The Adjacent Possible

At Christmas I began reading a book entitled “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steve Johnson. The book, released last Autumn had a video trailer that was doing the rounds on the internet which was causing quite a buzz, and I have an interest in innovative/entrepreneurial things so picked it up.

The book is supposed to be a history of innovation, and after a brief introduction Steve looks into 7 different “phenomenon” or patterns in innovation, drawing on examples from throughout history.

The first topic Steve opens with is the idea of the “Adjacent Possible” – this theory was originally proposed by Stuart Kauffman,  and relates to evolution of life. Essentially the theory is that evolution happens around the “edges” of existence and evolution takes small steps, for example, in the primordial soup the evolution was more like singular cellular organisms evolving in to multi-cellular organisms, rather than making a bigger leap to evolve an eye for example.  The analogy Steve used was of a huge building of interconnected rooms, with doors on every side of the room, and to progress, or to get somewhere new, you can only use a door to connect to the next room. You can never jump many rooms ahead, but are limited to progress one room at a time via the “Adjacent Possible”.

The point that Steve draws from this is that innovation is similar in nature, and many of the big innovations have been a small change to existing thoughts, or a combination of existing thoughts, pushing the benefit of working and mixing with a range of cultures/arts/technologies so you place yourself on the edge of innovation, and therefore closer to the adjacent possible. Whilst saying it out loud or thinking about it makes is sound quite obvious, I think it’s something that is easy to miss, and as technologists(read nerds) it’s easy to focus on immersing ourselves in different technologies/frameworks for all our side projects, but actually, focussing on innovation, it’s probably more beneficial to spend a bit more time looking at other areas of industry/art/science to see where innovations and thoughts from different ares could come together to form something new and not spend so much time trying to build projects driven by technology.

I really like this idea, if you normalise all current thought/processes/etc in to a square, and inside this is everything that has been created/exists right now, so really the next innovation is going to be right around the border of the square. As it happens, I have found this to be true personally (without any intention), as coming from a professional work environment delivering enterprise software solutions, two of the projects I am currently focussing most of my effort on are about bringing together some of the value, benefits and human behaviours from web2.0/social media applications to the more traditional enterprise project management tasks - which makes a lot of sense, I work in enterprise software delivery, and I see all the processes/software that exists for this job, and my ideas for new projects are around the "edges" of these things, and are coming from looking at what is the adjacent possible to what we have already in this space.