The Adjacent Possible

The Adjacent Possible

Why openly-collaborative innovation expands and adapts so rapidly.

Try and imagine what the world was like before the wheel was invented. Human locomotion on land was limited to walking, running, or riding an animal. In this context, it would have been impossible to imagine (let alone build) a bicycle or car. This is because the bicycle and car were not yet adjacent possibilities—they were more than one innovation away. Because of this, they could not be conceived of before the invention of the wheel. Peter Diamandis explains it like this:

Before the invention of the wheel, the cart, the carriage, the automobile, the wheelbarrow, the roller skate, and a million other offshoots of circularity were not imaginable. They existed in a realm that was off-limits until the wheel was discovered, but once discovered, these pathways became clear. This is the adjacent possible. It’s the long list of first-order possibilities that open up whenever a new discovery is made (Diamandis & Kotler, 2012).

The concept of the “adjacent possible” is credited to Stuart Kauffman and has been described by Steven Johnson as “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself” (Johnson, 2010).

Johnson goes on to explain how the opening up of the adjacent possible expands the realm of the possible in a non-linear manner:

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open.

Many organizations and companies attempt to innovate with small groups of people behind closed doors (e.g., secret R&D labs). While this is understandable for those who have trade secrets to protect, closed environments can actually hinder the opening up of the adjacent possible:

The problem with these closed environments is that they make it more difficult to explore the adjacent possible, because they reduce the overall network of minds that can potentially engage with a problem, and they reduce the unplanned collisions between ideas originating in different fields (Johnson, 2010).

So it is no surprise that the opening up of adjacent possibilities tends to happen most readily in open, collaborative contexts. This is apparent in the open-source software and open-access problem-solving world (e.g., Innocentive) where the free association of ideas and people with the broadest range of skills and needs can innovate and problem solve together.


References

  1. Diamandis, P. H., & Kotler, S. (2012). Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (Reprint edition). Free Press.
  2. Johnson, S. (2010). The Origins of Good Ideas. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703989304575503730101860838