Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 13! Accidental Techniques...
This week we’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on the role of accidents, the unintended, quirky shifts and co-options in the processes of innovation. They really are the superstars of innovation.
Because of this, it is always exciting to do more research — to go back to histories of how fish came onto land and then went back into the sea to become whales, or how the technique of hip-steering a bike led the Wright Brothers to a crucial breakthrough in developing the steering mechanism for their first plane.
The dining room table has slowly disappeared under a mountain of books and notes. Given how ubiquitous these unintended functional shifts are in innovation it is easy for us to get swept away in astonishing stories that flip the script on who and what is really innovating.
But you don’t need to get buried in books, the unintended is all around us — it is in us, and it is operating, mainly invisibly, all the time. It is really we who do not notice it.
This week we are going to offer the beginnings of a guide to seeing the unintended in your immediate world, plus exercises to be more creative, and give you a list of ways it can be brought to bear on critical questions. At the end we have a few fun thoughts on holiday gifts, suggested readings and some news on our holiday season newsletters.
If you have been reading our posts, you know that we see one of the major flaws with how we normally approach innovation and creativity to be in its over reliance on ideation. We know that ideation cannot lead to the radically new because conceptual thinking, in all of its forms -- even at its most imaginative, is tied through its reliance on words and concepts to the old, the known, and the existing.
What if creativity happens despite -- not because of the power of human ideation?
So what do we do? Stop thinking altogether? That is hardly likely. But, we can shift how we think. We can shift our thinking from being abstract to concrete, and we can invent new practices that exceed and precede our standard thinking habits.
Over the last few weeks we have been looking at these practices and this week we looked at the evolutionary story of how fish came onto land in an article we published on monday. This was our first deep foray into the superpowers of the unintended in creative processes. All evolutionary features arose via the unintended — eyes, ears, tongue, wings, lungs… This is astonishing and is equally critical to all of our human innovations. In biology these unintended properties are called Exaptive. And so we like to call this aspect of creativity and innovation: Exaptive Design
We won’t summarize the article for you — it’s worth a look, if you have the time. But, a few critical takeaways are:
But we don’t need to swim with the fishes or go back millions of years. Let’s just stick with what is already in your hand — your coffee cup.
If you don’t have a cup in hand, take a moment, and make yourself a cup of something. Don’t just grab an empty cup, take your time and feel the process.
Sense your environment — the kitchen full of things — stove, kettle, heat, water, grinder, filters, spoons, coffee maker, cats, keys, and dirty dishes. It is not just an environment but it is part of a meaningful already ongoing life in which you are embedded (as a situated agent). All the parts entail each other, and co-shape each other: you are making coffee and in doing so a vast world is changing, and as you drink coffee you are being changed day by day at a cellular level and at a larger cultural level. A meaningful world is in motion.
And then there is the coffee cup: it is the stabilized, materialized, and formalized affordances for grasping, sipping and keeping your beverage from spilling all over your lap. It has a specific form and purpose.
But, as you sip your coffee — this cup is haunted by other possibilities.
We have talked about this before in general terms in previous posts, but let’s dig into the specifics. We can diagram it like this:
At the top we have our world (Environment + Agent) in which a coffee cup is embedded (the Thing), it has a purpose and this feeds back into shaping and stabilizing our world (the loop on the right). And most importantly the cup ‘radiates’ unintended affordances — possibilities for alternative uses.
But what exactly are these and how do they work?
We need to go deeper:
Everything — no matter what it is, is composed of three things:
Look at your coffee cup — can you identify some of these?
The necessary properties are pretty clear: it has to be a container that does not fall apart or fall over, get too hot, and can be grasped by a hand and sipped by a mouth.
This gives rise to some necessary by-products — you cannot avoid them: the specific material and its thickness for example. Notice how it is harder to specify these — we don’t really think this way (but we should).
Then there are the ‘chance by-products’ — what are these? Again it is hard to think of these. These are all the things that were neither necessary nor thought of in the design (and often when they are thought of they are removed). One example might be how the cup breaks into shards that have a very particular angular shape and is very sharp. Others? It is hard to know…
That is, it is hard to know without doing something ‘wrong’. You need to break things, and use things totally the wrong way for these effects to emerge. You cannot just look at things and speculate.
What can we do with this information? Well — all intended and unintended possibilities emerge from these three categories. When we put aside (block) an existing purpose in a deliberate fashion we can force ourselves into an experimental situation of engaging with the unintended.
This is, as a process, quite simple to understand:
To get really experimental you would do this a number of times, where eventually a threshold would be crossed and a radical difference in kind would emerge.
