developing these as new stable and effective functions. (We will see a similar dance in human innovation).
Each subsequent transformation was constrained by the physical nature of what had evolved in the past — but in an indeterminate manner — after all, the grand experimental question of all creativity is “...and what else can it do?”
These processes are non-linear, work at multiple differing scales, and involve many whole distinct processes coming together. This point, while obvious once made, is also missing from much of the literature in the field of innovation that references exaption. Almost all the examples of exaptations reference it as a single act: from x to y, from wings for thermal regulation to flight. This reduces a complex process into a single act. We need to understand and work with more complex processes to get to qualitatively different outcomes via exaptation — and no single-step model will get us there.
Knowing more about evolution and exaptations is really helpful. There is vast literature on the topic.
Here are some useful entry points:
Then in last week’s in the newsletter, we spent more time defining the distinct types of exaptations. This is a really important logic to grasp.
Most of the examples discussed as human cultural exaptations are only of one type: co-opted adaptations (see above diagram) — or to put it differently: repurposing things that had another purpose:
These are all examples of this form of exaptation — they had an original purpose and were repurposed towards a new purpose.
Staying within this category of exaptations gives one a false sense of the actual diversity of forms of exaptations.
A far richer category in biological evolution is the co-option of things that had no original purpose (see diagram below). One example is the opacity of certain enzymes and proteins that made them useful for the evolution of the lens in the eye. Opacity was simply a necessary non-adaptive by-product of the formation of these enzymes and proteins.
We see the categories of necessary and chance non-useful physical by-products play important roles in human innovation. Here it is worth taking a moment to go back to the history of any major human invention personally and noticing this category. I just took a quick look at books on my shelf in regards to the western invention of electricity. A critical moment in this history was in the 1600s when William Gilbert rubbed two pieces of amber together as part of studying magnetism. This produced static electricity (which is incidentally where we get the word from — electron being the greek word for amber). Here we have a true chance form playing an exaptive role.
The problem is that we see this vast multi-faceted space as almost always just consisting of one form of exaptation. This form is the least radical: the repurposing of existing purposeful things for new purposes.
There is a need to fully bring exaptation into both the history and practice of human creativity and innovation. This will give us both a more real and non-anthropocentric view of creativity and a far richer set of tools and practices for creativity. If you have not read last week’s newsletter, it is worth putting on your list, as it does give an accessible overview of the diversity of forms of exaptations.
Crushing, Pleating, Folding and Bending into a Human Example:
While we have offered a number of brief examples of human innovations that utilized exaptive processes there is a need to go deeper with a human example of exaptive innovation.
What is another example of this?
An example that is fully in our human world of invention?
Let’s get really mundane. Paper.
It is hard to keep it flat and creaseless.
The moment paper comes out of the box and we handle it — with so little effort, a crease will emerge. Pages get dog-eared, and documents need to be reprinted and protected in sleeves.
Paper, because of its material properties, has a propensity to creasing. A crease can propagate and be reinforced, and it will become a fold. Folding is a non-human agential property of paper.
If we jump forward a few thousand years in the evolution of paper for a moment, we can answer this with Origami.
Origami is the art of paper folding. It is a practice that has emerged independently in a number of cultures and moments in history. The Japanese and Portuguese traditions are two of the most famous, but there are many others. And if we focused on all forms of folding and pleating beyond paper, we would have many more.
Let’s go back to paper for a moment. Paper was never intended for folding. That it can fold is perhaps best understood as a chance by-product of making a product for writing and drawing.
But this one effect is by no means the full story. Paper itself has a very interesting exaptive history of countless exaptative effects being stabilized and developed into functions (and then leading to further new exaptive effects, etc.).
Paper’s history relates to the history of fabrics — another fascinating exaptive history: Sheep wool did not originally evolve to make beautiful merino outdoor underwear. Nor did insect cocoons evolve to become silk kimonos.
Because of the fragility and impermanence of paper, it is very hard to discern its full history. Much of its history is entangled with writing, but it was most likely exapted to this use from other prior usages (and it is still being exapted to new effects far beyond writing— from architecture to toilet paper— I still remember the great East German newspapers cut up into squares of toilet paper). We see this with other materials used for writing, such as silk, bamboo mats, animal skins, etc. None of these materials were developed for writing — but their necessary and chance physical by-products had unintended effects that could be co-opted to become surfaces for writing.
One of the apocryphal stories about the invention of paper told in China is that the inspiration came from paper wasp nests. Obviously it is impossible to prove this in any way, but it points to another critical pool of exaptations: biomimicry. Wasps making paper to make nests is yet another astonishing wormhole of exaptation which we will not follow (but is worth exploring).
However paper began, its first major exaptation was in the use of plant materials — grasses and bark fibers — again things that never evolved to be paper.
