Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 37! Problems Solve Nothing - They Make Worlds...
Good morning to all!
Another Friday is upon us!
Iain spent the week wandering in the Highlands of Scotland - wild camping, climbing some peaks and wandering north to south across Wester Ross — the feet are tiered, the knees weaker, and the clothes much wetter but it was a brilliant week.
Jason held down the fort in the thick of things in NJ.
In our wandering this week we have been thinking about how “problems make worlds” and what exactly this means for innovation and life in general.
Over the last month we have been exploring an alternative view of problems that connects problems to worlds and not solutions.
Most commonly we think of a problem in relation to its solution. We think of problems as being in need of solving, and that once solved they disappear.
While on the surface none of this is incorrect. Taken at their simplest a problem can be thought of something that can in principle be solved.
If I pose for myself the problem of making a soap that does not remove “good” bacteria from my skin, I can hypothetically do this. At which point, at least for myself the problem is gone.
The same would be true if one started a small business that set out to solve the problem of how to make it more convenient for women to pee in the woods. When you have developed the product, it might not be perfect for everyone, but it would be correct to say that you have solved the problem in a way that works for many.
So what is the issue with connecting problems to solutions? Why not leave it at that?
There are many, some of which we will get into — let us start with an ethical issue:
Imagine seeing all reality through the lense of problems and solutions. Is everything potentially a problem in need of solving? Where does this end?
Where does this logic end?
This logic is narrow at best and potentially highly destructive in the name of being pragmatic and helpful.
Approaching reality in terms of problems conjoined to solutions leads to a coercive and wildly interventionist outlook.
So, how does a problem-world approach differ?
Let us take another example:
The environmental crisis is not a problem to be solved — or even one that can be solved.
What are we really trying to accomplish when we engage with this matter of very serious concern?
Is it really a question of solving “it” so we can just go on with life?
In this case that is certainly not possible— it is our way of being that is the issue.
It is far more realistic to see the environmental crisis as a complex event to be engaged creatively to develop new ways of being alive that produce new modes of multi-species thriving.
In engaging with this problem we are really engaged with worldmaking. And, even if we can’t see it really clearly in our other examples — all problem engagements are really acts of worldmaking.
What we mean by this is that all the things we do and make in response to a problem expand a way of being alive or open up a new way of being alive.
Making new ways of peeing, soap, or engaging with degrowth environmental practices allow for new ways of doing to emerge. These practices in turn touch other practices, things, environments and these all feedback into each other and and a new world emerges.
This is why there is an ethics and aesthetics of worldmaking.
It is important to also say that the Problem-Solution model as a linear process is also profoundly and dangerously shortsighted in a reality where causality is always non-linear and indirect. As Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out in Under a White Sky - many of the challenges humanity faces today are a result of “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.”
Is there a distinct alternative way to approach problems that do not reproduce these ethically and structurally troubling outcomes?
Our approach is driven by such ethical questions.
By focusing on problems and their solution we are missing the full scope of what is actually happening in the dance between problems and outcomes.
A world is emerging — a specific mode of practice is emerging. This is especially true when innovating: new affordances are emerging alongside new outcomes. As these affordances are stabilized and generalized into habits, practices, concepts and environments a world is emerging.
This world is emerging as a complex world (beyond a simple good-bad distinction) because problems as assemblages never generate a singular outcome but a field of potential outcomes. Only some of these outcomes are the ones we like — accidents, errors and a world of unintended possibilities (good, bad, neutral and undecidable) is emerging.
Ironically it is these outcomes — the unintended solutions— the exaptations — that will lead to the most innovation.
Thinking of problems as that which must be solved and focusing on “the solution” (singular) leads to both a fundamental error of what you are doing (worldmaking not solution making) and makes you blind to the greatest source of innovation (the emergent unintended outcomes).
This is why we advocate that we move from “Problem-Solution” approaches to “Problem-World” approaches for innovation.
What does it mean to shift our approach and understanding of problems?
What we make and do as innovators does not need to act as “solutions” to “problems” but rather as openings to new ways of being alive (worldmaking).
Innovating towards new skin microbiome friendly soap or a new device for women to pee standing up opens up and transforms how we are alive and what we can do (a new world is emerging). From the perspective of innovation we do not need to focus on solving problems but on expanding/making worlds.
The “good” bacteria soap is a real thing which opens up a new relation to our bodies as environments composed of differing ecotones with a wide variety of astonishing critters calling it home. There are a bunch of companies—it is worth a google. When we shift from a war of purity and a fight to remove harms (normal soaps) to a world of managing relationships between and across the vast multiplicity of critters that make us — we are making a new world not simply solving a problem (how to get clean and smell good in the morning).
Yes, problems do exist, and they can be resolved — but the focus needs to be on what new possibilities they afford. Solution thinking is a narrow and quite dangerous lense, while a focus on affordances and worlds is expansive.
To understand this fully we need to review how we understand problems:
The problem-worlds of soaps, peeing or environmental harm are all bigger and shaggier than we often imagine. They are also often quite small — you can change how we pee without having to take on everything. But how we pee and getting people to change how they pee engages a vast array of things. Peeing differently opens up a new world of behaviors, movements, and conceptual schemas. These are not ancillary, trivial or secondary to “solving the problem” — they are the world that is emerging.
In this way worlds are both multi-scalar and blur into other spaces while being potentially contained in a thing and its practices.
When one heard comments like “well I’m just focused on the technical issues” or “we are just making a social media platform” — you know that you are dealing with people who are either blithely unaware of what they are actually doing or are deliberately ignoring the ramifications of what they are doing. In both cases what “they” are doing is making a world (we discuss the issue of being “worldblind” in the previous newsletter).
While the concept world is best left loose in its definition, we appreciate how the French philosopher Michel Foucault termed this “problem-world” ensemble a “Dispositif” — a word that can be roughly translated as an apparatus (which is why we often refer to a problem as an assemblage or problem/assemblage).
This is how he defines it:
“What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions... The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements…
What I am trying to identify… is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogenous elements…
I understand by the term “apparatus” (Dispositif) a… formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need. The apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function...”
Foucault is definitely far more interested in how larger modes of being historically evolved (here is one really interesting example: Immunity). But the concept is highly relevant at all scales of activity.
While it is not overly useful to try and make a hard and precise definition of a world. We can add from Foucault to what we have already said:
Approaching matters of concern outside of a problem-solution approach and with a problem-world approach is a powerful and radical shift. Pragmatically it is far more effective, simply because we are being clear about what we are actually doing. It allows for far more innovation to emerge because we are not looking for a single solution but a new mode of being alive. Finally it brings ethics and aesthetics back together — what is right is in connection with a vision about what is a good life and beautiful world.
Innovation finds its place in an ethical-aesthetic approach to being alive — what other new worlds are worth co-creating?
Today, more than ever, this is a necessary practice, with every successive round of battles to solve this or that crisis and the enactment of the proposed solutions, we are making things worse.
It’s not about asking the right questions and then choosing the best answer and then seeing through — that process is the issue. It is about engaging with the right practices (worldmaking) to invent problems worth having for worlds worth making.
In the noise of solution proposing — listen for those other voices — those speaking of practices and processes far more then exact solutions — those are the ones to engage with.
From the winds and waves of the western highlands and the dense urban logics of NJ — be well and lets keep moving things towards worlds worth making.
Till Volume 38,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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