Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 20! Something From Nothing? On Emergence and Creativity...
It’s Friday! What a wonderful thing. Here in the North East it’s been a pretty cold week with a bit of snow expected this weekend. Which is great and much needed — as I was biking home the other afternoon I rode past kids sledding on frozen grass — getting the last possible ride out of the last imaginable bit of snow during the last moments of the day. We are definitely in the rhythms of winter.
This week we have been focusing on Emergence as a way of answering the question of “how does creativity happen?”
This is a question about authorship and agency. Which is really to say “who invented this, and how?”
It’s a big topic. And we will be dancing with this topic over the next few weeks. This week we are going to lay out some of the general concepts and then over the next weeks get into how we can apply these to our creative practice. On Monday we published a blog post to begin this enquiry — take a look.
The who and how of creativity are always a contentious topic — and obviously one of critical importance. Who and how is also a debate that has been going on for quite some time. Nagarjuna and the scholars of the Madhyamika School in southern India were debating concepts of emergence two thousand years ago.
Debates about authorship expose fundamental assumptions about creativity and life in general. While Madhyamika School proposed that all things arise from nothingness, European traditions have on the whole assumed a more essentialist answer — something or someone has to be the final cause of things. At the beginning there is a single source. We can see this approach clearly in our contemporary definitions of creativity:
Here a single source is assumed: a person having an idea. And ultimately the source is “an original idea”. Now we could debate whether this is the right source — but for us the question is: is the very idea of a single source — essentialism — the best approach to the question of authorship?
Essentialism, the belief that some thing has to be the origin or source is a hard model to shake.
“Somewhere in the creative process someone or something had to have had to have done something to begin things — after all things have to begin somewhere.
Once we accept this question, our path is set and we go looking for singular essential sources…
But, do things have to start somewhere? Do things have to literally have a singular definable source? If the answer is yes then the classical essentialist model makes sense: somewhere in that complex system someone or something did something that got it all going: there is a singular author having a transformative novel idea.
If the answer is yes, then our traditional techniques of creativity make sense: focus on individuals, focus on freeing them to ideate…
But, if the answer is no— well, then everything has to change.
What if the answer to the question: do things have to start somewhere? Is NO— no they do not. Contemporary sciences, primarily complexity science, has come to a similar answer to the Madhyamika school — things arise from “nothing.” There are no singular sources of anything.
Who invented this? No-thing invented this. This is a bitter pill for all of the Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of the world. But more to the point it’s a hard one for any of us to grasp for it goes against so much of how we think and how we do things.
Once a complex system (assemblage) is up and running (and we are always in the midst of many of these) — it has, as they say, “a mind of its own.”
From the “parts” a whole emerges. And this “whole” becomes distinct from and irreducible to the parts. And ultimately the “whole” starts to even shape the parts. This emergent whole is the “nothing” of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism. It is not a something — an essence — but an emergent precarious relational event (and process). You cannot hold it, or even point to it.
This quality of “not being easily traceable to a specific source” becomes the definition of emergence:
“Emergence denotes the presence of properties, features, behaviors, or capacities that appear in systems but are not easily traceable to their component parts.” (Tomlinson).
Life is a good example of this — it is the property of the whole: if you cut apart a living being to find this property it is most certainly gone.
While life and consciousness are good examples of emergence so too are all sorts of organizations. An art practice, a corporation, or a police force are also examples of complex systems that can be said “to have a mind of their own.” In each case (the individual who is alive or the art practice or the organization or the police force) there is a tight interdependent network that “individuates” or can be said to produce an operational separation from a related “outside” (that it also co-shapes).
Once a complex system is set up and has a form of operational closure — identity or individuation the form of causality in the system shifts from being linear to non-linear. Linear causality is additive, proportional and aggregation. It is like building with lego. Non-linear causality is neither additive nor proportional. You cannot trace anything directly to anything. Outcomes are not proportional to inputs.
Non-linear outcomes are emergent. An emergent process develops that gives rise to a series of possibilities. These possibilities are constrained by the specific state of system.
It really is the system that is innovating. And it innovates via emergent constrained alternatives (a field of emergent possibilities). When the system is in a certain state certain possibilities are probable and from these some are far more likely. Thus a big part of creativity involves tweaking systems and exploring emergent fields for latent alternative possibilities.
The third critical aspect of emergence is that the “whole” remakes the “parts”. This is often referred to as “downward causation” but is better understood as “system causation”
System causation can seem mysterious. But it is the critical piece of the puzzle. That the whole makes the parts effects all of us every day. Today in America the debate over policing is a critical example and it is one that pits essentialist explanations against emergent ones: is the killing of George Floyd and others a case of “bad apples” or is it something bigger? System causation and emergence gives us a way to understand that it is not a case of bad apples acting out of their own essential troubled natures, but the system made the apples.
Creating and inventing a better justice system or a new work of art face the same question: who and how do things happen? And chasing after bad apples, silver bullets, or singular geniuses will not help us engage with creative processes in any meaningful manner.
Someone will take credit for things or be held responsible for things. We can write histories to make Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or a poor soldier in Abu Ghraib responsible — but in every situation essentialism is just a fable that benefits someone or some part of the system — and more importantly it is a fable that keeps the who and how of creativity obscure.
To realize that causality is not linear, and that it is not about tracing things back to imaginary sources frees us up to actually engage in creative processes free of disabling illusions. Emergence is who we are, what creativity is, and how we innovate.
There is much more to be said about emergence, but that will have to wait for future Blog posts and newsletters in the coming weeks. And we really encourage you to join in the conversation either on LinkedIn or email us. Our focus in this newsletter is on the big picture, and we can now say three critical things about the who and how of creativity and innovation:
These answers can be frustrating — we know what to do in the classical model of creativity (even if it does not lead to change) — but now what do we do if the system is seemingly mysteriously doing all the real work?
In the classical model there are familiar tools and methods: ideation, empathy, prototyping etc.:
These are all methods for a universe of simple linear causality.
What complex systems require are wholly different techniques— techniques that work on the whole to co-shape the system from inside the system. This is done via experimentally nudging and dampening feed-back, while co-evolving with what emerges.
It requires new senses and sensitivity.
We are very much involved, we are active, experimenting and responding. But we are not imagining that we are the sole captains and authors, or that there is any one thing to find or do:
Ideation is finite
Emergence is infinite.
Acknowledging and following emergence frees you from the false encumbrances of needing to think of creative ideas to author creativity. It shifts the onus from you as an author of creativity, to you as being engaged with the world of stirring creative opportunities that will also make you.
Creativity is not a mysterious and mystical internal process. There is no singular author of creativity.
Creativity arises from processes; worldly systems of networked emergence.
Embracing emergence for your creative work is a limitless well of self-organizing opportunities.
Allowing your awareness for creativity to emerge from your work is the advantage.
Because your world is comprised of a series of systems and micro-events that will come together in unpredictable ways.
And will give rise to something new
From your world — for you, with you, through you and towards a different you
It's a historical and situated creativity
Have a beautiful week experimenting. And a huge thanks to everyone who joined the discussion this week.
Emerging with you,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
📚 P.S.: For a new model of worldly creativity – check out our book
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🙈 P.P.P.S: All feedback, praise or criticism is really welcome
🏞 P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution