Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 110! The Creative Powers of the False...
Good morning those who are becoming otherwise,
It has been a shocking week in which great suffering has been front in center in the news. From displaced peoples, refugees and migrants in Central and North America to the millions of civilians caught up in ongoing wars in Sudan, Yemen, Occupied Palestine, Israel and countless “elsewheres” that are shamefully too numerous to properly take into account. There is much that requires our attention and engagement in differing ways. As a community engaged with change making we are certain that all of you are both affected and actively engaged directly and indirectly in many serious and meaningful ways both locally and globally.
Amongst the many groups doing profoundly important work, Doctors without Borders is one that, in this moment, is doing extremely critical work. If you can, we would suggest supporting them in any manner you feel is appropriate from volunteering to donating.
This week we pivoted (as best we could) from working on research projects and ongoing engagements with companies – to preparing for some international talks and workshops this fall. As you read this on Friday we will be somewhere over the North Atlantic heading towards Scotland as part of these various interesting engagements.
Additionally, we are developing a new series of tools and workshops. One set is to support the creative practices that precede prototyping (this will focus on various engaged forms of probing). Another set of tools and workshops we are developing is to help support developing novel epicycles – which is what we consider the real “goal” of creativity and innovation. Stay tuned for more on this – or reach out to us directly in regards to how we can support your innovation journey either via discussion, workshops, keynotes or developing a custom consulting approach.
This week we are wandering further into the big picture aspects of creativity and innovation. What we have been calling the “via negativa” of innovation to stress the critical and counter intuitive roles that the negative plays in creativity and innovation. We see this “negative” role in everything from “blocking” to the refusal of knowing that is necessary to leave the future open for radical change to emerge.
You can read this week's newsletter without having read the previous two on this topic, but, if interested, here are links:
In general a creative practice, even before it officially begins, is part of a series of ongoing practices :
A specific historical context – and finally we are always embedded in and mutually shaped by our specific historical context.
And with all of this comes many assumptions about what creativity is, how it works, and what can be done. In our early 21st century euro-american context creativity is understood and practiced in a very specific, and for us, highly problematic manner. This approach is what we have called elsewhere “The God Model''. It is an idea focused, idea first model that is profoundly conservative and ineffective at supporting the emergence of genuinely qualitatively novel outcomes.
The god model is not just a set of assumptions that everyone follows. It, like any approach, is rather the emergent outcome of – and immanent to – a widely distributed set of embodied habits, practices, tools, infrastructures, concepts and ecosystems – in short, a “system”. Assumptions do not have their basis in some master concept or idea – they are continually produced by a series of lived actions that have their basis in a widely distributed and highly heterogeneous network.
Actively intrawoven with and mutually supporting/co-producing these assumptions are a powerful set of implicit embodied habits, practices, tools and environments. And all of this is connected to a larger equally active and coshaping context – that is filled with further practices, tools, infrastructure and ecologies. We, and our creative practice, does not sit outside of our reality; it is both an outcome of it and an active participant in its ongoing creation (see above diagram).
Thus assumptions and concepts are not things that can be easily put aside for new “better” ones on the basis of an argument for why something is right or wrong. Changing assumptions/concepts/ideas/beliefs without changing infrastructure has little to no effect.
Most often, we jump into action. It’s morning, breakfast needs to be made, coffee is calling, we need a shower, kids need to get out of the house, pets need to be fed and much else. We begin and live in and of the middle, as we like to say…
So too it is with our creativity, it is ongoing – we are continuously responding to the dynamic variations of the event we are in with creative improvisations and variations of our own. Some intentional, and many not. Variation is everywhere. And just like our morning routines these creativity practices are the outcome of embodied habits, infrastructures and histories.
We jump into creativity with the creative practices we have inherited, in the infrastructural context we have and assume that something different will happen. This approach might work modestly OK for developing effective variations of what exists – but beyond that continuing with the logic and infrastructure of our historical practices (the god model) not much is possible.
But, is this all that is possible? Is the future limited to our imagination and its extrapolations from the known?
Creativity is clearly far more than this. Creativity is happening all the time all around us at every level from the emergence of new species and ecosystems to new human ways of being alive. But such a creativity needs to both interrupt the flow of things and turn it towards new processes, practices and patterns. And in this process – everything we do needs to be up for radical critical reevaluation, reconsideration and reinvention.
This question is one that haunts us. How do we do this effectively for the sake of qualitative change?
Perhaps first, we need to deeply recognize and understand how completely we are the outcome of our circumstances and historical context.
And then to make real change happen – to participate in a genuinely creative adventure – is to believe that we can go beyond what is and what we imagine is possible.
