Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 28! Why Does Creativity Keep Focusing on Mental Phenomena?...
Good Friday Morning fellow engagers with the way of creative processes. The half-moon lingers high in the sky as the sun is rising.
A happy Nowruz! Monday was the Spring Equinox and the Persian New Year. We will be jumping fires and celebrating this weekend — a little late but some weeks the party has to wait for the weekend. We hope that many of you are also celebrating the new year and the arrival of spring in your own ways.
I’ll forget the trail
I marked out on Mount Yoshimo
Go searching for blossoms
In directions I’ve never been before
(Saigyo, translator B. Watson)
It has been an interesting week on our end — some of it was searching in new directions and some of it we spent considering the recent history of Creativity and Innovation movements and practices. Last week the newsletter focused on the “very long past but short history” of creativity in the western tradition (borrowing a phrase from Howard Graber).
In reviewing the short seventy year history of Innovation practices we were struck by how much it was of its immediate era. Innovation practices and the formal study of creativity emerged in the 1950’s and developed a strong psychological-cognitive human centered model of creativity and innovation. This is an approach that comes from a meeting of heroic individualism, Cold War ideology, advertising and self-help rhetoric, and a computational model of cognition.
The cognitive-psychological model focused on brains, ideas and humans is our basic approach because of that immediate history and the much longer past of our extremely human centered tradition that elevated immaterial ideas above all else.
This is a deeply flawed model of the human, thinking and creativity.
We have been repairing the cognitive-psychological approach for quite some time — really since its inception in the 1950’s — attempting to make it more responsive, more relational, more inter-subjective. All of which are good things to do, but fixing a bad thing can only take you so far.
The psychological-cognitive approach to creativity is more an accident of history, than a necessarily effective approach.
The question we need to take seriously is:
What if creative outcomes have happened despite our approach — not because of it?
Ironically, the good news might be that we don’t need a good approach to creativity — the creative forces of reality can easily overwhelm our stupidities. Putting aside the humor of it, the reality is that we talk and teach innovation in workshops one way and actually practice it in quite different ways. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar look closely at this in the context of science research and innovation.
For us and many others in the field the real question is: isn’t it time we came up with better approaches to creativity and innovation — starting from an entirely different paradigm.
This work has been going on for quite some time in worlds at some distance from the universe of innovation consultants — in evolutionary science, process philosophy, complexity science, generative design, etc. We see examples of this in the Cynefin framework, ecosystemic approaches to creativity, or in our own Innovation Design Approach (and of course there are many others).
And if we step outside of the western tradition — the West Asian tradition we can see that in South and East Asia worldly process based approaches to creativity that stress the spontaneous emergence of novelty have been the de facto framework for quite some time. (A great introduction to these is the translation by R T Ames and D L Hall of the Daodejing).
Interestingly as we discuss these alternatives with a colleague in the sciences one frustration came up:
Why do all these models that talk about a more worldly creativity end up still focusing on the mental?
If creativity is a spontaneous worldly process why is it that when innovation consultants get a hold of these ideas they always go back to forms of ideating in boardrooms?
Why is it that when we talk about non-human processes the answer is “yes — that is exactly why we need more techniques of imagination!”?
A particular concept of the mind and mental phenomena holds us captive. And this focus on the mind, thinking and ideas has twisted our very sense of what it means to know and this has led to a very skewed concept of what creativity is and is not.
The picture of the mind that holds us captive is not something theoretical — it is far deeper than that — it is part of our pre-reflective background of practices and understanding. It is something that shapes our thinking, and theorizing and even self understanding. It is something that is now so natural that we do not even realize we are doing it — or that it could ever be a problem.
What exactly is the form that this thinking takes?
It is a logic where we grasp an “external” reality via “internal” representations. Which is to say I only have knowledge of an external reality via internal “ideas” of that reality (mental representations).
Thus it becomes natural to answer any question with “we need new imaginations” — our connection, our reality is in ideas…
We know the outside only through internal ideas. Ideas are the tool of mediation between the outside and the inside (my knowing).
What is critical is that our knowledge comes via something. It is this inner vs outer structure plus the need for something to mediate it that makes up this logic.
Charles Taylor and Hubert Dreyfus in a wonderful book on this topic Retrieving Realism break down this idea centric “mediation model” into four parts:
For many this list and the mediational model is not an issue. This approach has become our culture's de facto approach to knowledge and reality. We are born into it, and for many this just is how things actually work. It is now our cultural and historical common sense.
But this should really worry us:
To engage with the very real issues we face in a creative manner we need to believe in the world.
And getting really practical about all of this: To engage with creative processes effectively we need to engage prior to thinking and what can be thought.
The emergence of the new precedes what can be thought (as well as simply not requiring thought whatsoever — e.g. evolutionary creativity).
The new is continuously emerging as unintended (exaptive) potentials and possibles in every situation.
It is incredibly hard to notice (think, see, visualize, sense) novelty in the act of emergence. Which is to say, it is nearly impossible to cognitively recognize the new as new— e.g. think the new).
Putting aside all debates about the western fixation on ideation — creativity as a process needs to begin prior to what can be thought whatsoever.
Innovation practices that rely heavily on talking, explaining, abstracting, ideating, planning and conceptualizing as their fundamental modes of engaging creativity radically distort the process. They come from the false assumptions of the “mediation model” of how we are embedded in reality and as such only achieve genuinely creative outcomes despite themselves.
Disruptive forms of the creative process will need to begin differently. They will be far more enactive, engaged, distributed, emergent, entangled and focused on perturbations, affordances, exaptations etc.
We need to slow down, and not focus on creativity and innovation and take the time to re-embed our actions, our thinking and knowing into the body, into intra-subjective engagements, and into the immediate environment. This is not easy — it involves swimming against the powerful currents of our history, habits, infrastructures and culture — but without it we will keep reducing all new ways of engaging creativity and reality to a practice of ideation…
Where to start:
If you are struggling with classical models of creativity and need disruptive innovation design - we can help in one of three ways:
1. Buy our book
2. Book us for a one to one call. We have 3 slots remaining for April.
3. Hire us to consult on your next project. We help clients design innovation for impact across scales and industries focused on the good.
Till Volume 30,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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🏞 P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution