The Adjacent Possible

The concept of the adjacent possible originates from Stuart Kauffman and his work on biological evolution.

Kauffman was particularly interested in the origins of order and the mechanisms that drive self-organization. His findings are broadly applicable to any complex adaptive system, be it natural like the biosphere, or human-made like cities, the economy, or technology.

Kaufman investigates how the actual expands into the adjacent possible. The actual describes the system under investigation in its current state, with all its components and interconnections. The adjacent possible contains all the elements outside but near that system; those represent the opportunities for the current system to expand by building new connections and turning those elements into system components.

[...] expanding any realm always requires leaving its current boundaries in order to explore ‘the possibilities out there‘. But rather than chasing the most extreme or distant possibilities, successful exploration focuses on the immediate vicinity of the current boundaries: Expansion can then occur by naturally ingesting nearby possibilities, by a short stretch of the realm’s new boundaries.

Therefore, the adjacent possible is the target of successful exploration and expansion.

Innovation is no exception from that general observation. To expand the realm of what we can do, innovation explores the wellspring of novelty in the adjacent possible. This concept of the adjacent possible could therefore help us frame our evolving understanding of innovation and gain new insights.

[Ulf Ehlert]
'Exploring the adjacent possible – The origin of good ideas'

So how do you change a system which is entrained around perverse behaviour?

And this applies to culture change in organisations as much as it does to wider society change [...] From my anthro-complex perspective the following stages are necessary:

1. Map the current dispositional state of the system.  What are the attractors in play, how stable are they?

2. Within those maps identify what Kauffmann [termed] the adjacent possible, patterns of behaviour adjacent to the present but in a more desirable position.  Radical change is hard and may have unintended consequences, smaller shifts are easier to achieve.

3. If there are no adjacent possibles, or the nature of system is such that the energy cost of escape is too great, then you need to take actions that disrupt or perturb the existing attractor mechanisms to allow the adjacent possible to emerge.  Until that happens change is very difficult.

[Dave Snowden]
'The adjacent possible'

The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD [...], is best understood as the zone of the closest, most immediate psychological development of the children that includes a wide range of their emotional, cognitive, and volitional psychological processes. 

In contemporary educational research and practice, though, it is often interpreted as the distance between what a learner can do without help, and what they can do with support from someone with more knowledge or expertise ("more knowledgeable other").

The concept was introduced, but not fully developed, by psychologist Lev Vygotsky during the last three years of his life. Vygotsky argued that a child gets involved in a dialogue with the "more knowledgeable other" such as a peer or an adult and gradually, through social interaction and sense-making, develops the ability to solve problems independently and do certain tasks without help.

Following Vygotsky, some educators believe that the role of education is to give children experiences that are within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning such as skills and strategies.

'Zone of proximal development'

"I spent years trying to get my early things published,” Rosch recalls. “Journals would send them back, finding fussy little things wrong with them, and saying, ‘Everyone knows this isn’t true.’”

Why did they balk?

“If something is going to be new, it has to be exactly in the right degree of difference from what’s going on for people to say, ‘That’s interesting,’” she says. “If it’s too new, it isn’t understood.”

[Daniel McNeill & Paul Freiberger]
Fuzzy Logic, p.88