But, while it is easy to understand this process, it is exceptionally hard to do if one does not have a full sense of the richness of unintended possibilities that things offer. We need to dig deeper into our coffee cup and mess with it in a far more sophisticated method!
Let’s go back to our diagram, and start with the ‘intentional features’ and everything their necessary properties can do:
Intentional features have intended effects that connect to their intended purpose, but also have unintended effects that can connect to an alternative existing purpose. This form of co-opting is where most innovation experts focus when discussing exaptation. It is also the form we use everyday: Our coffee cup becomes a pen holder or a paperweight — these things exist, but the coffee cup also affords this possibility. These are unintended effects but novel purposes. That said, exploring these can lead in interesting directions — perhaps there is a better or different paperweight that experimenting with a coffee cup can lead towards?
Intentional features also offer a second pool of possibilities: features that no longer have a use. These are prime for co-opting. Do you see/sense any with your coffee mug?
The first one I noticed was in flipping my cup over; it has a raised rim on the bottom — this is designed to help the cup sit flat on slightly uneven surfaces and also account for any imprecisions in the process of making. But now most of us live in worlds of perfectly flat surfaces and manufacturing has gotten incredibly precise. So what could this do? Well, an upside down mug makes a great candle holder, catching the dripping wax with this rim. Again, not truly novel — but different and offering an interesting experimental pathway to follow.
But what of unintended effects leading to the new? This is where innovation gets challenging. Yes, we can block something, that is not too hard, because we are blocking the known, but how do we ‘see’ an unknown and as yet non-existent possibility in our coffee mugs or anything else for that matter?
It is not going to be easy, and it won’t be done abstractly. You need to experiment with the express purpose of creating and stabilizing this new possibility — it is not sitting there waiting to be discovered. Ian Hacking talks about it this way:
“To experiment is to create, produce, refine and stabilize phenomena... But phenomena are hard to produce in any stable way. That is why I spoke of creating and not merely discovering phenomena. That is a long hard task. Or rather there are endless different tasks. There is designing an experiment that might work. There is learning how to make an experiment work. But perhaps the real knack is getting to know when the experiment is working…”
To do this requires deliberate effort, designing and fabricating the right conditions (a lab), setting aside the time, developing an iterative process, and having the right goal. What do we mean by the right goal? The goal can never be a discrete object — but the invention of a new approach — a new way of doing things, a new way of being. It is only with this in place that new things will emerge.
All of which brings us back to experimenting with our coffee mug — what of the two other categories — necessary by-products and the chance introductions? These are by far the richest potential pool of possibilities. And will require their own treatment in future articles and newsletters (coming up in the new year).
How can you experimentally access this magical realm of innovation right now? After-all, who wants to wait until next year! We have three treats for your holiday reading and viewing:
These three things are truly inspiring and are transformative for any innovation practice.
Here is our fun exercise to get you into this world of exaptive design:
Watch the short Christian Markley documentary. Notice and make notes on how he experimentally accesses all three categories of things (1. Necessary properties, 2. Necessary by-products, and 3. Chance by-products). He is doing this by really focusing on only one thing: the record.
Select one thing that you have quite a few of and are willing to destroy. For example plates or books or carrots.
Now emulate Christian Markley (have fun, be experimental and don’t burden this game with saving the world — you're just learning and exploring):
December has become a time for gifting as a means to acknowledge someone for something they’ve done or what they mean to you. Emergent Futures Lab prefers a less material existence. So we have some unique gift ideas for you to consider:
First, don’t focus all your efforts on buying things — give experiences — we like to give adventures and treasure hunts — seasonal wanderings into curiosity and engagement. The time to invent and develop but things will never be the same!
But if you do wish to buy things here are two suggestions:
A Creative magazine for big picture visionaries – Unique perspectives and design – worth your time: Dense Magazine is a ten-issue biannual magazine that ripples across ten milestone events in New Jersey's past and future, daring to redefine design's role in a future that's messy and equitable.
Book for Innovation & Creativity: Because last week's holiday discount was such a success – we’re extending it for one more week 30% off our book: Innovating Emergent Futures: The Innovation Design Approach to Change and Worldmaking. Use promo code: CELEBRATE100DAYS
Some of the drawings this week include some hard to see details. Here we offer you Volume 13 drawings in Hi-Resolution.
Here’s to a relaxing weekend filled with creativity and blocking amidst the holiday chaos.
Till Volume 14...
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
📚 P.S.: Our book Innovating Emergent Futures 30% off with promo code: CELEBRATE100DAYS
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