Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 45! 12 Propositions for Exaptive Practices...
Good Morning Exapters!
The world has been pretty hot this week. Not a great thing. We hope that you are finding new and better ways to get things cooler. Soaking a bandana in cold water and putting that on the neck helps.
Speaking of water — here in our local waterways the Humpback whales are back in the harbor. Mainly teenagers eating menhaden. It is a wonderful thing to have whales in Newark bay and traveling about the Hudson like all the other regular commuters (birds, butterflies, viruses, amazon boxes and people…).
It has been an interesting week on our end. We just concluded a brilliant 2-Day Workshop: Creative Practices for Advanced Digital Design and Fabrication. We provided a new, radically simple method for teaching digital tools of innovation that delivers real results in the classroom. Built on the pillars of innovation, creativity, and the Innovation Design Approach, our 2-day workshop flipped traditional education models. We demonstrated in real time how educators don't need to spend months teaching students every feature of digital modeling tools before students begin getting radically creative — designing, making, and printing truly novel (and even exaptive) objects.
"One of the best workshops I have attended in my 6 years of teaching. The two days met different concerns... Thank you!" ~ Matthew Ducker-Duffy
Folding Into Your Folds
We hope that after last week’s newsletter you felt compelled to try out some experiments in origami. We made some interesting experiments with hinged boxes (there many really great very different designs— here is one that is both quite involved and really robust. And here is another favorite. But, please Google around, a really interesting area to explore. We would love to see any designs you did! (Please share).
On Our Daily Practice With Words
During the week we get up early — usually around 5 and take a few hours before the day gets busy – to sense, reflect and write in the midst of our daily practices of doing and experimenting.
Throughout the week we make notes and talk about the newsletter. Settling on a topic and testing things out early in the week across various mediums. We deliberately don’t write things far in advance or reuse what we already have written. Our writing practice is part of our daily practice of experimenting and working within creativity and innovation. As such it needs to be in an intimate dialog — and be in a relay with the rest of what we are doing during the week — getting ahead of practice with concepts draws one out of the agency of the event of creativity and how it might remake us.
Most of our daily writing gets published on Linkedin – it’s a great way to test and experiment in real-time some of the ideas we are kicking around— and get a meaningful discussion going (that then shapes the things we are doing outside of writing). Some weeks these posts explore the same topic as our newsletter and can get directly folded into the newsletter. Other weeks the two wander off in their own exploratory direction. This week, for example, our posts have gone in their own direction digging into:
This daily practice experimenting in a resonant relay between writing, doing and research is really important. Whatever else we are working on, or have to do, we try and keep this up (though some mornings nothing written will cohere and we have nothing to post – we leave plenty on the cutting room floor— the new does not always collaborate kindly with language…). The closeness between doing and reflecting allows one to follow what emerges — the surprises and exaptations. This newsletter is a tool for us to test and evolve.
Thursdays we begin the newsletter writing if we can. And then starting early on Friday we just work through it in dialog until something coheres enough to send out into the world.
Sometimes (ideally!) It happens by 8:30 or 9am EST. Other days it takes longer. Sometimes we are on the east coast writing, while other days we are traveling for work or both of us are in different locations (then what is “early in the morning” gets interesting).
The writing holds our week together in one long improvised concert — oscillating somewhere between noise and free jazz…
In this newsletter we would like to continue our focus on exaptations by offering a list of Twelve propositions for supporting exaptive practices.
If you’re new to us this week (welcome!) exaptations might seem like a strange term. It is one we have been focused on for the last few weeks.
Exaptations are a critical aspect of all creativity.
Our short definition of Exaptation: being the co-option of unintended effects for novel outcomes, which stands in contrast to adaptation: the stabilization and improvement of existing functions.
Before getting into this new list it is worth reviewing the what and how of exaptations. We cover this in great depth in our last three newsletters:
Especially if you are new to the newsletter you might find all of this helpful to review in advance of reading this week's newsletter.
The list we are proposing today is not a set of universal rules, but a series of something far more modest: propositions.
