Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 38! Sustaining What? Ethical Innovation and Mystery...
Good morning fellow clouds of creative unknowing — we are now officially drifting together into summer!
This week, after wandering the hills of western Scotland in the daily beauty of rain, wind and bogs, it was off to the west coast — San Francisco — skipping right over the heatwave in NJ.
What took us to the west coast was a very interesting retreat to reimagine the future of health.
It was a powerful experience to work with a global group of visionaries.
We ended up exploring various ways to decouple well-being from the medical system, anthropocentric bias, the service delivery model, and a universal conception of well-being .
Part of what was really rewarding is how deeply our methodologies, and practices resonated with professionals struggling to disrupt the well calcified deeply troubling logics of this space. Some of the patterns our conversations took felt like they came straight out of our recent book — the resonances went deep and wide…
As part of preparing for this health workshop we were re-reading the work of the great critic of disabling professions and our medical system, Ivan Illich — especially his work on convivial tools (Tools for Conviviality, and Shadow Work) as well as his powerful critique of modern medicine: Medical Nemesis.
Illich was a unique radical thinker who was always looking for and uncovering the surprising and disturbing underlying logic of practices that we believed were already well understood. He was forever asking “what do systems actually do?” He was famous for showing how the medical system actually produces un-health (what he called iatrogenesis— physician caused conditions or effects).
Illich was not simply interested in how visiting the hospital could be quite a bad thing (by one estimate over 400,000 people die per year as a result of preventable medical errors). He was interested in how the medical system produced both social and cultural iatrogenesis — where it is no longer possible to imagine and act upon autonomous conceptualizations of well-being outside of the medicalization of health as a necessary service. And where the unhealthy qualities of the social environment are relocated inside the individual and treated as cases of personal disease.
What is important is that Illich is not simply asking us to expand the number of effects that we look at in regards to any system — but to see these as coordinated in ways that produce global effects — they make a world come into being. And in making a world come into being they make us into subjects and agents of that world— we are the children and subjects of these worlds. And most often we are the subjects of worlds in ways we never recognize.
We cannot judge an innovation (in this case a medical innovation) in isolation (does it have this or that specific desired effect?), but it can only be effectively understood as part of a system. As innovators we need to be always experimentally asking: what is the world that the thing we are developing participates in making?
To miss this dimension of making is to be worldblind.
Much of design is functionally blind to the fact that to make things is to participate in making worlds and that these worlds make the effects that the thing ultimately possesses.
To make is not simply to add something magically transformative to the one big thing we call “reality.” And that this some thing is in itself a neutral thing that can be freely used by anyone in any way they wish. This is to be worldblind.
What we need to recognize is that agency is not a human thing nor is it tied to intentions. The things we do and make cannot be conflated with our desires and intentions.
Many things beyond us and our narrow intentions have agency — a profound agency that is independent of any intention.
Things have agency, events have agency, and the emergent totality of a tightly connected assemblage has agency. Of course it is not a willful agency of an independent decision maker, but rather it is a form of statistical agency: given the disposition of the assemblage certain things are far more likely than others (no matter the good will or intentions of the humans involved).
The statistical pattern will show a general propensity and this propensity is a shaping force.
This propensity takes everything — every intention and every thing we are developing — in and transforms it, feedbacking and feed-forwarding into a world.
This propensity is shaping everything in its path statistically into a unique and specific way of being alive in being. In our previous example this is what Illich was calling the iatrogenetic qualities of our modernist medical world.
But why say worldblind?
What is it that designers and innovators are blind towards?
Reality is not universally the same everywhere and at all times. There is no universal ahistorical human mode of being alive. There are ontologically different ways of being and becoming and these are the outcomes of the emergent propensities of specific assemblages.
Thus we do not live in a generic reality — but we live in and of specific world that is the emergent outcome of a coherent assemblage of things, practices, subjects, concepts and environments.
As the Zapatistas say “we live in a world where many worlds are possible — let us continue to make it so.”
Recognizing the possibility of multiple worlds — worlds that are genuinely qualitatively different is the beginning of refusing worldblindness and developing a practice of ethical worldly innovation.
The critical question, and a question that can only be answered in an ongoing engaged practice is: what is the world (specific mode of being alive) that is emerging?
It is not “what is the intention?”, or “what do we project will happen?” Nor is it looking at one or two effects — it is about sensing an overall propensity (propensities) of what is emerging. This is the work of social critics and philosophers like Ivan Illich.
Let us turn to another concrete example:
We live primarily in political world that has historically defined its goal by the right to have things:
— property, cars, houses, fridges, shoes, guns, educational degreees, medical treatments, etc.
And in this model it is imagined that we — the humans — are everywhere universally the same & ultimately deepdown unchanged by the things we possess.
Such worldblind politics becomes about the fair distribution of things & the granting of fair access to things.
But, things are for the most part considered to be neutral (free of agency). The model assumes that only humans can be said to truly possess agency. There can be better and worse cars (gas vs electrical) but a car is a car. Better & worse houses, fridges, education, medical treatments, guns etc. It is all just “stuff”.
