Adjacent Possibilities: Intersecting Art and Entrepreneurship

You lose people as soon as you say the words ‘megawatt-hour’ or tonne of CO2. Climate disruption is a unique challenge that calls on society to invoke unprecedented imagination and ingenuity to address. Yet, with our current paradigms and approaches, we are failing to address climate disruption and other large scale complex issues.

Adjacent Possibilities was born out of the Studio Y social innovation fellowship at MaRS Discovery District and seeks to create new paradigms by identifying inquisitive, creative, and mentally flexible artists, colliding them with the previously unfamiliar world of entrepreneurship and innovation, and celebrating the new ideas created. By highlighting entrepreneurs who are innovating solutions to climate disruption, and using art as a medium to tell these stories, we work to create more accessible entry points in the conversation.

Our process (and name) is built from the theory of the Adjacent Possible, coined by evolutionary biologist and complexity theorist Stuart Kaufman to describe the realm of possibilities beyond reach at any given moment, but unlockable with each novel action, context, or re-configuration. Kaufman arrived at the theory of the Adjacent Possible in his effort to understand the evolutionary journey of systems towards complexity.

Later, innovation scholar Steven Johnson took this biological theory and re-applied it to human ingenuity. Using a prototypical example of disruptive innovation Johnson explains how the printing press was an inconceivable notion that only became unlocked to the European imagination once they had achieved the preceding innovations of movable type, paper, ink, and the wine press, and Johannes Gutenberg was inspired to reconfigure these existing ideas into a novel form. Our ability to isolate oxygen is a lesser known but perhaps more illuminating innovation that was enabled by the invention of sufficiently precise scales, but only emerged when this technical invention was connected to a conceptual revelation that air was not empty space but indeed full of gaseous molecules. Here we understand that the theory of the Adjacent Possible is relevant not just to technical inventions but also on our capacity to imagine.

In one of our recent experiments, we paired three of Canada’s most innovative clean tech energy entrepreneurs (Morgan Solar, Hydrostor and MMB Networks) and three artists (Li-Hill, LeuWebb Projects, and MAKELAB), and provoked them to engage with each other and explore the human capacity to address climate disruption through their art.

The process kicked-off with a facilitated workshop that allowed entrepreneurs and artists to learn about the intricacies of each other’s crafts. Next, the artist-entrepreneur teams engaged in a protracted dialogue about topics such as the relationship between technology and culture, the capacity of an economic system for change, and the limits of human psychology. The rich conversations that arose from this mixing of disciplines gave the artists new perspective to bring back to their studios.

Three fast paced weeks later, we convened several hundred people, introduced them to the artists and entrepreneurs, and invited them to use the newly created art to engage with climate disruption from a new perspective. Further, we produced curatorial documentaries to invite the audience to taste the artistic development process for themselves. After the show, attendees from government, arts, and business sectors remarked that this experience enabled them to have their deepest and most positive emotional connection to climate change to date.

The artists created the art during a short and intense learning journey where they were pushed beyond their conventional modalities, integrating diverse perspectives with a high degree of artistic rigor. The artists described the experience as among the most challenging and rewarding experiences. One of the most significant outcomes of this experiment is that these artists will approach their next projects with an expanded capacity to hold and create from spaces of paradox, contradiction, and complexity, and we expect that their new forms of artistic inquiry will extend past the works of Adjacent Possibilities in art and energy, and into future works.

Whereas the artists were stretched to incorporate new perspectives into their craft, the entrepreneurs acted as informants, exposing their craft for the artists to unpack, explore, and remix into their artistic medium. While this provided some novel perspectives on entrepreneurship, the entrepreneurs were not afforded the same opportunity to stretch their paradigms. In future experiments, we intend to produce more opportunities for deep collaboration between artists and entrepreneurs, designing a process to ensure that each entrepreneur will have an opportunity to be involved not just in the discovery process, but the creation as well.

The unimaginable challenges of our future will require inconceivable feats of adaptation and ingenuity. Current approaches are insufficient in addressing our biggest, most complex challenges, and as the rate and magnitude of these challenges increases, we must look beyond our traditional disciplines and create processes to draw from the rich middle space when paradigms collide. We introduce art to ask new questions, disrupt conventional modes of problem solving, and ultimately carve out the space for truly innovative thinking. To this end, Adjacent Possibilities heeds Johnson’s 2010 reminder that “chance favours the connected mind,” and strive to connect the not yet connected.

Photo: David McCaig/Adjacent Possibilities

the author

Ross Curtner