Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 120! 2023 - Year of the Affordance...
Good morning 13.7 billion year becomings, and celebrants of the eleventh 720,000km/hr – 230 million year journey of the sun around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, for the earth’s 4.5 billionth time (give or take a few) spinning around the sun:
The moment is upon us when most humans take a day to celebrate the last 2,023 of those orbits and welcome the 2,024th orbit, with great fanfare and luster… And, well, while we do appreciate the eleven major orbits – we are here for this 365 day journey too!
For us it is a signal that work is about to restart for the winter season. It’s a beautiful time, where offices remain quiet from the holidays, creating space for the important creative work that is best done without the interruptions.
And as we dig into our creative works with many projects on the near horizon, we want to take a moment to reflect on a year that was.
This week in the newsletter we want to look back on the year both in terms of what Emergent Futures Lab has been doing and some of the key topics that we have covered in the newsletter.
2023 was good to us, and it deserves a proper recap and send off.
For us, it was a really busy and productive year – we developed and delivered many new workshops and keynotes for all sorts of clients, and presented at a few super interesting conferences. Additionally, we taught a number of master classes, and worked with many of you individually and in corporate settings across five continents to strategically enable the development of resilient and adaptable ecosystems that foster spontaneous, organic, and impactful innovation.
This newsletter is how many of you know us. This last year was really the second year of our newsletter – when we started developing it and writing it in the late summer of 2021 it was very much an experiment. We did not start with a clear vision – the goal was always to let the logic and direction emerge in the act of publishing it. This year, as the readership really took off and we heard from so many of you, it has inspired us to really develop it into something special. Over the last 52 weeks we have put quite a bit of effort into making it a real weekly (and evergreen) source for deep and engaging content on key aspects of an alternative approach to creativity and innovation. One way you can see the change is just in the length:
But it is not about the length, this is just an indicator of effort and the importance, for us, of voyaging further with key innovation questions. A real shift in style this year was in the deliberate move to exploring topics/concepts as part of an ongoing multi-week series. From this perspective, this is how the year looked:
Search: We also spent a lot of time over 2023 making the website a far more useful tool. One big change is that we carefully tagged all of our materials and made it internally searchable by any word or via 18 categories:
We will be adding more categories and materials – the work of resource building never stops… We also shifted our focus to writing longer posts. So this year we wrote a quarter less posts but the average length increased by over half. With the total word count increasing by 272% to 54,703 words.
Glossary: We added and or rewrote the entire glossary - now totaling 82 entries and definitions. Here is a list of a few of our favorite definitions we added and expanded upon in our glossary:
Bibliography: We added 73 books to the annotated bibliography now totaling 105. Here are a few of the books we most enjoyed reading this year in regards to creativity/innovation:
Images & Diagrams: We put a lot of effort into experimenting and thinking via diagrams and drawing – for us it is a critical tool for engaging with creative practices. Our favorite image/diagram series was in Volume 90. Here are four panels from the eighteen that were part of that newsletter (there is a graphic novel on creativity/innovation in our future?):
Talking about words and images – we can’t think of a better way to highlight how our newsletters braids text and images to articulate an alternative approach to creativity/innovation than Volume 113: Where we tried to condense this approach into 113 sentences, or Volume 114 Where it is visualized over 12 images.
If you’re at all interested in the science and philosophy behind Emergent Futures Lab and how our ethos developed from the early days – now over thirty years ago when we were first experimenting with exaptive techniques to today, then this backstory in Volume 94 about how we came to the Innovation Design Approach is worth the detour.
We shared quite a bit of music throughout the year. Here are a few highlights:
Hip-Hop 1: It was Hip-Hop’s 50th birthday this year. And so we shared the great four-part documentary by Chuck D, Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World. It’s worth watching if you have a modicum of interest in innovation and change making.
Hip-Hop 2: Additionally, to celebrate the 50th anniversary we made a Hip-Hop playlist to honor some of the best songs from the early days. Far from exhaustive, we’re still curating and adding brilliant songs as they remind us of themselves.
John Cage 1: We crafted Emergent Futures Lab’s Official Unofficial John Cage Soundtrack of Our Lives playlist.
John Cage 2: Iain’s a huge fan of John Cage - so the playlist for him is simply not enough to capture the range of Cage’s experiments in sound – thus we share a second set of works from across his experiments:
John Cage 3: John Cage was interested in much more than music. If you are curious about exploring more Cage - have a look at some these resources:
Sun Ra (sounds): The late 1960’s album Magic City and its title track is a perfect listen at the end of a year.
“In this captivating memoir, the first full-length account of life in the Arkestra by any of its members, Harlem-born trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah recounts two decades of traveling the spaceways with the inimitable composer, pianist, and big-band leader Sun Ra. Gigging everywhere from the legendary Bed-Stuy venue the East to the National Stadium in Lagos, Abdullah paints a vivid picture of the rise of loft jazz and the influence of Pan-Africanism on creative music, while capturing radical artistic and political developments across Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s… A Strange Celestial Road interweaves the author’s own moving story—his battles with addiction, spiritual development, and life as a working class performer—with enthralling tales of tutelage under Cal Massey, collaborations with the likes of Ed Blackwell, Marion Brown, and Andrew Cyrille, and profound, occasionally confounding, mentorship by Sun Ra...”
