Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 79! On Games, Tools, and Probes for Disruptive Innovation...
Good morning ongoing practices of innovation,
Well… we are back from our twenty three hour round trip to Austin. It was one of those leave-the-house-at-4am days: land in a strange town, get briefly oriented, prepare, do a great all-day workshop that ends with a wonderful group dinner, sleep a couple of hours and head back to the airport at 4am, and then its a new day and you are back where you started.
The return was made thrilling by landing in Newark during a full-on Nor'easter…
It was a great workshop where we used a new exercise – really a new game we’ve been developing and trying out for quite some time that loosely uses the conceit of inventing a new language as a tool to understand the process of exaptive co-emergence and the making of a novel world. Developing this game took us down a few really interesting wormholes about “what is a game?”, the invention of languages, and are there games about inventing languages that are really good?
On the first question “what is a game?” we read this wonderful short book by C. Thi Nyguyen “Games: Agency as Art”. In which Thi Nyguyen makes a great argument for the fact that games are a carefully constructed space (world) of alternative agency exploration. And in doing so games act as technology to develop, explore, record and transmit forms of agency. He has quite a bit to say about the specific nature of what makes games unique (the form of goals and motivation, the logic of the struggle, the invention of arbitrary rules, etc.). It is one of the very few books we have read that got at what games are on their own terms. It is a great book, but for those who just want a sense of Thi Nyguyen’s argument, this podcast offers a good introduction (while talking about many other very interesting and related subjects from the nature of conspiracies to worldmaking).
On the last question: are there any really good games about the invention of languages? We found two both produced by this wonderful game company Thorny Games (they also have a love for crows and ravens): Signs – which is based on the true story of the invention of Nicaraguan Sign Language (a very interesting story in its own right about the spontaneous development of a language). It is a wonderful game, played in silence where you are a child going to your first day of school. The game play is divided between “class” and “recess” and consists of cards with simple instructions prompting everyday interactions. It takes about two hours and the experience is quite astonishing as an exercise in sensing what matters between people. The second game was Dialect – a game that focuses more on making a discreet world as an isolated community (you can see it being played here). Also really really worth playing.
We really see the power in playing games (and also the limits) to explore discrete aspects of innovation. A game is not just an exercise where you learn a tool to be applied elsewhere, but really an immersive opportunity to explore new forms of agency in a very rich manner. Because of this games are astonishing, and of great value in exploring the larger logics of innovation. We put a lot of effort into their development, and so it was quite rewarding in Austin to see a group of total strangers embrace our strange language invention game and using various crumpled paper forms act as “martian anthropologists” to explore lost languages and their speculative worlds – working with some really great graffiti artists from Something Cool Studios made it extra special. Here is an image from early in the workshop of the participants attuning themselves to the affordances of spray paint and walls:
What our digression into game development and the focus of last week’s newsletter were all about was figuring out ways of getting people to sense in a deeply experiential manner how distinct Disruptive Innovation is. Last week in the newsletter we looked at “the two faces of innovation” and the problematic assumption that if a tool works well for one aspect of innovation – it will work equally well in all circumstances.
The most common tools in the design & entrepreneurial ecosystem of innovation – those of the problem-solution approach such as:
Disruptive innovation processes produce forms of novel qualitative difference, and because of this a radically different approach is required from that of Developmental Innovation. Such an approach has at its focus the emergence of a novel world (which was what our exaptive language invention game focused on). Because one is not making a product/solution but co-evolving and co-emerging with a qualitatively new world, radically different tools are required.
These tools focus on tangible, active & experimental techniques of probing that involve a process of disclosing + blocking, & following unintended capacities (exaptation) in a co-emergent manner (where the outcome will exceed knowing) across a threshold that demarks the line between variation & qualitative difference involving feedforward processes.
From this brief paragraph we can get a sense of some of these tools/practices:
Of all of the concepts/tools/practices on this list, probes are perhaps the most fundamental and also perhaps the most misunderstood (we will get to that shortly). Ultimately, probes and probing is a fundamental aspect and tool involved in every aspect of Disruptive Innovation.
What is a probe? — a probe is a way to agitate and perturbate the system as a whole into responding in novel and surprising manners. This is the key aspect of a probe: because you cannot logically know what the radically new will be — you have no choice but to poke the system and work with how it responds. Because of this – a probe is not a plan that has an end in mind, nor is it a prototype (a draft version of a possible solution). A probe is simply a considered and strategic way to join and activate a system from within towards disclosing both its propensities and novel affordances.
The big mistake that we see people often make is that they conflate a probe with a test prototype or provisional plan for a specific outcome. A probe is neither – it is rather a system perturbator that has two main goals:
Early on your probes should be semi-reversible – you are still testing the waters.
As you sense propensities and novel emergent exaptations, you begin to experimentally play with variables (what happens if we do more of this and less of that?) while searching for thresholds. Here thresholds are critical – they are the emergent transition zones where a change-in-degree becomes a change-in-kind – where a quantitative change becomes a qualitative change. Exaptive probing has this as its primary focus – can one push a system via exaptive probing towards an emergent novel qualitative change? It is important to remember this is a creative act: the threshold is not pre-existing, it emerges in the process.
As your exaptive probes co-create a novel threshold one needs to shift towards forms of probing that stabilize and expand the qualitatively new. The goal is still not to “solve” something but to either expand the novel terrain or to push the system further into a qualitatively new state (see diagram below):
What we are trying to sense in probing is new states and propensities from what new processes are emerging. We like to call the set of experimental practices that are pushing a system towards a qualitatively new state: pirate projects. They are no longer interested in expanding a known world or building out new topologies of probability within an existing overarching emergent logic. Pirate projects develop from probes with the explicit goal of world disruption.
Probes can take endless forms — they are responding to specific contexts. Good examples of this can be found in interventionist art such as the work of the Yes Men Bhopal Project, or in the Fluxus art of Alison Knowles - Make a Salad, and Yoko Ono Cut Piece. Or the crawls of PopeL.
But, the limits of these art projects as probes is that they do not involve carefully following and working with what emerges. The founding and early work of GreenPeace (this is a great documentary on how they developed out of a series of experimental probes). Their early work combines both forms of probes.
Here is a brief list we prepared as a introduction to how to set up an experimental situation that puts one squarely in the middle of the process of Radical Innovation and far outside of the logic of Developmental Innovation such that one can begin to experimentally probe:
Consider this an introduction to the critical skill and practice of probing – perhaps the pivotal skill for immersively engaging with all of the practices, techniques, tools and approaches of Disruptive Innovation (in contrast to Developmental Innovation).
We wrote a longer article that dives much deeper into techniques for probing. This would be our recommendation for weekend reading and testing.
That’s it from us for this week – from sunny Austin and stormy New Jersey – have a wonderful week!
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