An important aspect of this is that grasses and barks do not in any overt way signal “paper.” No matter how long you stare at a tree you will not see paper. To get to sensing such possibilities, a deeply engaged artisanal sensitivity is needed. Artisans are makers, those who follow specific materials and probe them for their exaptive affordances continuously (Deleuze and Guattari talk about this as the difference between “Royal Science” and “Minor or Nomad Science”). Making is sensing, and sensing is making. Artisanal doing is enactive. This is the making of feeling from the weak signals of differences that arise in using tools as extended sense organs and following their engagements in ways that stabilize differences (novel affordances) that could make a difference. This form of active meaning making is fundamental to livingness in all its forms. This is why we see wasps making paper, beavers building dams, ants farming fungi and viruses shaping human behaviors via exaptive experiments. It is a sensing in doing — what Varela called know-how in distinction to know-what (our more conceptual and abstract forms of knowledge). All of which brings us back to our point of needing to step out of leading with our anthropocentric habits of conceptualization and abstraction during these parts of the creative process.
You cannot “see” paper theoretically “in” a grass or a tree — it emerges via a deep sympathy and feel for materials and their agency. From any theoretical distance (know-what), exaptations fully disappear. And conversely, we can get too close to things and processes where the odd is quickly discounted and erased as inconsequential or worse. Habits and rote practices while critical and necessary can make the exaptive fully invisible. We need a different form of aberrant aesthetic sensitivity.
Here deliberate practices are critical — we write about these here and here — but if you are done with more reading, check out this documentary film on the astonishing practices of the team at the highly experimental restaurant El Bulli — they developed many astonishing processes for co-evolving with exaptations.
Creasing paper became a critical part of working with paper long before it became a distinct art. The development of books took advantage of unintended and perhaps even problematic aspects of paper fibers' propensity to hold a crease. Bookmaking involves folding large sheets down to smaller sizes. With this paper is developed to both bend and fold repeatedly without falling apart (an exaptative effect becoming an adaptive feature).
The history of paper folding as a discipline — a world — unto itself with internal rules, practices, habits, environments, terminology, values, tools and purpose takes quite a while to develop. For quite some time, paper folding was a marginal practice. In this development, there are countless attunements of exaptations bending into adaptations.
What is interesting is that origami as a practice stabilizes around a square sheet of paper and a series of symmetrical core patterns that radiate from the center of the sheet (called bases). Depending on how many branches you need to make a form you use a different base.
Origami by the 1950s had long stabilized around a limited series of bases, a relatively small set of designs, and a world of infinite variations of these designs.
What happens when one blocks this logic? What else can a sheet of paper afford?
One of the most interesting moments in exploring this provocation was in 1962 when the amateur origami practitioner Emanuel Mooser asked the question: can you fold a multi-car train from a single sheet of paper without any cuts?
The final design is astonishing — distinct cars with wheels and a locomotive (he actually had one cut for the smoke stack).
The toy train that resulted from this had a huge impact. The pattern was something totally different:
The radial symmetry was gone, and a new logic — that of box pleating was introduced.
In the 1960s, especially in Japan, it was a radically transformative time for Origami. People discovered new exaptive affordances that exceeded the original logic — they could multiply points (what is called point splitting), other techniques quickly followed: grafting, tiling, non-uniaxial bases, packing, molecules, box pleatings & polygon packing, hybrid bases…
Tens of thousands of designs multiply — crazy complex designs such as a masted sailing ship being attacked by a giant squid — all folded from one sheet of paper. Please check out this short video — it is really astonishing. The unfolded design is below. On the left is the squid and on the right is the ship. Note how far the systems of creasing have evolved from the radial symmetry of classical origami.
Mathematics evolves from this revolution in folding, having consequences for number theory and the field of computational geometry and beyond. Again an exaptive and highly transversal effect.
This is where things get interesting (if they were not already interesting enough):
What are the unintended consequences, effects, and affordances of all of this “pointless” folding?
The world of origami has always focused on its mainly aesthetic intentions: what can we do with a single sheet of paper, no cuts, and only folding? It was always a past-time — an art that anyone from young children to senior citizens could practice. It’s purpose was internal to the practice itself.
In the last thirty years or so, all that has changed. What was learnt to make a folding elephant has been exapted into many many differing fields from internal medicine to clothing design to interplanetary travel:
With a revolutionary understanding of folding and the emergence of research fields into folding that exaptively emerged from the quaint art of folding squished plant matter, folding becomes something we notice and have the tools to understand everywhere:
From Protein Folding to folding in the development and growth of organisms — Origami is everywhere and everywhere necessary.
World after world emerging from ten thousand exaptations inside of ten thousand other exaptations!
Perhaps this weekend you’ll take some time to fold? The collection of great books on Origami is vast (we have only a few dozen). But we can recommend one — it is Robert Lang's masterpiece and a modern classic in the field: Origami Design Secrets.
Have an astonishing week of exaptive journeys into new and surprising exaptive affordances of the humble sheet of paper and the useless art of paper folding!
Till Volume 45
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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