Music For the end (of the year): The great Kazuki Tomokawa and his album A String of Paper Cranes Clenched Between my Teeth – especially the last track “missed my time to die” – is a perfect album for this reflective season.
Music to perform with friends in the holidays: Here is a wonderful simple, and richly interactive composition by Pauline Olivernos that anyone and any group can perform: Rock Piece. Try it out on a winter walk in the woods or park.
If EFL had its own cosmology with each year represented by a creature, 2023 would have been the year of the affordance – after all we wrote a seven newsletter series on Affordances (Volumes 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97) – the longest series we have done on any topic.
We often talk about the importance of affordances, and this definition from Vol 95 sums it up concisely:
What is an Affordance? “An Affordance is a relation between aspects of the soci-material environment and the embodied abilities of an agent that in the context of a form of life, that give rise to a set of possible actions.” ~ (Reitved, Denys, and Van Westen)
What does this mean in practice? Let’s turn to our friends, the crows. One particular crow, the New Caledonian crow, is astonishingly accomplished at tool use and demonstrates an ability to solve physical puzzles that no other similar crow can (despite having equivalent brain size, body size, etc.).
What is different about these crows? Well, it turns out that they have narrower and more pointed beaks. What does this afford? For one thing, they can focus very clearly on what is being held in their beaks and guide it far more effectively. But that is not all; the shape of their beaks affords an astonishing range of grasping abilities (see the above link for a video on this). The particular morphology of this bird plays a critical role in its ability to solve complex puzzles – it affords them a unique way of being-of-a-world. They are “smart” because of and through their specific embodiment connecting to their context.
Why do we talk so much about affordances? And why is this concept so critical to innovation? Well, we got you covered… we mapped a detailed explanation of affordances, soup to nuts:
Alright, enough of the serious stuff - any review of this years newsletters would not be complete without diving into games:
In these newsletters we referenced two really great books on games:
The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits, and
Games: Agency as Art by C. Thi Nguyen.
Our curiosity that brought us to these two books was led by the question - What Is a Game? In trying to answer this question Thi Nyguyen makes a great and unique argument for the fact that games are a carefully constructed space (world) of alternative agency exploration. And in doing so games act as technology to develop, explore, record and transmit forms of agency (Agency – being one of the “Six A’s of innovation” along with Affordances, Assemblages, Apparatus, Aptation and Autopoiesis) .
Nyguyen has quite a bit to say about the specific nature of what makes games unique (the form of goals and motivation, the logic of the struggle, the invention of arbitrary rules, etc.). It is one of the very few books we have read that gets at what games are on their own terms. It is a great book, but for those who just want a sense of Thi Nyguyen’s argument, this podcast offers a good introduction (while talking about many other very interesting and related subjects from the nature of conspiracies to worldmaking).
While both books are highly recommended, for the cold dark days of winter, we suggest just jumping in and playing a great game:
Sign - a game small in size but vast in scope (it makes a great gift). In it you invent a language. You develop new ways of communicating and being understood. It is a live action game where everyone participates in the invention of a new shared language. It is also perfect for a rainy summer day with friends camping far up a fiord in Northern BC or in a small apartment in Mumbai. You need four people (or more) and it is really best for young adults or older. Brilliant, fun and highly recommended.
This same group of game designers have made another equally interesting and fun game (also on language and creativity): Dialect – check it out as well.
This year we added a fourth longer critique of existing approaches to creativity (to go alongside of our critiques of the “god model”, anthropocentrism and individualism). This critique was focused on the “problem posing and solving approach” to innovation:
What do we mean by this?
Ferran Adria, one of the founders of the groundbreaking, highly innovative restaurant El Bulli had a wonderful simple definition of creativity: “No copying.” Basically: understand what has been done – and don’t repeat it – don’t repeat it at any level.
It is a negative definition – it says nothing about what to do or what is possible – only what not to do. It recognizes that if something is radically new one cannot know anything about it in advance – so how could one say anything positive about it? Or claim to know exactly what to do?
This is a definition that uses knowing to refuse what is known. This negativity – is the path of the negative for a radically new future – it is an approach that is powerfully generous and demandingly rigorous. It asks of us to comport ourselves in such a way that will allow for the genuinely new to come into being. We are asked to style our lives and practices in a manner that makes the new (as the new and non-pre-existent) a genuine potential at any moment in any event. In this, the “way of the negative” – the “vita negativa” of creativity is more than just a “belief” that the new is possible – it is a live practice. Curious?
Sometimes, you just want to check out the source material, are we right?
To follow a trusted source to more sources for further exploration; this is one more thing that we tried to do more of in 2023. Here are five of the resource posts we wrote in 2023 (many more to come in 2024!):
Cue the champagne and all the diverse traditions for all the differing new years – it's almost that time!
And so, we would both like to extend our warmest wishes for a New Year - 2024 — may you enjoy prosperity, health, and wonderfully entangle with creative processes and emergent innovation potentialities in all that you do!
A Happy 2024!
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