Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 50! Processes Begin in the Middle...
Good Morning or afternoon or what ever welcome greeting fits well with your context. It is a beautiful moment in a beautiful event.
Here it is those last dark moonless moments before dawn of a late summer Friday. The coffee is made, all the doors and windows are opened, the cat is fed and out and all that can be heard is the collective hum of a neighborhood of AC window units (we managed the summer without AC — but it was challenging…).
We hope that this week finds you well and in the thick of positive change-making practices. In our world it was a busy week — a fast week, it seemed to have just happened in less than a day. We did a second two day intensive workshop to teach teachers how to teach innovation using digital design tools in a K-12 setting. And also participated in an online salon on Creativity and Innovation. As well as working on a number of other consulting projects and long-term projects. But enough of that!
It is week three of our focus on process.
We have been thinking about it all week — we hope that you have also! Here are the two previous newsletter on process if you wish to review how we go to where we are:
This week we are focusing on relations and what their role is in processes — especially creative processes.
What is a relation, for many of us it is those lines between the dots in everyone’s diagrams.
You know the diagrams — we use these quite a bit, and they are ubiquitous in the world of complex systems. These are those diagrams that show how one ‘thing’ is ‘connected’ to another and another to make something happen and then this all feeds into the next step. Here is a version of a very classical use to show operational closure:
Dots and Lines. Things and Relations.
The visual language can be very misleading — the dots and the lines gives off a clear sense of “this does that’.
But does this do that? And what is this and how does something happen?
First, the ‘this’ — the dot represents a process, it is not a thing. If we zoomed into each dot we would find another network diagram! Processes within processes.
And the line which looks very linear and causal represents a non-linear ‘enabling relation’ which has nothing to do with direct causality.
(Enabling relations are more than influences and less than causes. They act as constructive constraints and can be quite complex and extended across time. Enabling relations mean that no component is independent or self-standing. Each process works thanks to other processes. And each process dynamically varies in intensity across time).
So the dots are not discreet things but more processes, and the lines are not showing linear causality — even though it really does look this way!
It is very confusing and reinforces exactly what is trying to be refuted (that it is not about things and linear causality). These network diagrams are dangerously misleading if left without further development.
To get at why this matters let's dig into an example (one of our favorites): bird flight:
For a bird to fly you need a network of things to work together. The bird and its wings and feathers, as well as air and its varying densities, currents and other movements, as well as land in all its diversity. We can draw this as a network diagram (super simplified):
Now each of these things is a process — the bird is a metabolic process— eating, breathing, pooping, etc. and it is within an ongoing life process (being conceived, born, growing, etc.). Each part of it, such as the wing or the feather, is also a process and on and on. Air and ground are further processes.
They are from one perspective ‘things’ and from another ‘processes.’ Both are true: we can touch and feel the bird, ground or wind and interact with them as things — and we also live with them as processes — the bird is growing and changing, just as the ground and air are never quite the same. It is just that far too often we forget the latter in favor of the former.
For now, this is sufficient to get a sense of the ‘dots’ in our diagram — they both are and not dots: things/processes.
But this is not where things get both really interesting and most confusing. The dots that are also processes are one thing — but what of these lines that are not linear? This is where we feel the real problems begin.
Understanding what is meant by this line that represents an enabling ‘relation’ is what is both critical and often perplexing. But it goes beyond this:
Where is flight in this diagram?
Where ‘is’ flight when we see a bird in flight?
We can see the bird flying — so it must be ‘in’ there somewhere!
But no matter how hard you look — it is not in the wings, nor is it in the feathers — no matter where you look in the component parts/processes you will not find flight. I think we can confidently say that it is not ‘in’ any of our diagram’s dots. But is it in any one of the lines? Is it in a connection between the bird and the air?
It is also not in any one line…
Part of the confusion about where flight might be located comes from the subject-predicate structure of our language where things (subjects) are always connected to an action (predicate). When we say “that bird is flying” — our grammar can lead us to imagine that flying is a property of the bird. But the whole thing needs to be flipped on its head — the bird is a property of flight. Flight is the subject…
What does this mean? If we come back to our diagram: “Flight” is not a property found in a specific component of the system. Flight emerges from and is a property of the relational whole.
To function properly the network diagram needs to show how system properties emerge from the middle of a network. Flight is not a property of any one part of the system — any one dot, but nor is it the property of any line. It is a property of the whole.
While the previous diagram was technically correct, flight is a relation between bird, land and air (being very simplistic for the sake of brevity). It can be misleading if we are not stressing how properties emerge from the whole and not the parts.
This is, for us, really the beginning of understanding process. It all begins in the middle — in the dynamic middle. In the classical paradox of “which came first, was it the chicken or the egg?” It is never a thing — the event comes first and it emerges in a manner that is irreducible to any linear causal chain.
The dots and the lines connecting them are important but they are nothing without seeing what they are part of — the property that emerges in a non-linear manner from the dynamic relational state of the whole.
To understand flight as a process we begin in the middle and stay in the middle.
What does it mean to ‘stay in the middle’ — that we do not ascribe flight to any one thing. We sense the whole and we can even define the parts — but we do not confuse their necessity with cause or source. Flight is not ‘in’ any thing, nor is thinking, nor is creativity…
They are all system properties of dynamic processes.
And better than saying flight is a ‘property’ it is a type of ‘event’. We feel the term event better describes both the nature of it being a system with components and a whole that is more than and different from its parts. The term event also helps us see that we have further still to go to understand the logic of process.
Our revised diagram brings out what is left implicit/invisible in the standard network diagram. But this still does not go far enough.