A proposition is what A. N. Whitehead called a “lure for feelings” — they are not statements of fact but lures to draw you into sensing that there might be something in these phrases worth experimentally engaging and transforming.
Some of these propositions will be best ignored, radically transformed and or supplemented.
With propositions it is important to test everything: do a series of experimental probes. Follow what emerges — be changed by it and develop new propositions, tools and techniques. Don’t see our propositions as end.
Remember, everything has its own rhythms, and agency — General rules can be a very dangerous thing. Follow the logic of your practice.
A final note before launching into the list: this is not intended to be a complete list of all propositions relevant to exaptive practices. It is what has emerged for us as we have reflected on previous projects and research this week. We strongly encourage you to send us your propositions and we will share them with the community in the next newsletter.
12 Propositions for Exaptive Practices
PROPOSITION ONE: An exaptive ecosystem is one poised on the edge of a pirate takeover
Exaptivity requires a particular form of rich ecosystem:
It is highly connected and relations take priority over nodes
It is open to outside forces — open means changeable
- Welcome other actors
- Diversity is paramount — especially in terms of practices
--- More than human — things, tools, environments
Emergence and loops of system causation are to be fostered:
- Qualitative change is recognized and welcome
- Identities and roles are outcomes of dynamic processes
--- We are adapting and changing to become what emergent novelty requires of us
Resilience is fostered via redundancy — things will rock the boat, things will change the boat into something else entirely. You will cross qualitative thresholds. What will allow you to transition from a dinosaur to a bird?
- Resilience is not about staying the same through all the changes but to stay alive as you become other. The resilience to stay the same is what you need to avoid.
- Consider everything that follows as propositions to stay alive in crossing qualitative thresholds.
Note: this is about developing a world open to exaptation and qualitative change. This is never your only goal. The propositions we suggest need to be understood in the context of your unique realities…
Speaking of Context… Context is critical:
PROPOSITION TWO: Context is everything but never the only thing
Things will vary radically with context. What is ideal in one context will not make any sense in another. What makes sense at a certain moment will not make sense at another.
“Context” is not another thing to consider. Context is not the coloring or local flavor to the universal — it is the thing itself.
“Context” and what you do are the same thing. The belief that things can be generalized to any context is a dangerous illusion.
Be skeptical of those who wish to import answers and practices from other worlds without immersing themselves in your world in a transformative manner (so many management consultants).
Be intimately connected to your emergent, dynamic, living context. This is both your internal landscape of your organization/practice and the broader context of the environment you are situated within.
Find specific practices to make context feedback into your practice without overwhelming it. This is very important during exaptive change your context changes and how it feeds back into your practice changes— meaning is not fixed: think of the dinosaur story — the context of thermal regulation is changing into one of sexual selection to egg warming and tree running and eventually soaring (see Volume 42). Context matters but it is also dynamic, emergent and surprising.
Sensing context is also being sensitive to what it takes to tip things into new states. It is also about being sensitive to what is stable and will not easily shift. It is about experimenting to figure out which way to pull on a systems level… (most often even when we find the right level we pull the wrong way).
PROPOSITION THREE: Cultivate ways of awareness for what does not exist
Novel exaptations are invisible outside of action. They do not exist outside of a novel use.
Consider: If you are using something for a specific purpose — the purpose that it was designed for — it will always “show up” as that thing. You will always see a chair as a chair unless you use it differently.
Even then the unintended use will slip into the background as standard practices come back into the picture.
But exaptations — the really interesting ones will simply emerge anywhere: in the flow of work, in daily life far from work, or out in the world separate from any project related or personal activity. And these will also quickly slip out of existence if we do not notice and work with them in new ways.
These will be weak signals. Remember the basketball gorilla experiment: The more skilled and familiar you are in something the less likely you will notice the odd. And we are all very skilled in life… Don’t be fooled into thinking you are the exception. A good practice is to rely on the power of numbers — most of us will miss an exaptation’s emergence most of the time — but a few of us will notice. The few will never be the same few. Have a concrete practice in place to help everyone sense the weak signals of the odd and have a highly networked archive that can connect the weak signals of new exaptations to ongoing experiments (see proposition six below).
