The Adjacent Possible

“All of us live in our own private versions of the adjacent possible.  In our work lives, in our creative pursuits, in the organizations that employ us, in the communities we inhabit—in all these different environments, we are surrounded by potential new configurations, new ways of breaking out of our standard routines.” -Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 40.

The “adjacent possible” is the set of all future states that are one step away; it’s why the Internet couldn’t have been invented in medieval times, but so many programs are written daily now. Johnson uses the metaphor of walking through a door into another room, which then has three more doors that lead to rooms you couldn’t have reached directly from your starting point.

This has interesting personal applications, beyond what it means for innovation and progress.  On one hand, the new and different is only a step away, waiting for us to make a new connection or open a new door.  On the other hand, we can only move so quickly and expect so much; change is often gradual because it involves many incremental steps.


Innovation Quote of the Day

“A good idea is a network.” -Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 45.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one.  It has something to do with the fact that an idea – for a new product, process, subject to write about, etc. – is often a combination of various smaller components.  Microsoft Word combines elements of print writing with conventions of the computer screen.  This also helps explain why Darwin was able to write down all the essential components of his theory of evolution before, one night, realizing that he had a theory; the nodes of the network were there, but he had not yet zoomed out to see the full picture and all its implications.  Ideas-as-networks may also help explain why different perspectives are valuable; we may be focusing on a different aspect of an idea than our neighbor.

Innovation Quote of the Day

“Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor.” -Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 17

So we can use our minds to alter our environment, and our environment also shapes how we think.  The inhabitants of a frigid tundra will not dream up polka-dotted umbrellas.  This is true.  The question then arises of where we place the emphasis – on the power of individuals to shape their world, or all the circumstances that individuals require to come up with particular innovations – on individual agency or external forces.