How do we know when a situation is getting better or worse? How can we define how a situation would look like that we would consider to be better? These are important questions if we consider the question of what to do next after having spend some time thinking about a situation and maybe doing some sort of research on what is going on.
I am currently in a situation where I am asking myself that question in a learning process that I am accompanying where a number of actors have come together to assess the situation of local economic development (LED) in their country. A variety of constraints have come up that prevent LED from working. The questions we are asking ourselves now is, firstly, what would it mean for LED to work properly, and, secondly, how would improvements in that direction look like from where we are now.
I have always argued against building a perfect vision of the future and then trying to close the gap from where we are now to that vision. I'm also not a big fan of purpose. With a clear vision or a strong purpose, we narrow down the possible futures to one or a few futures that we can imagine now. Yet what we can imagine changes over time with each step we take. I'm more in favour of an evolutionary perspective, where we try to find the 'adjacent possibles' in the current situation - what would be the next step from where we are now that would make the situation better?
So we are back to the question, what does 'better' mean? In order to be able to answer this, we need some sort of agreement between the people involved what our strategic direction would look like in which we want the system to develop. The strategic direction could present a vector or arrow according to which we could orient ourselves to see if we are going in the direction we agreed on.
For my LED project, we have found two vectors that are relevant in the current situation - they are still very general because the situation is so complex that we are not sure where change efforts will get traction. They are, firstly, more collaboration between diverse actors on a local level (specifically between the local governments, the private sector, and civil society), but also more collaboration between local and national actors; and, secondly, increased use of local knowledge and information in decision-making about local issues. Every action that, as a result, is moving the system along one or both of these vectors would lead to a situation that can be seen as better. There are still many open questions in our case. The further along you are in a change process, the more specifically you can likely define your vectors.
What is your strategic direction, in your life, organisation, project?
This week I want to share the abstract of a new paper by Nora Bateson, in which she describes a new word that she has come up with: aphanipoiesis.
The multiple entities of a living system are always mutually responding to the shiftings of each other in ways that constitute both stability and change. It may be possible to name the changes that form, but before such naming, deeper abductive possibilities have already begun to quicken. Gregory Bateson sometimes described abduction as the way one context describes another. Charles Sanders Peirce more often described it as a way to hypothesize between contexts.
A New Word to Describe an Aspect of Living Systems: Aphanipoiesis
Pathology and vitality in living systems may be observable and describable; however, the ways in which they come to occur are at least in part unseen. “Insidious” describes dangerous outcomes that “creep up” through the combination of unseen contributing processes. But a way to describe a similar but life giving process, by which vitality, healing, and creativity come into being by the coalescence of multiple unseen factors, is lacking.
Aphanipoiesis (n.) combines two words from ancient Greek to describe this way in which life coalesces toward vitality in unseen ways. (Aphanis comes from a Greek root meaning obscured, unseen, unnoticed; poiesis is from one meaning to bring forth, to make.) Other words which also carry the root aphanis include phantom, diaphanous, and phenomenon, while the root poiesis is familiar from the word poetry, along with Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis.
Hypothesis and Aphanipoiesis
According to Peirce, abduction is the process of forming an explanatory hypothesis and is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea.
Central to abductive process is the notion of hypothesis. But what does a hypothesis say about the anticipatory systems of perception of any given observer? In noticing aphanipoiesis, it becomes relevant to explore the realm of unseen contributors coalescing to produce the foundations of hypothesis itself. Hypothesis is limited by pre-existing anticipatory patterns. If one listens only for what one knows to listen for, that is what will be heard. In the study of aphanipoiesis, hypothesis is an indicator of those pre-habituated perceptions through which new information will be filtered. Familiarity with something in one context enables a kind of description of another context to become a basis for experiencing any kind of newness. A new flavor is explored through the experience of known flavors; a new form of music is explored through the understanding of other forms. Ultimately, abductive process becomes a zone of untamed, unnamed, unseen, and essential contributors to what may later be called emergence.
Reference: Bateson, N., (2021). Aphanipoiesis. In Journal of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, Proceedings of the 64th Annual Meeting of the ISSS, Virtual (Vol. 1, №1) — under review.
The full article has been published on Nora Bateson's Medium page.
Why have I added this to my paper museum? I am deeply intrigued by the description of aphanipoiesis as it offers a mechanism to explain why so often complex problems cannot be approached directly, while indirect and seemingly unconnected actions lead to unforeseeable and unpredictable shifts in the situation. It's a thought provoking piece, questioning action and purpose, asking for much gentler interaction and enabling instead.
Seeking Direction? by Alan Levine (Source)