Exaptations in general appear as something trivial or stupid: The common feeling is often: Why would we bother with this useless practice when we have so many things to do or so many other more promising directions?
A specific form of aesthetic awareness and sense-making that is attuned to the negative is really critical. Often exaptations will appear to us as something bad, disgusting, horrifying, tasteless or stupid. We need to calibrate our felt aesthetic awareness to lean into these sensations. We call this the skill sensing “aberrant beauty”.
To do any of this well, you need a general awareness of what an exaptation is, how it shows itself, and why it matters in your personal practice, or your organization.
- This has to be an organization wide awareness
- It can only be gained in hands-on and experiential manners
- Gaining any understanding of exaptations needs to be an immersive and experiential learning process. Informational sessions will give one a false sense of knowing
- Learning Practices for awareness that help us attend to what is emerging:
--- Critical here is an awareness of the more radical forms of exaptation — the ones that have no existing purpose (see volume 44).
--- Critical here is an awareness of exaptation as a sideways iterative process and not a one step event.
As a general proposition the development of exaptations is assisted by:
- Novel assemblages
- Giving agency to things/environments
- Diverse teams
- Many informal networks and communication channels
- Messy — fuzzy spaces and logics
- Feedback and feedforward loops
- Rich diverse inputs — engaged formats
Let people go home. Work should end. Weekends should be off. The more work becomes everything the less difference can emerge in surprising ways. Don’t be Google.
What not to do for exaptation and innovation in general:
It cannot be practices that separate conceptualizing practices from experimental action. Exaptive novelty exceeds conceptualization and clear communication in its early phases. Let new practices, concepts and terms co-emerge without forcing them into existing conceptual buckets…
Brainstorming: a group of people sitting around with sticky notes reinforces the known
Design Thinking — in the reified popular model of Empathize, Ideate, Iterate, Make is inherently conservative. Problems need to emerge from the process not precede it. Exaptation is a process to invent new problems.
Solution thinking and solution focused workshops
Ideation collection — all the practices of asking employees for creative answers that are collected, sorted and evaluated by upper management or creativity consultants
Environments need to be dynamic, changeable and re-makeable
Environments need to foster both connectivity and isolation (see #10).
PROPOSITION FIVE: The Horizon is not the plan
The focus needs to be fuzzy
There is a general direction and horizon but open to evolve transform and move sideways
Fixed plans are necessary but also must submit to the larger ethos.
Having a goal — working from the future backwards is the inverse of exaptive creativity.
PROPOSITION SIX: Collect Chance Exaptations in the meadows of daily life
(The archive part one)
Exaptations will be emerging in your and your organizations everyday practices (or somewhere in relation to it). These need to be collected, understood, carefully articulated, organized, stored and passed onto the right people in effective ways.
Patterns need to be noticed and researched and shared for further experimentation and evolution.
Archives are not there for storage. Archives exist to build and sustain relations. They cannot become repositories that only patiently await visitors. Their job is to produce and maintain novel networks.
This is part of a bigger archival support system — see below: The Archive
PROPOSITION SEVEN: Exaptive Expeditions make new islands connected by no ocean
Part of collecting is seeking
Traveling or participatory anthropology is not enough.
Part of seeking exaptations is setting up satellites — temporary experimental sites in the ideal locations with the ideal community to experiment. (See #10).
PROPOSITION EIGHT: An exaptive process makes a path in walking
Working with exaptations is a process. It is an iterative process that involves multiple steps and distinct processes. All of these take real time (and space — see “A Walled Garden” below).
There are a number of ways to go about organizing time. It is useful to have a calander so organization wide there is a sense of phases and process.
The organization of time is connected to the organization of a campaign (the horizon — #5 above)
There are a number of ways to approach this process:
- An organization wide calendar
- Campaigns, focus
- Parallel processes
- Things can be in differing levels of development
- Shared language
- Shared global awareness
- Time limits
The restaurant El Bulli is a great example of developing a highly specific process: They would close their restaurant for half the year. When a separate team would go to work in a different location (el Tallier — the workshop) and only focus on exaptive possibilities. The one driving rule was “no dishes — no final products”
PROPOSITION NINE: dancing with negative is radically generative
Exaptations emerge when we block some practice. If you cannot use a chair to sit exaptative practices for “sitting” and alternatives to sitting will rapidly emerge. The chair will take on novel exaptive possibilities. This is obviously a very simple example.
