Emergent Creators, Emergent Economies (Learn Do Share #4)

The following is one of my two contributions to this year’s “Learn Do Share” project—a booksprint designed to document the incredible diy days, using a process of open collaboration, and distill the lessons learned to serve as a resource for anyone interested in applying design thinking, social innovation, storytelling, and collaborative creativity. For more, visit the Learn Do Share and diy days websites, and download Learn Do Share #4 (available as a free PDF). Special thanks to all those who participated, and most of all to Ele Jansen and Jasmine Lyman for directing the booksprint and Lance Weiler for masterminding diy days itself.

Emergent Creators, Emergent Economies

Emergence is a powerful concept, referring to the capacity of complex systems, composed of individually autonomous entities, to give rise to mass-scale intelligence larger than the sum of its parts. If evolution is the optimization of something over a long period of time, as beneficial characteristics are naturally selected for, emergence is something similar on the systems level, a level of collective intelligences.

Reflecting on the keynotes from this diy days, I gleaned several meta-themes, important threads running through all or many of the big ideas presented. These themes include creative entrepreneurship, innovation, and community-building—but one of the most important I saw was that of emergence. The concept itself is powerful, but its implications—that cooperation, group interaction, and human networks can converge to enable revolutionary systems of creation and transaction—are even more so.

The creative process has never happened in a vacuum—but now more than ever, collaborative processes are becoming crucial to making interesting work, interesting experiences, and valuable contributions to the world.

As Ele Jansen discussed, creativity is opening up and becoming something that happens amongst and between groups of people. Collaborative efforts are on the rise as open design workshops, remixed or appropriated work, and interdisciplinarity play a large role in our cultural and social modes of creation. In this sort of system, ideals of openness and transparency are crucial, as they allow us to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t quickly, our evaluative processes relying on aggregate wisdom rather than individual intuition.

In this process, ideas and companies alike can be incubated in an economy of “circular trust” that feeds off feedback cycles, constantly gathering experimental information to either validate or disprove assumptions. We then cycle this information back through the system, gradually establishing ways of leveraging collective intelligence to develop creative solutions that improve little by little all the time.

I’m particularly taken with the idea of “incomplete by design”—leaving certain parts of your work intentionally unfinished and allowing for many solutions and refinements to be inserted and tested. It’s a strategy that acknowledges imperfection and in doing so grants implicit license for others to build on and improve your work.

Colleen Macklin spoke engagingly about the many valuable uses of play. It can be used for creative exploration, for understanding nonlinear phenomena, for political ends, or simply for embellishing our everyday experience. It’s also closely tied to emergent behavior. Play is defined by rules, by constraints—just like the behaviors in any emergent system that give rise to a form of collective intelligence. Within these rule-constrained systems, complex behaviors can emerge within a game that we wouldn’t expect from knowing the rules alone—like bluffing in poker, for example. These things add complexity and make games more interesting; we engage with a system, learn from it, and develop strategies based on the rules that enable us to succeed within that system.

Games also help us to learn how to make sense of the world around us, how to fail, and how to co-opt new strategies as we observe what works and what doesn’t. These processes of meta-learning are vital to our ability to continually learn and improve.

When creating games, it’s important to do something called play-testing—getting feedback from audiences (whether direct or through observation) as they play your game. It’s impossible to comprehensively design an entire experience, so we design its constraints; from observing what actually happens we can then tweak and modify the rule system iteratively to get more desired results or tilt the balance of the system in a particular direction. The concept of evolutionary refinement at play here is the same one we can use to generate emergent output in any sort of creative work, and it opens up infinite possibilities.

Ultimately this sort of implementation of the creative process leads us to new modes of exchange, new social contracts, and entirely new economic paradigms. Peter Sims and Alexa Clay had a great deal to teach us about underexplored strategies for creatively producing and transacting in value in a multitude of economic networks and systems.

The core principles here are evolution and rapid iteration of ideas, which apply equally to economics as well as creativity—to any sort of value system. When it comes to testing many possible solutions, there’s a definite, probabilistically proven strength in numbers. You can build your own luck through raw output, through sheer quantity of attempts and experiments—the more “small bets” you make, and the more quickly you can ascertain their efficacy, the more chances you’ll have for optimizing your strategies, adopting the successful parts and killing off those that fail. Survival of the fittest doesn’t just apply to nature.

It’s important to take risks, but they should be calculated; our goal is a stepwise yet nimble and relentless process of optimization. We want to start with whatever limited resources are at our disposal, and—without gambling more than we can afford to lose—leverage those resources as effectively as possible, using our assets (tools, ideas, dollars) to build on themselves and generate compounding returns.

The “Misfit Economy”—a term that broadly refers to the systems of economic transaction that fly under the radar, free from rules and regulations, encompassing such things as black markets, piracy, and hacker networks—provides abundant examples of emergent activity. We can learn much from looking in non-traditional places for mechanisms that may not be sanctioned or status quo—but that work—and appropriating them for our own purposes.

We can do things like make astute investments in other people (social capital is inexpensive in terms of dollars, but can pay big returns), creatively establishing boundaries (the better to define our own rules of engagement), and foster a resilience mindset (adopting a flexible, “antifragile” strategy and distributing our points of weakness or failure).

Such unexpectedly clever adaptations need not arise only from obscure corners of grey markets; they can be fostered in organizations and situations of all types. Indeed we can actively encourage and nurture such models: we can increase human agency, reduce hierarchy, share ownership, attune to biorhythms, pool resources, and build common infrastructure. These sorts of things will help us becomes more resourceful creators, prepared for the chaotic and unpredictable, alert and always on the hustle.

New economies and markets will continue to emerge, and some of the most exciting are those that enable greater self-expression. Reduced friction and costs of creation and distribution give rise to the long tail—a multiplicity of voices, expanded market space cropping up for the taking. We just have to figure out how to go and grab it.