Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 24! Innovation is Working in the Dark...
Jason and I like to get up early, long before the sun rises and work in the quiet darkness of the early morning hours.
Jason: I'm usually up around 4am. It’s always been natural to wake in this hour often rising just minutes before the alarm is set to chime. I find the still darkness of the quiet pre-dawn hours the most comfortable and productive. At the desk without the pull of others' needs. Working out to set my day. Or on the road in perfect solitude.
Iain: Usually the first thing I do is greet our cat Blacktop and let him out. Then I just stand outside in the dark breathing in the cool air and enjoying the darkness. The darkness of night is not a metaphor, nor is it the opposite of light. It is a beautiful period where standing on my step it is impossible to see what is out there, even as I know that I am surrounded by buildings, and in each building other people are going about their morning lives. This condition of knowing and not-knowing is always there:
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next” Ursula Le Guin
And what is true of life is even more true of innovation and creativity: working with the new means not knowing what comes next.
The radically new is exaptive and emergent — it is nowhere till it begins to happen. Because of this foresight, prediction, trend analysis, and deep knowledge of the past and future will not be of any direct help.
Radical novelty is ontologically new. It is a truly shocking surprise.
Of course, it might make sense and be explainable in retrospect, but that does not help one in the middle of co-emerging with the new.
Innovation thrives in an intolerable place of the unknowable and coaxes new certainties to emerge via a process of probing.
While it might be logically and factually true that the new does not exist and is thus unknowable — we do not easily live with not knowing or not thinking.
Our lived experience of the future is that what happened yesterday is a good guide for today and we can know what the day holds as we stand in the darkness of the early morning hours.
To be alive is to project a future ahead of ourselves: we become students and parents to enter a journey that pulls us powerfully and meaningfully far into the future.
But it is a future that is haunted by the new — that “permanent intolerable uncertainty” where we cannot know what comes next as Ursula Le Guin puts it so well.
Both are there at every moment: certainty and novelty. Knowable and unknowable.
Participating in creativity and innovation force us to pull ourselves back from how far into the future our meaningful lives have us situated. Experimentation sits us at the edge of the present deliberately pretending what we know will happen will not happen.
It is a difficult dance to oscillate between knowing and not knowing, between ideating and refusing ideation.
Over the last month we have been systematically introducing and developing practices to work with this form of unknowable novelty: emergent novelty. At the core of these practices is the technique of blocking.
Blocking is what allows you to refuse the known and embrace the unknown (the new that might come). Blocking needs knowing, analyzing, pattern recognition, and conceptualization — how else could you make the informed decision of what is best to block? But beyond the negative knowledge of what not to do — blocking refuses to tell you anything. It must stop there, telling us only what not to do, what not to repeat.
But now what?
Now we confront a creative darkness — we have refused to cast the net of knowing into the future and have no idea of what to do next.
Without knowing to guide us it is easy to be paralyzed. How do we move? Where do we go when we decide not to know?
How we are in our daily lives gives us a clue: most of what we are actually doing at any moment does not involve thinking.
Sure we are most often thinking about something but not about most of what we are doing in the moment. As you get ready in the morning you are thinking about the day and everything you need to do. But as you do this you are rushing about doing things — reaching for coffee, and stepping over kids toys. At no time do you need to pause and think about these things — or are you ever needing to consciously direct your hand on how to specifically find the cup and step by step bring it up to your lips.
You just do all these things. These deeply embedded skillful but unthought actions are a form of “know-how” that is distinct from our thinking — which we can call “knowing what”.
Much of our lives involves a tacit “know-how” — we do things — without requiring much — or even any “know-what” (complex thinking, knowing and planning). Many of the most skillful things we do — say rolling a kayak or breastfeeding are not things we could even put into words and explain without great effort. Often when we try to think about or articulate what we do in these nuanced practices we lose our way.
Thinking — knowing what — subsists upon and arises out of a far broader world of embodied and engaged know-how. The foundations of our lives, practices, values, and sense of being are ultimately unconceptualizable — it rests and thrives in action. Changing diapers, holding hands, serving dinner, watering plants, worrying when you see a police officer all ground our lives in ways that exceed ideation.
We do live most of our actual lives at every moment in a state totally reliant on not-knowing — this space of “know-how”. Thinking — knowing-what rests upon know-how and not knowing.
Blocking awakens and reconnects us to our situated and embodied selves in action. Blocking slows down the move from know-how to know-what and allows for us to sense something new differently before we conceive of it as something we already know.
Blocking in this way is not a stand alone act but a practice of Probing that begins in action — our ongoing embedded lives (engagement— and know-how) and then moves to critical reflection (disclosure and know-what), which leads to blocking, sensing and following unintended novelty (deviation and back into know-how), which then can be stabilized as a new approach (emerge and knowing what).
