The Adjacent Possible

Stuart Kauffman, a complex-systems biologist, coined the term “adjacent possible” to explain the progression of simpler chemical structures to more complex ones. When simple chemical structures occupy the same space, they network with one another, each chemical structure talking to the others. The potential products of this mingling — new, more complex chemical structures — are possible realities that exist in a space Kauffman calls the adjacent possible. When new chemical structures do emerge, their very existence defines a new adjacent possible: a new mingling network with a new set of potential products.

Steven Johnson took Kauffman’s concept and applied it to ideas. “The adjacent possible,” Johnson writes in Where Good Ideas Come From, “is 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”. When the right components mingle in the same space, they chart out new territory of possible innovation. As an example, Johnson examines the isolation of oxygen as a component of air. Two pieces — the idea of viewing air as not a void but a substance with elements and the development of sensitive enough scales — connected to create an adjacent possible that included the isolation of oxygen. It was only when those two components were together that the adjacent possible was created and then made into reality. When that discovery was made, the scientists redefined both the edge of our knowledge and the edge of our potential knowledge.

Education is the means of getting to the edge. The raison d’être of education isn’t the raw accumulation of knowing; it’s interplay between what’s known, knowable, and possible. After all, knowledge by itself isn’t intrinsically useful. It’s only when, with that which is known firmly in hand, we enter into the shadow future and pull something back into the present that we actually create value. Humanity’s progress may simply be the process of trading glimpses into the adjacent possible for reality. With this in mind, education must equip us with the tools to tell the stories of the future. Standing at this edge of the possible, we are constantly remaking what the world is and what it could be.

What, then, does a good education look like in light of our role as storytellers of the future? To start, we recognize education’s role as a facilitator of new adjacent possibles. With this role, education becomes as much about better questions as is it is about better answers, as much about connecting ideas as it is creating new ones. An interdisciplinary education becomes a requirement, not a luxury. Problem solving looks less like looking for solutions and more like changing the recipe. A good education, then, is like a a good party planner, providing for the student a space for ideas to network and plenty of modes of transportation for the student to arrive at the edge.

This very essay could be a transport vehicle. The thoughts here -- Kauffman's and Johnson's ideas and what education ought to do for society -- are not new ones, per se; however, the paragraphs become playgrounds when the ideas come together. Through the play -- the connections between ideas -- the adjacent possible transforms. Old ideas, unlike old dogs, can learn new tricks.

Today, consider your own education. For your personal development, your knowledge as a member of a team, or for your studies in a particular discipline, what “structures” could you add in order to alter the adjacent possible? Who knows what could come from it? According to Johnson, you cannot know until you try.

This essay was originally published by The Caesura Letters on September 22, 2015 here as part of a week of pieces on the theme of education. The site is one of the most thoughtful spaces on the Internet (more about it here) and I'm very grateful for having my submission published.