Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 62! Experimentation Does Not Lead To Discoveries...
Good morning unintended effects,
Today we are writing from the road. We are currently sitting on the bus traveling from Vienna to Graz. They have these wonderful train-like seat configurations with tables. Makes for a great work environment. And an ideal environment for a conversation.
Yesterday afternoon we did a workshop in Vienna with TechHouse (a startup accelerator organization) on “innovation without ideation”. Now we are on our way to Graz to give a talk on innovation and exaptation.
Last week in the newsletter we wrote in response to a comment that one of our posts on Linked in received. This week are doing the same thing. The process of writing, receiving insightful feedback, and discussing things has been wonderfully fruitful for us.
This week we wrote a short post on exaptations — it’s been at the forefront of our thinking all week as we prepared for this talk.
The post was on how exaptations are best understood as complex processes and not just one one step types of events. This provoked the beginnings of what became a really interesting discussion for us on whether the concept of “discovery” is the correct term for what is happening in exaptive acts of innovation.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The post does a good job of introducing both exaptations and our questions so lets first turn to that:
“Exaptation is not the one-step process of an accident producing a eureka moment that it is so often portrayed as…
Exaptation is a critical process in innovation processes by which the new emerges.
Originally a concept developed in the field of evolutionary biology, it has over the last 20 plus years become seen as relevant to all forms of innovation, including, or perhaps especially, human innovation processes. There is a developing argument that exaptative processes participate in all human innovation in one way or another.
What is exaptation? A very simple definition: It is the process by which things with one function or even no function are co-opted for a different or new function. It takes many distinct forms and has many variations.
As the process of exaptation becomes more well known in the world of human creativity and innovation circles we start to hear the same stories repeated: first it is the dinosaur becoming a bird by co-opting feathers developed for thermoregulation to fly, then the story of radar melting a chocolate bar leading to the microwave or mold growing in accidentally left out Petri dishes leading to modern antibiotics.
These stories of human innovation are told as if what occurred was a simple one-off moment of ideation because of some chance event.
And they mirror the reduction of the evolutionary story to a roughly one-off event (dinosaurs have big feathers because of thermoregulation and they start leaping — soon they are flying…)
What we see is an innovation narrative where the innovation process becomes one of just adding a one-off unintended event to the beginning of the ideation process. And that in the ideation process this co-opted purpose is magically recognized for what it is — the new purpose. Then a plan is realized and before you know it we have a microwave oven.
But this narrative is just a retelling of the highly flawed “god model” (ideate, plan, make) of innovation. The god model is an illusion — it does not work, and simply adding exaptation as a one-off event to the beginning of this does not make it work any better — more importantly nor does it reflect what happens in exaptive processes.“
The questions and the comments in Linkedin were in themselves quite simple (it is a format that favors brevity)— but they were, for us, quite catalytic — and really helpful in how they got us thinking and talking.
We just want to pick out a few key concepts from the comments:
“To me, exaptation feels more like an act of unintended discovery in a context that is somehow restless…”
“…Single moments of realization”
“Came from noticing…”
This got the two of us discussing (in taxi’s, planes, buses, over frequent coffee’s and the odd glass of wine) — what do we mean when we talk of “discovery” in innovation?
Is the framing of “an act of noticing… that is a single moment of realization… or an act of unintended discovery…” the right way to frame key moments in the process of innovation? For us, all of these phrases are forms of the “discovery narrative” — and the question is — Is it helpful to say that anything was “discovered.”
Our basic concern is that if something is genuinely novel it does not pre-exist the practices that lead to its emergence. And thus speaking of a “discovery” the way one could speak of discovering an unknown planet is problematic.
What makes all of this even more interesting is how many experimental scientists talk of their innovations — they are using the language of “discoveries” too.
This is exactly how, many years after the fact, Alexander Flemming talks about the invention of Penicillin:
“When I woke up on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer— but that is what i did…”
~ Alexander Fleming
But that is precisely what he did not do — in reality no one, including Fleming, thought at the time this work was important or really having anything significant to do with wound treatment… This only develops later and takes more than a decade of research to get anywhere.
This simplified discovery narrative is one told with the benefit of hindsight.
In this story Alexander Fleming leaves some Petri dishes out by mistake— and on coming back from holiday he “notices” and “discovers” that mold had by chance found its way onto the Petri dishes and killed the bacteria, — which instantly spurs the idea for the first antibiotics and the rest is history.
It is told as a story of “discovery.” And that what is intended by this term is that the critical thing that happened was that a one-off event led to the discovery of a new approach to human health (antibiotics).
But this telling of the story is more of a self-serving myth than the actual story…. Nothing like antibiotics came out of this event in any direct manner.
Actually, what Fleming thought that this mold, which he dubbed penicillin, was somewhat useful for was to help isolate bacteria for research. In his first presentation of his research this is precisely what he presented: "A medium for the isolation of Pfeiffer's bacillus." There was little interest.
