By Scott Baker
Climate disruption is a unique challenge that calls on society to invoke unprecedented imagination and ingenuity to address. Yet, with our current paradigms, 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, and colliding them with the unfamiliar world of entrepreneurship and innovation. Our belief (and name) derives from the complex systems theory, which posits that unlikely combinations are fertile ground for disruptive innovation.
In our first experiment, we paired three of Canada’s most innovative clean tech energy entrepreneurs and three experimental Toronto artists, and provoked them to engage with each other’s crafts and explore the human capacity to address climate disruption through their art form. The process began with a facilitated workshop that allowed entrepreneurs and artists to learn about the intricacies of each other’s crafts. Next, teams of artists and entrepreneurs 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. After three weeks, we convened several hundred people in a very large atrium, introduced them to the artists and entrepreneurs, and invited them to use the newly created art to engage with climate disruption from new paradigms.
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 to date. 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 design 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.
Our next experiment will take place at the intersection of art and water entrepreneurship, as we team up with MaRS Discovery District and the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games to explore solutions to the multiple water challenges of flooding, contamination, and drought that will be exacerbated by climate disruption. Canada produces many of the world's most promising water-tech entrepreneurs, and by partnering them with some of the most exciting artistic talent across the Americas, we intend to give the public an opportunity to explore the complex and often grim water issues along with solutions focused entrepreneurs.
After two exhibitions at the intersection of art and entrepreneurship, Adjacent Possibilities will then begin working at the intersection of art and policymaking. As articulated in the Canadian Public Service’s publication Blueprint 2020, the public service faces an imperative to innovate. Policymakers address society’s challenges head on and, despite the hype around innovation in entrepreneurial spaces, face perhaps an even greater imperative to imagine and innovate.
In our first project with policymakers, we plan to operate at the municipal level, teaming artists with policymakers and setting them off on parallel courses to explore urban density through their respective crafts. At several points we will design opportunities for cross over, disrupting each other’s process, and infecting it with newly uncovered insight. In the end, both crafts will yield complementary works of art and policy, enhanced by contact with the other work, and offering the public a sense of meaning and an access point that would otherwise not exist in the PDFs that typically reside, un-downloaded, on government websites.
The unimaginable challenges of our future will require inconceivable feats of adaptation and ingenuity. Our current approaches of entrepreneurship and policymaking are necessary but not sufficient 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 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.
Drawing on his background in strategic climate communications with Tides Canada and the Green Parties of Canada and Europe, Scott Baker co-founded Adjacent Possibilities with Ross Curtner during a social innovation fellowship at MaRS Discovery District.
[Photos courtesy of Adjacent Possibilites]