But to do this is not easy. We, as humans, do not have some core essence to ourselves that is fully walled off from the world around us and immutable to change. We are fully embodied, embedded beings who are wholly made by our world as we participate in the making of this world. And this means the radical critical practice of reevaluation, reconsideration and reinvention involves us and who we know ourselves and our world to be.
The important insight in this regard is that we have, as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins argues, “watery souls” and as much as we feel our true self is fixed and ahistorical – things can and will change:
“In the co-evolution, the development of culture would have to be complemented by the deprogramming of genetic imperatives or what used to be called instinctual behaviors. The effect was the organization of biological functions in various cultural forms, such that the expression of biological necessities depended on meaningful logics. We have the equipment to live a thousand different lives, as Clifford Geertz observed, although we end up living only one. This is only possible on the condition that biological needs and drives do not specify the particular means of their realization. Biology becomes a determined determinant.
So again, who are the realists? Would it not be the Fijians who say that young children have “watery souls,” meaning that they are not full human beings until they demonstrate the mastery of Fijian custom? We have seen that peoples round the planet have some such similar idea. The idea is that human nature is a becoming, based on the capacity to comprehend and enact the appropriate cultural scheme: a becoming, rather than an always-already being.”
~ Marshall Sahlins
For the sake of a future that is different from the past we have no choice but to start our journey from where we are and who we are today. And to do something different we then need to first experimentally know and refuse who we are, how we define creativity, and how we develop practices. This refusal is the beginning of experimentally co-emerging with the new and the different. It is a profound negative for the sake of a positive.
For us this experimental journey begins with the creative refusal of our historical models of creativity, but to do that we need a critical “history of the present”:
How did we come to be the kind of beings we are today? How did we come to have our explicit and implicit beliefs, concepts and practices?
Every bit of who we are and what we do has a history and every bit of this could be otherwise. A critical “history of the present” (a term/practice that Michel Foucault developed) is not a neutral and generic history of what interesting and different things happened in that distant exotic land of the past. Histories are not holidays. Rather it is the active uncovering of the interwoven processes, concepts, development of embodied habits, tools, infrastructure, rituals and environments that is co-shaping us into the beings we are. This integrated system of practices is what Foucault called a “dispositif” – or “apparatus”). In short, theco-constructive practice of being who we are.
"What I'm trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements." ~ Michel Foucault
An apparatus in this sense is a system that has the capacity to capture the historical practices of a community and transformatively shape/create these practices in a different enactive manner. It is how our “watery souls” that are flexibly equipped to live a thousand different lives end up living one…
Foucault’s concept has been productively used to understand organizational situations, and business ecosystems as well as address political questions. The philosopher Georgio Agamben usefully extends the definition in more enactive directions:
"I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. … the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and—why not—language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses—one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face." ~ Georgio Agamben
Our god model of creativity is best understood as a specific historical example of an apparatus or dispositif – it is more than just an idea or a conceptual process – it literally consists of “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions,” etc. etc. Organizations interested in developing creative practices need to put far more attention towards ecosystemic questions – architecture, organizational logics, infrastructure, practices, tools, rituals etc. and far less towards the usual suspects of mindsets, and beliefs.
As we develop a critical practice that both interrogates who we are, and what is creativity for us – while also experimenting toward an alternative practice we need to go beyond the idea that we can just substitute one (bad) creative practice for another (good) creative practice.
We need especially to challenge and go beyond the logic that all that is required is a series of personal mental/attitudinal changes – e.g. mindset + conceptual approach. Without skilfully transforming ecosystems and infrastructure nothing meaningful will happen.
The challenge in doing this or, any creative transformation that has the goal of doing something qualitatively different, is that the existing historical systems of integrated practices/environments (dispositifs) are profoundly resilient.
All small changes and discreet nudges are easily folded back into standard patterns and processes. Any general strategy of change that focuses on doing more small moves in the right direction than moves in the wrong is an ok approach (just ok…) if the goal is an incremental improvement, but if the goal is qualitative change then this approach will not help (see diagram below).
If the goal is qualitative change then one has to develop an approach that can overcome the inherent resilience to change of systems/dispositifs. And this process is a feedforward or “epicycle” process.
What is “feedforward”? Feedforward is often confused with positive feedback. These are two very different things. Here is a basic definition to get the ball rolling: Outside of any stable set of dynamic processes which acts like a ‘closed’ system (a dispositif/system) there will be elements that play a significant role in determining the system— even controlling the system, but are themselves unchanged by the system — these are called “feedforward” elements. Feedforward processes condition the ‘internal’ feedback cycles of a stable system. Thus, in essence, the term feedforward signifies this pushing of a system from the outside in a direction — toward a different or new state.
