Superposition and Frosting a Cake

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his seventh article written for the program. In it, he compares superposition to innovation. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

We previously challenged what is truly innovative versus sub optimization in some shape or form. We can now delve deeper into assumptions about innovation today. If we start with standpoint theory and situated knowledge, we can drill down a little deeper to reach the concept of situated imagination. Situated imagination contends that knowledge is dependent upon our location: physically, economically, and socially, among other situating coordinates. Thus, imagination is an amalgamation, an alchemy of self and collective conditions, which influences not only meaning but the concept of the “not-yet real”, in the words of Jean Paul Sartre.

In order to “do different things” we must be able to “think differently”. Therefore, moving beyond sub optimization first requires an acknowledgement of what we could call “Situated Innovation”. Situational innovation, the phenomenon of innovation being inherently connected to a particular observer or group of observers, is perhaps the most significant hidden cost in the global economy. Exercises in empathy can help to re-situate the observer, but typically this is done in a manner that is inherently sub optimizing.

While our discussion has largely revolved around the issue of space (across silos, organizations, and countries), time is another dimension in which we sub optimize. The most obvious example of this is shifting the burden of climate change onto future generations. But the issue also manifests in, for example, inter-generational organizational issues. Consider the sub optimization of the past. While not as obvious as the impact on the future, consider the many cost-benefits and projects built around past projections of the future, now the present. By sub optimizing within the present, we underutilize the past, which can have ripple effects into the future. Decisions are forgotten, goals are lost and abandoned. For every idea that survives, countless others falter at some point. A Darwinian perspective on ideas and past innovations is nothing more than permission to hold a bias towards old ideas.

Finally, beyond the space and time, is matter. Agential realism, and spacetimemattering, a theory developed by Karen Barad, provides another perspective on matter and meaning in innovation activities. Agential realism, at its core, is about the inherent entanglement of all things. Any act of observation creates the “agential cut” in which we include some things, and exclude a number of other possibilities. This temporary “cut” allows us to view a chunk of a thing, matter, in isolation, in order to gain a greater understanding of the thing we wish to observe. Hence, our observations of the world are inherently performative. Here, too, we see the challenge of innovation and the limits to our innovative capacities. Observationally, we must isolate an object as either a thing or process. By doing this, we ignore its connected (here, entangled) state of being.

Think of it like this: You are making a cake. Typically, you would wait until it cooled and then frost the whole cake. However, once this particular cake has cooled, you can no longer observe the cake as a whole. You see a piece of the cake and cut out that piece, cover it in frosting, and return the piece to the cake. Then you go about trying to find other pieces of the cake. Unable to see the whole cake at once, you are left with cutting, frosting, returning. In all likelihood, you will only frost a small portion of the cake. Even if you somehow manage to cut off and frost every piece of the cake, it will look more than a little strange! Later that evening, most guests at the party, blessed with the ability to observe the whole cake at once, will agree this is a far from optimum cake. Rather, the cake looks like it was made by Frankenstein.

© Adam Cowart 2018