When we said that the bird is a property of flight — we really mean that the bird is a property of flight — and not in any metaphorical or merely symbolic sense.
When a system property emerges (such as flight) it does not simply emerge and exist and that is the end of the story. The emergent property has agency (this is why we prefer to call this system property an ‘event’).
It has the ability to affect and be affected by things. The critical question is “what does it affect and transform?” Of course flight has the ability to do things like fly — now the bird has agency to go new places and do things in a new manner. This is one form (the standard form) of agency. But events, as processes, have another form of agency: Emergent events have the agency to shape their parts.
Flight is shaping its component parts. Flight made the bird.
What do we mean by this?
If we wind the clock back to before there was a bird and it was a dinosaur covered in feathers (that had evolved for many other purposes having nothing to do with flight— you remember this story and concept from our previous newsletters on exaptation: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). This dinosaur had chased a small mammal up a tree, caught and eaten it, and now is contemplating how it gets down from the tree. It’s big feathers and short forearms make it nearly impossible to climb down and so it falls. And instead of dying on impact with the ground the feathers find a new relational affordance of slowing the fall down (parachuting). This event of tree-running and parachuting opens up for the dinosaur a new relational path. As the event of parachuting takes hold of the dinosaur the potentiality of gliding emerges as a distinct possibility and gliding opens into the possibility of controlled and active flight. At each moment the dinosaur is being changed. And the physical bird emerges with and of flight.
(When we join the process of exaptation to the process of relational emergence we have the outlines of the process of creativity. )
The process philosopher Brian Massumi puts it this way: “Invention is less about cause than it is about the self-conditioning of emergence.”
This self-conditioning of emergence is how the event is taking hold of the parts and transforming them. This is what is called ‘system causality’ (or ‘downward causality’ — but this is a bit of a misnomer). Once an emergent whole comes into being — going from a complex situation of many discrete components interacting to one of simplicity — wholeness, where things ‘snap’ together, then we have the emergence of ‘flight’ and this emergent event has a form of agency that transforms the component parts. Sometimes we talk about this as ‘co-shaping’ or even ‘circular causality’ because the parts make the whole and then the whole makes the parts. But from a big picture perspective this gives too much agency to the parts, and what is really driving the whole process is the emergent event. Thus, as Massumi suggests it is more relevant to focus on the ‘self-conditioning of emergence’.
What does this way of understanding process have to do with our creativity and innovation?
Classically, in the process of invention we do talk about immediate causes — about how an inventor ‘did’ this or that. And while it is true our dinosaur did chase something up a tree and did jump off and this or that designer or scientist did initiate certain actions — but to focus on this would be to miss the “action of the future on the present.” (Massumi).
What is emerging exceeds and ruptures what is given. What is emerging in how it exceeds the present is ‘the future’.
But this ‘action of the future’ — the creative process — can not be read in a way that suggests that there is now a magical fixed future ‘out there’ that is directing the present (the type of thing futurists are often talking about…).
The future is the emergent possible agency of what is emerging.
When things come together in a novel relation and novel synergies emerge the new whole constructively constrains the system to have qualities that did not exist in the past (in the parts before they entered into this new relation). There are new affordances. The new potentials “have been invented by the relations energetic kicking in” (Massumi). The novel potentials of an invention are not “in” the parts as if they were there prior to entering into this novel relation (the past). The future here is not something that exists in the way the past exists — it must always be invented. It is always emergent.
The question is what is doing the inventing? — and it is not ‘the inventor’.
The ‘inventor’, much like our bird, is the outcome of the process.
Massumi, in a wonderful interview about the important work of Gilbert Simondon on technical inventions puts it this way, “Invention is the bringing into present operation of future functions that potentialize the present for an energetic leap into the new… A technical invention does not have a historical cause… Invention is less about cause than it is about self-conditioning emergence… The [novel] object is finally dependent… on the autonomous taking-effect of the relation… The designer is a helpmate of emergence.”
The designer is a helpmate of emergence… They are not ‘the’ helpmate — just one of many. We are one of many enabling relations. And as we are that, we are also being transformed by the event we assisted in becoming and helped to stabilize until it could stand on its own feet so to speak. We didn't start off as ‘the inventor of x’ we started off as someone quite different. What has emerged has changed us and now we are subject to and of it.
Just as flight invented the bird, so too did it invent the Wright Brothers.
To understand relations – it’s not about the dots and the lines.
Relations are not just a connection.
Relations have agency – they are emergent events that change their relata, the parts – those dots.
It is about what emerges from the middle – and how what emerges transforms the dots and lines. The dots and lines are relationally dependent on what has emerged. We need ways of thinking and experimenting that show and begin in the middle.
Far too often relational emergence is ignored, reduced to a subject predicate structure, or seen as too complicated/mysterious to be diagram or engaged. But we live it and if we slow down and experiment with humility to be a curious attentive helpmate of an event we can effectively join the ongoing creative processes that are all around (and in) us.
The creative process involves first rupturing and forming alternative relations — alternative assemblages of networks that might give rise to novel emergent affordances that might be able to self-condition the emergence of a novel stable event. It is that ‘simple’. And that is the logic of process that we need to really sense…
This is where we will leave you for this week. But as a final parting gift to inspire your own experiments, here are some of our recent posts from Linkedin and a couple of other links that get further into process and all of its wonders:
Next week we will continue our exploratory journey into the world of process and add, enrich and complexify this introduction into processes and the worldly dynamics of creativity. Till then stay in the middle — be the event, live emergence and let the unknowable and unknown of the future guide you!
Have an astonishing week!
Till Volume 51,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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