The adjacent possible

Steven Johnson recently wrote a fantastic essay for the Wall Street Journal called “The Genius of the Tinkerer.” I think you would enjoy it. I’ve written a couple of things along these lines myself, like how innovation results from recombining things and the importance of creativity.

For me, the most important message in Steven’s article is the notion of the “adjacent possible.” I can’t describe it more eloquently than Steven, so I’ll just let him:

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.

As Steven notes, the adjacent possible “captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.”

It’s the ever-present set of opportunities at the boundaries of our reach. And:

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.

Examples of the adjacent possible

The adjacent possible is a highly scalable concept. As Steven notes, it was present in the “primordial innovation of life itself.” And it was the force that both inspired and challenged the “‘tiger team’ of engineers” who heroically brought Apollo 13 home after it literally glanced the physical edge of human reach.

The adjacent possible is the basic motivation behind all human progress. Countless people have died on the doorstep of new entry ways so that others could walk on in.  North America was once an adjacent possibility to Europe, and once found, further adjacent possibilities emerged in the west.

Geographical exploration may be out of fashion, but that doesn't mean we've stopped seeking the adjacent possible.

I can think of many current realizations. Mobile apps, for one. A idea first demonstrated as a few thumbnail-sized images on a touch screen has engendered an innovation landscape that moments ago was merely a science fiction fan's dreamscape.

On a personal level, I feel like I brush the adjacent possible each time I read or write something new. For me, it opens new doors and causes me to see things a little differently than before.

On the grandest scale, the universe itself represents the ultimate package of adjacent possibilities. Or does it? What opportunity set might be tangential to that which we consider everything today? It's a question that can only be answered by ultimately questioning everything.

Back to earth

The spaces we occupy, the tools we use, and the ideas in our consciousness cast this "shadow future" over us each minute of the day.

Are you aware of the adjacent possible in your life? Do you ever spend time looking for cracks in the walls of your workflows, or are you content to remain within them? Do your goals represent ends or means?

I'd like to hear to hear examples of how you discovered the adjacent possible, no matter how mundane.

[Photo obtained from]