In a Wall Street Journal article titled ‘The Genius of the Tinkerer’, Steven Johnson, describes the term the adjacent possible as 'a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.'
I love this idea of the adjacent possible. Once you get the adjacent possible, innovation naturally comes, whether you’re a writer, musician, technologist, scientist, development worker, IT consultant, housewife, gardener etc. Grasp the adjacent possible and life will feel a bit more roomy, open and possible. There will be a sense of an infinite resource surrounding you and particularly in front of you. This blogpost is about taking a look at your mind's operating system and enabling it to trust in the inherent innovation that is the world. It is not a series of tips and techniques. It’s a ‘big picture’ look at innovation.
This blogpost also expresses some of the deeper ideas at the heart of Upkurve, a company that I founded. The company aims to link wealthy innovation points on the planet to more impoverished regions of the globe. Upkurve aims to link ideas, media and tech to the developing world in a systematic and focused way. Not to simply transplant these things, but to allow them to take root and evolve into new regions and niches. Upkurve is about taking development up an exponential curve of growth.
So back to the adjacent possible. An idea which is at the heart of growth. Let’s call it AP. In simple terms, Johnson delivers two simple metaphors that describe AP and which we can use and apply both to business and to life in general. One is a magic house; the other is a shadow future map. Life, business and reality in general can be likened to a house that continues to expand as you open doors. You are an explorer and architect probing the strange edge of what is possible in a magic house of automated extensions; a mansion of your own making.
This house is limitless!
Imagine this: You enter a room. The room has interior design that you instantly love. For me, that would mean styles taken from different cultures and ages as I love diversity. There are three doors on the other side of a now plushly carpeted room. Without too much fuss and in the spirit of a curious child, you choose a door and go on through. What next? There is a corridor, ornate and yet still somehow in sync with your taste. You notice that the floor is made of glass and there are fish swimming beneath it. A red door to the right and a green door to the left come into view. You decide to take the red door. It opens into a gorgeous room with a glass ceiling which allows shards of sun light to splinter into the room. You soak up the beauty of your surroundings. Then four more doors appear. You continue the process, sometimes strategically and sometimes randomly opening doors, witnessing a room’s beauty, and walking through to open more doors to more pop-up chambers. The house goes on expanding. Every door you walk through leads onto spaces of every kind: stair cases, inner gardens, lounges, circus areas, libraries… Some chambers are populated with people engaging in arts, crafts, sciences, talks, debates, comedy.. whilst others are simple and empty; the path through this magically extending house supplies you with an infinite variety of experiences.
Observations of the limitless
There are no dead ends. The law of the magic house is this: there will always be more than one door to choose from, there will always be a new room to enter. One observation Johnson makes is that at the start of your journey, you could never guess the room composition of your magic house nor your particular trajectory through it. It requires some trust in its properties, i.e. that going through one door will lead into another room.
The hover map
The second useful metaphor is that of a map. A map which captures a limited sliver of the future. But not just one scenario of the future, all possible scenarios, that directly flow from the present state of things: a shadow future hovering over the present. It hovers over the present, a present which can reinvent itself down any one of a million possible alleyways and thoroughfares connecting the present to a new future state of things. Your life, innovation and business works in much the same way. You are constantly exploring the map of a shadow future. You are slap splosh against its frothy edge. You can become conscious of this fact and start ensuring the reinvention process goes down the street of your choice, or just blindly walk through hoping for the best; or outsource the decision making process to someone else. The future can be directed if you accept the concept of the map or the house. We can push on in a certain direction, focus our creative jaunt through the magic house on a particular area of interest. Head north, east, up, down - there will be an AP as long as you’re human.
There are always doors and rooms to explore. Once you’ve travelled a certain distance, unpacking a particular wing of the house, there is always a map of unchartered territory springing into existence. The territory is endless and there are no boundaries to the creative expansion. Your Escher-like house is called the future. Keep opening the doors and walking through. Business is like this, keep walking and more opportunities come.
The implications are immense. It means there is an adjacent possible for every idea we think of.