But what this model does not consider is the agency of the thing itself. Things in relations with other things (assemblages) make certain worlds, practices & ways of being more likely and others far less likely.
The agency of things occurs at a threshold of adoption (most often mandated). When cars become the assumed way to get around — it is no longer really possible to live without them — we now live in their world as car-beings. We can no longer freely chose to live in an alternative manner without profound difficulties. It is the same with guns, you might never have seen a gun in your life, but your children may be killed by them while attending school. A world has been made. We have been made.
All of the outcomes, both the intended & the unintended are the consequence of this. Accidents are not accidents (in the sense that they could not have been predicted).
In this political model if the things are made “well” then what happens with it is the free choice of the user. We can use it responsibly or otherwise. Bad people will do bad things & good people will do good things.
But this is a dangerous illusion that hides from us that things have profound agency & do fundamentally shape a mode of being alive.
Our current desire to tinker with things while debating about things as if they were just stuff to posses & use freely is the problem.
Let’s take this further. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their implementation provide a good example of this model of worldblind practice.
What do the these SDGs do?
This is a different question from ”What are the explicit intended goals of the UN Sustainable Development Goals?”
This second question is almost entirely beside the point. Intention is not a relevant measure of actual effect.
What something does is a worldmaking question:
Actual effect is holistic and considers the overall outcomes (propensities) in a situation (never just the measure under consideration). A very simple example of actual effects is the popular ban of single use plastic shopping bags. One effect is less single-use shopping bags (good), but it also leads to substantially more plastic being consumed and many other negative effects propensity.
Back to the question: What the UN Sustainability goals (SDGs) do is further worldmaking practices that value impossible-to-maintain material and technological “progress,” prioritizes corporate interests, and allows the worldmaking model of “development” to continue. The SDGs have very successfully allowed growth to continue, and corporations to prosper consuming ever more of the planet's resources (reports by researchers).
“The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are based on an ideology that values material and technological progress and prioritizes corporate interests - where humanity will balance social, economic and environmental issues to progress materially,” Jem Bendell.
These goals allow existing things to be made and then creatively modified to “meet” the SDGs. But in doing this nothing meaningful has changed. Changing a gas car into a electric battery powered car meets SDGs but furthers radically unsustainable practices (one egregious part is the battery).
Measured by worldmaking effects we need to refuse this approach.
What is important from the perspective of meaningful innovation and creativity:
Where do ecological questions come into the design process?
Far too often they are simply added to the process:
“Make sure X is also really sustainable.”
“How many of the UN Sustainability goals can this project be made to meet?”
Every existing product, practice and business becomes magically green.
Green cars, green microwaves, green pens, green mouthwash, green…
Beyond the obvious fact that there are not nearly enough resources on the planet to do this — We are asking the wrong questions, aiming for the wrong goals, and using the wrong approaches.
Things do not become green by meeting a sustainability target (say fully recyclable). Things become green by deeply participating in the catalyzing and fostering of an ecological mode of being alive.
The question should not be: “how do we make this product meet our new green targets?” But, “how do we make things and practices that open up and support new green worlds”
To do this we do not need a prescriptive approach (this is what such a world looks like), rather we can use a proscriptive approach — this is what we do not want to do.
The proscriptive approach allows the futures to be open, experimental, diverse and surprising.
This is why “blocking” “disclosing” and “worldmaking” are such critical practices in our approach to innovation.
But while some forms of blindness are deeply problematic, creativity is crafty, surprising and deeply paradoxical — and it require both the lifting of the veil of blindness and the willful embrace of blindness.
We have already discussed at length the lift of the veil of worldblindness, let us now turn to a necessary blindness:
Walter Benjamin used the remarkable Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus (Angel of the Future) to discuss how we are blown into the future facing backwards — we cannot see the future we are moving into.
Benjamin and Klee were right about this: we cannot know the radically new in advance of it coming into being and transforming us in the process. We do go into the future only knowing the past — even when we project it forward into the future. But even a being as powerful and all knowing as an angel cannot know anything about what is to come. We are blind…
“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History.
But novel futures do not come in straight lines from past to future. We are less like angels being blown directly by winds, and more like crabs frightened out of their homes and scuttling sideways and backward into the future…
Here we see the power and need for both a revealing and a concealing approach to innovation.
Meaningful change — meaningful creativity and innovation begins by recognizing that we are not in the business of making “useful” things (that could be intentionally or unintentionally misused). We do not make passive and useful things that people can freely choose to possess and utilize to fulfill a need. The things we make are world makers — they do things: which means they are active shapers of the reality we live in — they make us who we are — they fundamentally contribute to what we do and become. (It is also important to recognize that things are part of being human — there is no answer in “let’s do away with everything and get back to the pure authentic human”).
The question for innovation is not “is it actually useful (and good/sustainable/etc)”? But what world does it participate in making?
There is a critical activity here that needs to be part of all innovation practices: disclosing the ethos of worlds— what are their propensities and how to we shape these into worlds worth having. It cannot be the other way around if we are to survive…
Till Volume 39,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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