In this way, we are “making a path in walking it.” We are attuning and transforming ourselves to make ever move successful novel assemblages emerge via a series of iterative probes and feedback/feedforward loops. It is a dance of knowing and not knowing. A dance of enactive sensing and disembodied conceptualizing.
This dance is also actually part of our everyday lives. Engaged forms of play, puttering, tinkering, improvising, messing about, open experimentation, intentional stupidity, or curious observation while using novel tools in novel situations — are all common examples of how we thrive in not-knowing.
These are all examples of active open-ended experimental practices of enactive making and doing: probing.
This mix of open experimentation (doing) plus attending to differences that arise alongside vague feelings is a critical part of the beginning of the journey to making-discovering the new.
At this delicate early moment of early doing-sensing, novelty can easily slip away, for it is not something we can recognize as being new -- it is too new for that. In fact, we most often mis-recognize it as either something we already know or as an error to be corrected. Our continuous activity of knowing-what is now the problem.
The great difficulty is allowing novelty to just be followed and not known. Blind faith is critical — you need to trust the negative (blocking) and follow the novel as just that — an unknowable beginning of a path…
Remembering the sensations and habits of play, tinkering, puttering, and probing are helpful precisely because they do not seek to overly conceptualize or judge (they actively keep know-what at bay). It is the rush to ideate that derails the early phase of the creative process.
We can see this as a probing process:
We can break down this process of embodied emergent wayfinding into discrete steps for the sake of analysis (in reality they are far more mixed and continuously feedback/feedforward into each other).
There are phases in the dance — we oscillate between Embodied Doing and Embodied Knowing — going back and forth in a structured but improvisatory manner.
In the first phase we deliberately block know-what and allow known-how to guide us — knowing becomes implicit and tacit. This implicit knowledge is non-articulable but exists directly in the emerging habits, practices and embodied skills, and vague feelings. Humberto Manturana terms this “knowing-how without knowing-what” — which is a perfect definition for blocking.
In the second phase these tacit forms of knowing slowly become articulable and eventually turn into abstractions that can stand on their own as fully-fledged concepts. Let’s walk through these steps in more detail as each phase has a couple of steps (please zoom into the drawings):
(know-how takes the lead)
After sensing, evaluating and blocking we move to an experimental doing-with (making and using novel tools, environments and skills) and letting sensing-feeling tendencies vaguely co-emerge from within objects-in-the-making and return into the process.
Novel events arise are sensed and are stabilized when possible — these both take time and emerge as new forms of time. Novelty is sensed as vague affective sensations of “Interesting” and “puzzling”. Affect is connected to tendencies — “interesting what could this do?” and events are felt and might rise to an intuitive level of attention. Pay close attention to and welcome the more discordant affective sensations:
Perplexity, disgust, laughter, boredom — these are signals of what does not fit.
Change is lived in, but not represented.
Now we are actively following an emerging form/tendency and responding (in the experiment): making-thinking with the emerging quasi-object crossing one or many thresholds (of capacity and stability).
We are still evaluating (know-what) for how true we are sticking to what we have blocked.
Signs act as triggers—what is sensed and noticed is followed.
Embodied skills, tools and practices co-develop in a back & forth between things and actions. Matter/things co-evolve forms immanent to the process. Non-conceptual know-how co-emerges with a “world-in-the-making” (concrete skills for repetition, expansion and discovery).
We are living with things (as opposed to knowing things abstractly). There is a felt sympathy with an emerging world.
(know-what takes the lead)
Now we are transitioning back towards know-what from a practice of know-how:
A vague idea about the thing/action (what is it?) emerges and flows back into the making-using-developing process. Quasi-concepts become useful & are tested, stabilized & reactivated. Nascent “theories” are proposed & put to work/tested. A “world” begins to be recognized in how these practices, and concepts hold together and shape us + our environment.
We begin to develop abstractions of concepts from objects/practices. These abstractions feedback (know-how) and feedforward (theories, paradigms, approaches, modes of being) into new iterations of the process. Abstraction and a new self+environment.
A four step experimental dance — a dance for and with novelty. The key with all dances and dancing — you will only learn how by doing it — the dance is not residing in knowing-what — but in you embodied know-how. And only ultimately in interplay — the real dance between know-how and know-what.
Innovation — It is a dance that has a structure to allow the new in. The structure of innovation is not an easy one — it goes against our lived habits, our egos, and our cultural histories. But we need such a rigorous structure to give emergent novelty a chance against all of these forces.
Take time this week:
See how it feels, we can live in two houses with Ursula — not-knowing and knowing.
We live between and across emergent novelty and progressive history — disruption and continuity.
Just don’t think it is easy — she called it “intolerable” for a reason — until we and our world change the novel is intolerable.
Creativity and innovation are co-evolutionary, and co-creative — holistic or not at all — we don’t engage the new from a distance — it sweeps us elsewhere.
Have a beautiful week welcoming what comes next...
We hope you have a curiosity filled weekend and week.
Till Volume 25,
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.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution