Pattern #21


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Creative Experimentation

Credit: Tom Atlee and Martin Rausch

Existing evidence is necessary but insufficient to enable appropriate evolution in changing contexts. Thoughtful trial and error within
a reasonable range of tolerance for risk is vital for wise development. So promote imagination and prototyping of possibilities wherever need, reason and aspiration suggest it might be productive — and then review and spread the results.

  • What can we come up with here that’s worth trying out?
  • What effective forms of low-risk, high-learning prototyping can we come up with?
  • What are appropriate forms of – or alternatives to – planning when we’re dealing with complex adaptive systems that cannot be controlled or predicted?
  • What should we be mindful of as we take initiatives into complex systems with uncertain futures?
  • What systems could be in place to foresee and head off any damage our innovations might cause?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

We may ask “What does this pattern have to do with wisdom, particularly?”

Well, our culture – particularly American culture – glorifies innovation. 80 or 90% of that has an assertive “forge ahead!” energy. Only 10 or 20% has a “Let’s be careful of what we do here!” energy. And innovation is often framed within the context of investment and profit.

With this pattern we’re reframing the whole field of novel approaches. We’re taking that whole world of discovering new things and putting it in the context of being thoughtful and prudent in complex and changing circumstances. We value innovation but we want it to serve the long-term well-being of the whole. We’re back to our definition of wisdom and the prime directive, so this is important. This focuses our attention on how do we have a society that does this, that takes unknowns and risks seriously. Because that’s the world we’re living in right now.

Just driving ahead no matter what, is not smart. In circumstances where there’s lots of complexity and things are changing a lot of the time, you don’t know what’s gonna work. You don’t know what can have negative impacts. You can think about it – and that’s good – but let’s be careful. This is where the pattern talks about prototyping: promote imagination and prototyping of possibilities. So let’s see what could happen, what might we try, what would happen if we tried it…. Let’s do a “next step” test. Let’s do it in cautious ways.

We’re not going to block innovation, but we want to have it done thoughtfully. We’re gonna be doing experimenting not just with high-tech kinds of stuff but with new forms of governance and new processes, new ways of educating, new healthcare, whatever – all the different domains of society. Ideally we would be thinking about how can we do all of them better.

So there’s an even stronger innovation push in the non-technology domain. It’s like let’s try this and see what happens and modify it, feel our way. I’d have that be a quality of how we live our lives and how set things up and how we run things.

In the pattern heart it talks about “existing evidence” and how it is necessary but insufficient. That is an interesting insight. You want evidence-based activities but you realize that the system is complex and changing, and whatever evidence you have is very conditional. You cannot not reify it and nail it down. Your impulsive sense that evidence is Truth can be dangerous because we are in a dance with changing contexts and we need to always find out more.

There’s other patterns about finding out more – like Expanding Situational Curiosity and other related patterns we see here. So this is kind of an applied version of the Expanding Situational Curiosity and Range of Tolerance patterns, where we’re looking for what is likely to happen and what kinds of things we can tolerate. We also want to have flexibility and resilience back up our efforts to do our experimenting, so if something goes wrong we’re able to pick up the pieces and get back on track again.

And there’s definitely curiosity at work here and there’s an evolutionary sense, as well – a sense that what we’re doing is participating in a larger developmental process. But it’s less of “Wow! We could make a lot of bucks with this! or We can have a big impact with this!” It’s more “This is an unfolding process and we’re going to feel our way as thoughtfully and solidly as we can.”

And then there’s the spreading of the results because it is one thing for a small group of people to know something or have a development – and that’s a level of co-intelligence being reflected there – but having it spread out into the whole society or all the stakeholders involved or whatever, that involves a larger whole is gaining understanding. To the extent we can do that, that makes the whole society more wise

And so I think that’s probably the essence of this – how we innovate for the long-term benefit. There is both an attitude about that, a frame of reference about that, and a way we go about doing it. This pattern embraces all of that.

Video Introduction (6 min)

Examples and Resources