Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 53! Into and Beyond Paradigms...
Good morning structural process revolutionaries.
Last week was the week of the harvest full moon. Here it was not so different from what Basho, walking in the northern provinces of Honshu, wrote in 1689 of a similar moment in a similar cycle of the year:
A harvest moon, but
True North Country weather—
Nothing to view
Similar rains here across the great distance from The Narrow Road to the Interior — and here too no-thing to view, “but still intriguing” as he says elsewhere. Cycles of repetition and difference. Processes flowing and stabilities emerging.
If it is rainy and wet where you are and you’re staying in this weekend, the great and perpetual innovator of cinema, Jean Luc Goddard died this week — so perhaps it is a good time to watch a few of his films — our recommendation is to pick a few movies — say one from the 60’s, 70’s and the 2000’s.
On other fronts we were busy getting ready for teaching a short course on innovation and a number of workshops and lectures later this fall primarily in Western Asia (Vienna, Lisbon, and Dublin). Which has us thinking quite a bit about the topic of this week's newsletter: how is it best to understand the process of disruptive innovation?
Is the logic of ‘paradigm change’ helpful?
With this question in mind, let’s turn our weekly attention back to our continuing exploration of processes. It is already week six (hard to believe) of our research dive into the reality that ‘everything is process’ (and what the consequences of this are for creativity and innovation).
If you are new to the newsletter, or want to review things, here are the five previous newsletter on process:
What is the systematic structural process that explains how disruptive innovations emerge?
Large scale change — systemic change is now almost ubiquitously understood as being a form of “paradigm change”. Our sense is that this might not be as helpful an approach as it has been made out to be.
The term paradigm comes from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). A book about how qualitative changes/innovations (what he meant by revolutions) happened in the western sciences. Kuhn, a great historian of the western sciences is not the first to use the word, but he is certainly the one who brings it into popular discourse (he was in the end quite ambivalent about the word and how he “lost control of the word”).
Paradigm was pretty much a new word in 1962 — now it is ubiquitous and has come to mean something like “the mindset out of which the system arises” or the shared idea, and unstated beliefs that underpin the actual operating of any system. Donella Meadows captures this idea of a paradigm quite well when she writes:
“You could say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system… But there is nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click of the mind, a falling of the scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing…”
It is important to see that the term here is almost a synonym for “cultural mindset”. And that this way of understanding the term pulls us back into an essentialist logic of giving ideas and the concepts in people's minds the primary agency in innovation and change making — never a good thing from the perspective of systems and emergence.
It is useful to go back to Kuhn and the work that originated all of this and inquire into what he meant by paradigm and equally importantly how he understood the process of qualitative innovation — or revolutionary change.
This is perhaps a useful moment to pause and say two things: “revolution” is also now a ubiquitous term — with every huckster from Elon to Bezos trying to convince of some new revolutionary product. Kuhn was looking at how the sciences shifted from an earth centered world to a sun centered world of practice. His use of revolution is close to being synonymous with the process of qualitative change or the development of a novel world.
The second thing to say (and it is really worth reading this book) — is, for any of its faults — which Kuhn noted there were many — is one of the few seminal books on change and innovation.
What made a revolution for Kuhn was the emergence of an “incommensurable” rupture — a change-in-kind in practices. He did not see progress in history being a linear development towards “the truth” — as mere improvement — the march of progress — but the emergence of a qualitatively different world.
Looking at the historical process of change that happened in the move from an earth centered science to a sun centered science Kuhn saw four phases:
One thing that we find useful with this model is that you can understand the experimental practice of innovation as one of deliberately fabricating anomalies. This is the process of developing exaptations. It is very effective for innovation to equate anomalies and exaptations (we wrote a series of four newsletters on exaptations):
If one blocks key aspects of “Normal Science” or the underlying logic of any stable process one can produce an experimental situation where exaptations emerge that can be stabilized and treated as exemplary forms (paradigms).
This is a powerful practical hands-on technique for developing qualitative changes. And the hands-on experimental nature of this highlights one of the problems with Kuhn’s view of change: he has an overly theoretical focus when looking at the history of the sciences. While theoretical speculation plays a very important role in the sciences, so do the independent traditions of experimental and instrumental research. With his focus on theory he downplays (really misses) what actually happens in the daily practices of Normal Science and how change does not only emerge via conceptual anomalies but also via the invention of novel tools (and the emergence of new affordance landscapes), and experimental exaptations.
In normal practices novelty is continuously emerging at the fringes of practices. Unintended possibilities are always present and haunt all practices. We do not need to wait for theoretical law-like crises to emerge. Anomolies — exaptations are ontologically ever present — and while they cannot be seen, we can join them in experimental practices of blocking purpose and co-developing novel affordances. This is a non-theoretical practice — it involves embodied and enactive doing.
One can see how Kuhn’s focus on the theoretical aspects of scientific practices and change lead to the modern development of an understanding on paradigm’s and paradigm change as being about mental transformations and mindsets.
But — and this is a really big but — Kuhn rejected the idea that what was changing in a paradigm change was simply a mindset change or a change in “worldviews.”
In the latter part of the book (section ten) he is quite explicit about this stating that “after Copernicus, astronomers lived in a different world… [and] after the discovery of oxygen, Lavoisier worked in a different world.”
With an approach to paradigms where they are changes in “worldviews” — only our “view” changes but the world stays the same. In this approach, change amounts to “seeing things differently.” But, how we see things emerges from how we do things with things. And in this we are shaping our immediate environment and in turn our environment is shaping us. The world is not separate from us — it is not something “out there” to simply be seen one way or another. This is the very core of the Enactive approach to cognition.
Kuhn is firmly of such a perspective: with a revolution, with a paradigm change the world changes. After a paradigm change we are in and of a different world. How we sense, act, and conceptualize has changed — the affordance landscape that makes up our world is new.
This becomes even more explicit in Kuhn’s later work where he critiques his idea that there is a phase of uncoordinated activities prior to any paradigm emerging. He later says that we are always in and of a world — we are never without shared practices, commitments, models and exemplars.
If this is true the problem is then that Kuhn and the model of theoretical change in some sciences is not as robust as one might have imagined. Without a focus on experimentation and tool building we are left with only one leg of a tripod. And, for us the question is: when we put the missing legs back on this tripod, will we still have anything like a Kuhnian model of change? Will it still be useful to focus on “paradigm change”?
Our sense is that it is not. The logic is too theoretical, and does a poor job of taking the distributed and emergent logic of processes into account. Our exploration of processes, emergence, feedback and especially feedforward suggest a differing approach.
Paradigm 2.0 for us is to return the term to a more modest and local meaning: it is a shared example. And in the context of creativity and innovation it is a shared example of an exaptation that when abstracted might suggest novel world opening possibilities.
But, novel paradigms are not novel worlds. Those need to be made — there is no switch, despite what Donella Meadows says “…in a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click of the mind, a falling of the scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing…” It is not happening in our minds, it is always emerging from a middle — a middle of doing.
Yes, we do need novel paradigms — novel shared sufficiently unprecedented examples of exaptations that suggest a possible path to explore — really make. But more than that we need the techniques and processes that will participate in the emergence of novel worlds. And those are much closer to what we discussed last week with the concept of Feedforward and Epicycles.
Paradigms are a tool in the practice of exaptive emergence in feedforward processes and the stabilization of novel epicycles — they are not the silver bullet.
Well, that’s where we want to leave things for the week! It is a lot to think about — especially the importance in shifting away from the logic of “worldviews” and understanding what it means to be of a world.
We wish you a beautiful weekend and week — full of unintended emergent paths and processes.
Till Volume 54,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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