In the age of the internet and the digital, the number of doors which you can go through are nigh infinite and the Gaudi-esque palace which you can construct truly immense and quickly assembled. The digital age and the age of connectivity is unleashing a tsunami of possibility and creativity, unparalleled by even the emergence of agrarian civilisation 10,000 years ago or the more recent industrial revolutions.
Origins of AP idea
The term the ‘Adjacent Possible’ comes from pre-biotic biology, and was coined by a man called Stuart Kauffman.
He used it to describe the immediate possible future of life evolution from organic chemistry. From the fatty acids of a primordial soup in ancient Earth, simple spheres in water were naturally formed. Perhaps these ancient bubbles were early cell membranes of ancient cells. Nucleic acids could coalesce inside those bubbles. Cells and eventually multicellular organisms could emerge and the unravelling of life and history could take place. But, from those initial fatty acids the next step would not be a mosquito or a polar bear. They lay outside the AP area. They lay outside the map of the AP. What lay in the AP of a brown bear was a polar bear. In any next step you can get a limited number of possibilities playing out. The ‘adjacent possible’ beautifully captures both the possibilities and limitations of immediate future innovations.
Evolutionary innovation takes place through a combining process and not via sudden revelations of pristinely packaged products. You needed the wine-press before Gutenberg could come up with the printing press. The invention of the printing press combined the desire for mass printing, with the knowledge of the wine press.
According to Steven Johnson the adjacent possible occurs anywhere along the timeline which extends back to the big bang. And this is what I love about the adjacent possible: that it beautifully cuts across any point in evolutionary history: early life, the invention of spectacles, twitter, your personal life and business development; it captures the idea that the immediate future is both pregnant with multiple possibilities and draws limits in the sense that it allows steps rather than transportations. So it inspires as well as grounds you (I’ll come back to the grounding soon)
It is also note-worthy to acknowledge that we are living in a time when the number of doors of the mansion are at an all time high. In earth’s early history, a primeval soup provided a high intensity interactive media which meant more opportunity for molecules to interact. If you were a serf or a peasant in agrarian times, you would of had a lot fewer opportunities open to you. AP was still present, but a lot more precarious and limited than today. As we have evolved over time from clan to agrarian civilisations, to modern city states and to a global society, with internet and social media, the exploration of AP increases in speed. This is obvious when you think about a city. Cities bustle with people from all walks of life. Business and people come together and creativity and innovation are a lot higher than, say, in a village. When things go digital, things start going super fast, exponentially so. Coupled with connectivity and the crowd, things sometimes go faster than exponential growth - warp speed.
Coming back to the limiting or grounding part of the adjacent possible, even the limiting qualities of the metaphor are inspiring when you consider that the idea of the adjacent possible is predicated on life having evolved over 4 billion years with the astonishing production of complexity - aka a global human society. I find this idea of ‘big time’ exhilarating, because although the adjacent possible defines limits, it also indicates the magnificent possibilities ahead. To grasp this, Physicist Martin Rees, says that if you shrink the Earth’s life time to a single calendar year, we see something almost biblically interesting. The 21st century would be a quarter of a second into June. We are now, cosmically speaking on the 1st of June. The creatures that witness the demise of the sun will be as different from us as we are from single celled bacteria. Slap bang in the centre of the calendar. We are only half way through the year, and we’ve gone from single cells to human beings plopping men on the moon; simplicity to mind boggling complexity in just 6 months. Put another way, by the end of Q2 we can fill in our 6 monthly report declaring we’ve progressed from prokaryotic invisible germs to sentient human beings birthing artificial intelligence, self-replicating dust in a heated pond in archaic Earth to self-reflecting consciousnesses drinking coffee and reading this blog.
Collective and individual futures
Now the question it begs is what do we have in store for the rest of the cosmic year? If in half a year we’ve gone from single cells to human beings, where could we potentially be by the end of the year? The adjacent possible opens up vistas of possibility and jumpstarts even the most cynical of imaginations to envision positive futures. We can open the doors to something amazing and inspiring. Upkurve is about exploring the adjacent possible and enabling the surplus innovation in developed counties to meaningfully impact developing countries.