Constraints are exaptively enabling.
The negative (what is blocked) is genuinely open in that it refuses to say in advance what anything should be — it only determines what it cannot be. The negative plus a general heading (horizon) is all that is needed.
All positive proposals predetermine what the outcome will be and need to be strenuously avoided to allow for the agency of exaptation to emergently unfold with a qualitatively new logic.
Be willing as an organization to not know. Really.
Research into the underlying logic of the spaces you are engaged with is critical so as to figure out what to block.
This work needs to be at multiple scales and always connect the conceptual to the material processes. Dispositif: systems cohere with emergent logics as what Foucault termed as Dispositif. This is a key part of developing a critical blockage of the present.
- Assemblages: you are blocking key aspects of critical assemblages. (And exapting novel assemblages).
Critical research and an understanding what to block (often multiple things) feeds directly into the construction of a space of experimentation:
PROPOSITION TEN: Make a walled garden that refuses purpose
Once you have determined what not to do, you need to construct a specific environment to experiment exaptively beyond those prohibited purposes and logics.
This needs to be a “walled garden” — it cannot answer to existing purposes and logics. It needs to be carefully protected to allow dinosaurs to become birds.
Making such a space is not a linear project. Test different tools and environments as new practices emerge.
This “walled garden” will be an outgrowth of (or at least informed by) the islands emerging from the exaptive expeditions (proposition seven).
This will be a type of novel lab/workshop that is itself able to evolve and transform.
Your exaptive lab will need very different rules — develop these.
The lab is an assemblage of novel spaces, teams, practices, processes, tools, habits
The walled garden is an event — it needs a time limit that produces a sense of urgency. New events can be developed with new time limits at key points of sideways movement or qualitative transition.
The walled garden needs to evolve across and with sideways moves — it cannot become a new repository of historical identity. You cannot become a bird if your environment only allows for dinosaurs.
PROPOSITION ELEVEN: Exaptive creativity is a World Making threshold seeking practice
The goal of this exaptive process is to iterate across a qualitative threshold of difference. What is on the other side of such a threshold? The beginnings of a novel world — that as yet does not exist. The values, logics, habits, subjectivities, tools and environments of the world one is leaving will not translate across this threshold of qualitative difference: you are no longer a dinosaur…
A new world must be made: this is very different from solving a problem. Exaptive creativity does not “solve” an existing problem or fill an existing need — it makes a new world.
Worlds don’t have a fixed scale or scope.
Cars, smartphones, the Haitian Constitution, electricity, El Bulli, are all examples of exaptive worldmaking processes.
Walled Gardens give way and open out onto emerge worlds and their practices (exaptation ends and development begins).
World need practices to keep their difference alive. Nascent worlds are always in danger of being recuperated by existing worlds.
PROPOSITION TWELVE: The Archive is the emergent relation
A final word on archives: the archive — memory is something alive: it is the emergent relations that produce an assemblage. An anarchive…
The archive is not a separate location.
12 Propositions for exaptive practices
An exaptive ecosystem is one poised on the edge of a pirate takeover
Context is everything but never the only thing
Cultivate ways of awareness for what does not exist
The Landscape is Exaptive
The Horizon is not the plan
Collect Chance Exaptations in the meadows of daily life
Exaptive Expeditions make new islands connected by no ocean
An exaptive process makes a path in walking
Dancing with negative is radically generative
Make a walled garden that refuses purpose
Exaptive creativity is a World Making threshold seeking practice
The Archive is the emergent relation
A long set of propositions with more than a few meanders!
As we said at the beginning, these are propositions — lures for new ways of sensing and not rules. Follow these as your own experimental starting points — where you go and how you go is what will matter. Please try things out during the week.
We would love to hear of your own exaptive practices and propositions. Email us. We will include what you write in our next newsletter.