A Metaphor to Describe the Global Search for a Paradigmatic Shift to Planetary Balance and Sustainability

The Adjacent Possible (TAP) is a term that Complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman coined to describe his dramatic insight (and resulting equation), about the historic process of technological innovation and its consequences for human well-being in the near future. He found that fossil-fuel based technology has grown exponentially since the industrial revolution, pushing our living systems to “the edge of chaos” and climate catastrophe. Dr. Kauffman wrote, “We recombine what we already have and accumulate what works.”  Most exciting was his understanding that each introduction of a new technology was accompanied by an opening to “the adjacent possible” (TAP) waiting in the wings for the next explosion of emergent human creativity. Because we humans are responsible for what has happened in the past, we have a responsibility to be co-creators of the unfolding reality of the future, providing essential tools to deal with the potentially catastrophic events associated with global warming, species extinction, and associated challenges.


If we look at the state of the planet, we see clearly that old methods of problem solving have, for the most part, failed to work. The Center for Emergent Diplomacy has begun testing a problem-solving methodology that will allow us to reach beyond the ideas we normally “think” of and enter into a generative dialogue space where TAP can be discovered—an imaginative space where new ideas and outcomes emerge, a space based on the processes of living systems and Complexity science.  The Center for Emergent Diplomacy uses this new tool based on TAP, the timeless knowledge of indigenous wisdom-keepers, and Complexity science principles, to facilitate diverse groups of people in the discovery of creative solutions to the unprecedented problems we face today.   

We begin our new journey by:


  • becoming re-enchanted with nature

  • thinking like an ecosystem, not a strategic planner

  • co-creating a diversity of trusted networks of collaboration

  • replacing authoritarian control with distributed leadership

  • demonstrating unprecedented courage in the face of injustice

  • engaging deeply with our hearts as well as our brains

  • embracing hope at the edge of chaos


Below is a brief look at some of the TAP methodology we have been testing and taking to action.  The list provides a starting point for our discussions in Israel beginning May 14.


•  Building a Shared Intent.  We have found that in order to agree on and commit to the difficult task of solving a seemingly intractable diplomatic problem, the circle of dialogue participants must be as inclusive of as many points of view as possible, fulfilling the complex systems principle of “requisite variety.”  Ignoring nature, industrial agriculture uses monoculture methods that violate every principle of a healthy, diverse ecosystem, preventing plants resilient to bad bugs and bad weather from growing.  We carefully include participants in our dialogues who are not expert in the specific issue under consideration—but have demonstrated creativity that might expand the thinking of those experts stuck in their narrow silos.  Finally, failure often accompanies an intent or vision that is too small to inspire and energize the group. Peter Senge writes: “One of the deepest desires underlying shared vision is the desire to be connected to a larger purpose and to one another.”


•   Balancing Asymmetric Power.  This is a very hard facilitation task, but we have to do it.  We try to give more “talking time” to those participants who are often under-represented in the group, sometimes marginalized by the absence of proficiency in the dominant language, or interrupted by a more powerful cohort from a culture of interruption.  When the voices of lived despair are shut down, we miss an opportunity to hear from the heart. The most vulnerable among us in negotiations require special regard in order to assure the most sustainable outcomes.  We often begin our dialogues with a period of silence and reflection, asking participants to get in touch with nature looking out a window and taking the opportunity to center themselves.


•  Letting Go of Goals and Objectives.  In their 2015 book, Why Greatness Cannot be Planned”, complexity scientists Ken Stanley and Joel Lehman write, “Objectives by their nature cause a search process to converge—towards the objective.  And convergence means that many potentially interesting directions will not be explored. By foregoing explicit final objectives, we join company with natural evolution and human innovation, and align it with this more exotic and radical form of discovery.”  We have tested having no content agenda at the beginning of our dialogues, and it works beautifully!  The goals, objectives and agendas become “emergent properties” of generative dialogue.


•  Facilitating Emergent Creativity.   Testing a process, we call “Back to the Future” has proven both frustrating and exciting for us.  Most of what is significant to human beings is created through sharing stories about our own experiences and hopes and dreams.  People’s real-life case studies provide the best learning experience.  When people have suffered personal and collective trauma because of violent conflict, however, they often want to share competing victim stories.  We find that in those settings working together on positive future scenarios is generally more rewarding and frequently leads to new breakthroughs.  The methodology is simple, imagining a future after peace has finally come, and then going back in time to trace the events and strategies that helped the new story unfold.  When we seek to choose a positive future instead of predicting a potentially fearful one, that future becomes generative.


•  Searching the Adjacent Possibles.  “Serendipity” is a good word to describe spontaneous and unintended discovery of an emergent breakthrough strategy you weren’t looking for to begin with.  We can intentionally search for those strategies using the theory of “Adjacent Possibles.” Adjacent possibles inhabit the realm of possibility at any given moment in time after certain potential possibilities have already been realized.  For example, eBay was not possible in the 1950s because first, computers had to be invented, and then a way to connect the computers, then a Web for browsing, then a platform to pay online.  Beavers are a “keystone species” because they fell trees to create dams that turn rivers into wetlands.  The trees rot and provide nesting holes for woodpeckers, and when they leave songbirds move in. When we imagine waging peace instead of war we can use techniques such as improv and appreciative inquiring to navigate the adjacent possibilities just waiting to be discovered.

“One of the deepest desires underlying shared vision is the desire to be connected to a larger purpose and to one another.” ​Peter Senge

What is the adjacent possible in regards to beliefs?

Systems thinking could suggest a modern update of beliefs necessary to effect the transformation required. So what might be the design criteria for the faith community to drive complex systems transformation?

Social principles:

  • Fully in harmony with science

  • Gender balance

  • Unity in diversity across all cultures and peoples

  • Justice

  • Trustworthiness

  • Education, independent investigation of truth

  • Able to generate a new economic system, altruistic and cooperative, employment for all, eliminating poverty

  • Technology and science for the common good, in moderation, balancing material and spiritual

Spiritual/mystical level:

  • Exercises to help overcome the ego: prayer, meditation, fasting, etc.

  • Recognizing that all religions have the same source and purpose

Institutional level:

  • No clergy, priesthood, ruling class

  • No individuals with power or authority

  • Collective, democratically-elected, consultative leadership

  • Federated world government able to manage global problems

  • Collective security, abolition of war, disarmament

  • Sustainability, respect and care for environment

  • Mechanisms for learning, change, adaptation to evolving society

© 2017