A good example of this comes from historical climate change. Consider the last ice age: the last ice age changed environments, species, practices and habits significantly — but was itself wholly unchanged by any of these changes.
Stable systems are always nested in this manner – where certain elements can dynamically act as outside propagators of change without themselves being changed.
Why does this matter to creativity?
Consider the development – really the emergence – of a coherent novel process that separates itself enough from the conditions that gave rise to it. It has developed some limited autonomy, and agency – such that it has self-organizing and self-sustaining abilities – a type of autopoiesis.
This is the emergence of a strong stable novel process. But the process is not simply budding off and becoming independent and existing in parallel to the dominant process. This “epicycle” — a process cycle that has come to stand outside of the major cycle “can function as if they were controlling, feedforward elements, altering and determining the system from which they arose with little change to themselves.” (Tomlinson) – see diagram below:
Here critical practices that are systemic in their scope of both refusal and experimentation are key. A new spontaneously self-generating infrastructure is the goal. And this self-generating quality is essentially a semi-autonomous cycle that can resist just enough the pull of the existing cycle (dispositif).
There is an interesting related discourse in the world of innovation – where the term “flow” has been used to designate this type of process. Because this is the process where things seem to spontaneously take on a life of their own and move everything and everyone forward in a seemingly uncaused manner – for some it makes sense to term this “flow”. But, what some have come to call “flow” in creative practices – is actually this epicycle/feedforward process. Flow is a misleading term for this process.
Flow, and “flow states” is a term some innovation consultants have borrowed from psychology and the study of individual physical practices – climbing, running, playing music, etc. where one becomes so immersed in the practice that things just seem to happen – here it is correct to talk about a person being in a “flow state”. And in some cases this is a requirement of the task – you cannot successfully ski down a highly technical and highly dangerous couloir if you are not in this state of flow. And similarly you cannot play a complex violin concerto outside of a flow state. But conflating this psychological state with the ecosystemic condition in a creative practice when novelty gains an agency of its own in what Brian Massumi calls “the event of self-futuring serially repeating itself” – is a type of major category error.
Another practice this is mistaken for is “paradigm change”. What we have come to call in popular parlance a “paradigm change” is really the emergence of an epicycle that has a strong feedforward relation with the cycle that it emerged from. An emerging novel practice (with a tightly integrated relation dominant network of tools, environments, concepts, habits, embodiments, etc – a novel dispositif) can emerge from evolving feedback cycles that is “so integrated, autonomous, and durable that it comes to exert a control-like function over the cultural cycles from which it arose” (Gary Tomlinson)
Tomlinson calls this form of feedforward in human systems a novel cultural “epicycle” (and has written brilliantly about this in a series of books). His contention is that the production of novelty in the human realm that is qualitatively different (what we might have previously termed a “paradigm change”) is always a form of quasi-feedforward. It is always a type of epicycle.
Thus creative novelty feedsforward via epicycles – and not backward from the creative spark of an idea as the “god model” proposes. We belong to it — to the middle and act from within what is making us even as we act on it. This is a process of immanence and not transcendence — there is no outside — no neat paradigmatic vision that comes to us and from which we can mold the world to correspond.
The goal In the creative process the tight integration of feedback cycles into a unit of wholistic transmission (the extended taskscape) can generate a coherent wholly novel process that can come to stand outside of the previous stable process logic with an independent unique emergent organized dynamics of its own.
And to get to this creativity always involves both doing many things and equally not doing many things (the refusals and blokings we have been discussing in the last two newsletters). But this is in itself not enough. To allow novel forces to emerge, propagate, strengthen, integrate and develop a qualitatively unique autonomy and agency – they need to be actively protected.
The emergent systematization of a novel epicycle can easily be pulled back into the far stronger cycles, processes and logic of the dynamic resilient logic of the dominant dispositive. Protecting such nascent states requires a strong and highly active strategy of warding off the feedback loops that pulling things back into on-going regularities.
So how do we get to such spontaneous and self-organizing epicycles? And what role does negativity play in this?
That will be the focus of next week’s newsletter. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we have some.
As we say goodbye for this week, we can say that the qualitatively new emerges first as the “false” – as a bad copy or repetition that has the power to falsify the present, and offer that which is still to come an “as yet untrue” line of flight…
As always we are curious about your practices – how do you support the emergence of qualitatively new feedforward cycles in your practice? Drop us an email – we are profoundly curious and interested.
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