Mother of Invention

I found NPR Cosmos & Culture blog contributor Stuart Kauffman‘s piece fascinating: “The Fruitful, Unprestatable Adjacent Possible.” It centers around Yusuke Ohki’s idea behind Bookscan in Japan.

I begin with a true, whimsical and lovely tale. Recently a Japanese man living in a tiny apartment, perhaps in Tokyo, with his 2,000 books felt utterly crowded. He scanned his library into his new iPad and sold the used books. But THEN: It dawned on him that this was a new business opportunity, and he is now offering “iPad library scanning” services as his new way of making a living.

I love it. Notice, to be a bit technical, that his “iPad library screening” business is a technological complement to iPad, as screw and screw driver are complements, creating value together.

Obviously the “iPad library scanning” business could not have come into existence prior to iPad’s invention and reasonably widespread sale.

What is the whimsical new “functionality” of this business that is the iPad complement? Screening libraries of those in tiny Japanese apartments crowded by books.

Then given the invention and widespread sale of iPad, the new “iPad library screening” business was in what I keep calling the Adjacent Possible of the evolution of our economic and technological web. The little example above demonstrates the ever innovation of new “complementarities”, that is new functionalities i.e., “screening libraries of those in tiny Japanese apartments crowded by books”, made POSSIBLE by what exists now.

So there are four huge implications: First, the Adjacent Possible is fruitful. There are myriad new Adjacent Possibilities, given the current Actual economy.

Second, we simply cannot PRESTATE what lies in this Adjacent Possible. Who would have thought of “screening libraries of those in tiny Japanese apartments crowded by books” as a part of the Adjacent Possible. Who would have thought, as I have blogged before, of the World Wide Web, eBay, Google, and Facebook, 30 years ago? We live in a fruitful world of ever new possibilities that we cannot prestate. As I keep writing, not only do we not know what WILL happen, we do not even know what CAN happen.

But the third implication is profound for today’s world. So, third, we cannot prestate the relevant strategy space of, say, the burgeoning economy becoming into its Adjacent Possible, so we CANNOT OPTIMIZE with respect to that BECOMING.

And the fourth implication is, I think, deeply empowering. iPad ENABLED THE POSSIBILITY of “screening libraries of those in tiny Japanese apartments crowded by books.” This new Adjacent Possible economic niche is not random, but not deterministic. Therefore we truly create the very possibilities we become. The same is true for the evolution of the biosphere where new species create non-random adjacent possible empty niches where the biosphere may/will evolve, then create ever new Adjacent Possible empty niches.

These issues are deeply important. Many people, including our elites, think we can prestate the possibilities, hence can optimize given a “figure of merit” and a set of expectations over those possibilities.

The new Japanese business is a tiny, profound, demonstration that this belief is just wrong. Sometimes, in confined conditions, we can optimize. Hence our aim is not only our limited prediction, optimization and management, it is enablement and adaptation.

I find this very empowering.

Think different, indeed!

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