And he and his team quickly abandoned this line of research because they could not effectively isolate the fungi or see a real value in it. But they do publish a modest paper on this work (concluding mainly that it might be of some use in isolating bacteria).
So penicillin emerges from this exaptive process (moving in an unintended way between labs to colonize the Petri dishes) to become a tool to help grow the right bacteria — and a very modest one at that.
Even as late as 1940 the consensus from the British Medical Council and others was that it was of little other practical meaning and use.
But even starting here is getting ahead of the story — It is important to get a sense of the larger context:
By the late 1800’s many people were interested in molds and how they could help with healing.
It was a unique moment, Pasteur had just isolated bacteria. Many new tools for working with microbes were being developed that in themselves had astonishing agency.
New environments were being co-ordinated and developed: bio-medical research labs (along with their procedures) first and foremost amongst these. And in all of this the hygiene approach to health was just emerging. This approach was slowly shifting the humoral approach to medicine and health — a paradigm that had been central to European practices since the classical greeks.
In short new practices, habits, tools, subjectivities, critters, ecosystems and concepts were co-emerging such that there was an emerging international community actively working on experimenting with similar questions —
What is bacteria?
What do molds do?
How do they have an effect?
And it’s in this context that In 1928 Fleming and his team left some Petri Dishes out — and mold does find its way into their ecosystem by chance and it kills bacteria. Which leads them to speculate that it might be part of a useful technique to mainly help isolate bacteria for research (there is mention of the possibility of wound treatment— but for the most part they dismiss it as a viable option because of the impossibility of isolating the right fungi.
But a few other researchers (Ernst Chain and Howard Florey along with their team and eventually many others including Fleming) — in the late 1930s had started to experiment with the unintended affordance penicillin had, in the right context, of somewhat effectively killing bacteria in surface wounds.
But getting the mold — this fungi to co-operate was exceedingly hard — isolating, stabilizing, transforming and making at a testable scale — the processes of attunement and co-emergence proved nearly impossible.
To get any useful and testable amount of fungi took a massive operation to produce the growth medium and then culture the bacteria. Thousands of gallons of growth medium (a meat broth) were required to grow even the smallest testable quantity.
One key innovation in this process can from another micro exaptation — Bed pans were used because nothing else could be found — they proved to work exceedingly well and so they were exapted and eventually led to a custom manufactured tool.
Now many such micro exaptations were required to fabricate the correct eco-system/taskspace. (The story is a sprawling one that is poorly told in any one source and we are radically simplifying for the sake of this newsletter). A second important note is that the form of exaptations is also highly varied… and all forms that one finds in the below diagram are utilized countless times:
Ultimately what was required was finding a different mold that could be stabilized, transformed and grown in mass quantities.
So another exaptive pivot…
And the actual mold that worked was accidentally discovered on a rotting cantaloupe purchased at a Peoria farmers market in smack in the middle of the US.
And along with these many exaptations of tools and techniques were required. Other forces, including x-rays were developed and used to rapidly develop chance induced mutations (further exaptations) that might be more effective. In all of this the fungi involved are both active agents in the process and being transformed in the process (and the same can be said for all involved from tools, to ecosystems, to human researchers, etc.).
Out of the midst of this a novel world emerged….
And this is the one last part of the story that is critical — the emergence of the novel world of anti-biotics — during this second phase of experimentation — there is an at first hesitant sense — and one critically provoked by the experiments themselves — that this could be more than a one-off new surface wound treatment but a whole new approach to health — antibiotics — …how a living thing can be harnessed to kill another living thing.
This “world-making” emerges from the middle of the experiments themselves — as an durative and iterative event of thinking-in-doing…
It’s not a neat one step process — nor is about just sensing, noticing or “discovering” the odd.
Rather it is a whole process.
The critical point is that what was happening in all of this is NOT one of simply noticing or “discovering” the odd and then ideating as the mythic retelling of the story suggests.
Rather early stage innovation is all about an extended process of exaptively co-creating, co-producing, refining and stabilizing many novel “events” and repeating this process many times… It’s messy hands on work — it involves countless different tasks: blocking and alternative ecosystem building — exapting tools, processes, concepts, contexts and much else besides.
The great historian of science, Ian Hacking says it better:
“Most experiments don’t work most of the time. To ignore this fact is to forget what experimentation is doing. To experiment is to create, produce, refine and stabilize phenomena... But phenomena are hard to produce in any stable way. That is why I spoke of creating and not merely discovering phenomena. That is a long hard task. Or rather there are endless different tasks... Perhaps the real knack is getting to know when the experiment is working. That is one reason why observation, in the philosophy of science usage of the term, plays a relatively small role in experimental science” (Ian Hacking)
Our general sense is that we really need to stop using the language of “discoveries”— as if the new is just out there unseen ready to be co-opted — or that there is even a new “context” ready for it to switch into. In actuality it is highly involved — there is so much creating in creativity!
Well, sadly our bus is pulling into Graz and we have to pivot — have an astonishing and highly engaged experimental week!
Till Volume 63,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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