The Adjacent Possible – How We Make Progress

Stuart Kauffman in 2002 introduced the the “adjacent possible” theory. This theory proposes that biological systems are able to morph into more complex systems by making incremental, relatively less energy consuming changes in their make up. This concept is used to describe how new insights can be generated in previously unexplored areas.

Humanity is about expanding the realm of the possible. Discovering fire, inventing the wheel, domesticating animals, the invention of writing, the Internet, … all of these inventions led to new ways of doing things and sharing knowledge which could then foster further innovation. Anyone with a new idea can access endless free information, find supporters, discuss their ideas and obtain resources. New doors to the adjacent possible open every day as we find different uses for technology.

Each new innovation adds to the number of achievable possible (future) innovations. It opens up adjacent possibilities which didn’t exist before, because better tools can be used to make even better tools.

The adjacent possible 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.

Evolution may change speed, but it does not make big jumps. It typically progresses through numerous small moves, exploring adjacent spaces of what else might be possible. Some of those spaces lead to better fitness, some to less. This is low-cost exploration, big mutational jumps involve much more risk that the changes will be dysfunctional or even terminal in the immediate short term.

Summing-up: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” – Bill Gates. Innovation doesn’t happen in the “eureka” moment of popular imagination, but rather in a slow process of combining and recombining previously existing ideas.


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