Creative Quartets

aligning four simultaneous, parallel innovations

The Problem Addressed

  • Because they are not designed in a comprehensive, joined-up way, 21st century lifestyles are dysfunctional.
  • We hide this problem by routinely using cheap energy to move materials and goods too far, too quickly and too often.
  • But we cannot continue to depend on fossil fuels, nor on cheap, available energy.
  • In a post-carbon economy we will therefore need to create a more synergistic world.
  • We also need to innovate on a scale and complexity that is manifold and/or tessalating and/or interconnected and/or inter-dependent.

The Tool's Purpose

  • This tool helps metadesign teams to transform the way that innovations co-create/co-sustain one another.
  • innovate on many levels at once.
  • Human inventions and innovations reflect a cultural/linguistic framework of thought.
  • This often encourages a particular dimension, or concern, issue or perspective.
  • We need to learn how to innovate on many levels in parallel.
  • In other words, it means thinking within a manifold order of innovation
  • Intervening within highly complex systems is difficult because we do fully understand them.
  • Another way to consider this process is by re-considering/re-defining the process of successful transformation
  • An appropriate metaphor to describe this is the miracle (in the probabilistic, not supernatural sense).
  • Statistically speaking, miracles occur when rare coincidences align, auspiciously.


  • We can use this to develop solutions that satisfy many requirements, simultaneously.
  • It can be conceived as a 3D exploded diagram of a transparent combination lock.

A tetrahedral approach

  • Creative Quartets operates when four abductive systems work in a complementary way with one another.


  • This means that you combine complementary ingenuities to de-mystify how a complex system works.
  • Creative Quartets are only one mode of parallel, or simultaneous modes of creative innovation

Tool Context

  • Human activities are guided by the boundaries of language...so we need to manage them cunningly
  • Also, complex problems may not always be soluble by the introduction of discrete innovations.
  • Even if a solution derives from a single innovation it would need to enfold many perspectives.
  • The natural conditions that produce (non-supernatural) miracles are not so encumbered by language.
  • Nevertheless, humans may need to think, plan and organise using multiple dimensions at once.

Tool Process

  • This tool requires designers to think like a stage magician, or illusionist.
  • It therefore requires patience, ingenuity, imagination and opportunism on more than one level at once.
  • At its simplest, creative opportunism relates to what Charles Peirce called abductive reasoning
  • (Here, we are interested in abductive reasoning as a creative process, rather than as a way to validate truth-claims)
  • It is a kind of reverse engineering in which you work backwards from an existing solution
  • When you see a desired effect, you imagine (reinvent) the conditions that might have produced it.
  • In practical terms it means innovating in order to satisfy four recipients, or outcomes, rather than just one.
  • look for examples of a desired condition, and what produced it. Learn to emulate this process.
  • But this is only in one dimension. Quadratic reasoning works in 4 interdependent dimensions.


  • In the metaphor of the combination lock, 'X' is the metadesign solution, and A, B, C and D are the recipients.
  • Choose four key conditions, or requirements - each may be assigned to one of a team of four creatives.
  • The tetrahedron shows how four interdependent elements imply six simultaneous opportunities for benefit.
  • Map each of the four requirements, or conditions, onto a vertex of the tetrahedron
  • Read each edge of the tetrahedron as a relationship between two of the four vertices
  • Choose 2 of the four vertices (i.e. key conditions)
  • Use the technique of bisociation to create a new product/entity that reconciles them
  • OR - use use it to achieve sympoiesis between the participants
  • Once this is achieved, choose another pair, until all pairs have been bisociated
  • These 6 new outcomes constitute the first order synergies
  • They can be used in the same way (i.e. 15 pairs) to create 15 new outcomes
  • These constitute the second order synergies

Recommendations / Disclaimers

  • The above process can be repeated to create successive orders of synergy
  • But the process of attaining new orders of synergy will fail, once a lower order of synergy fails

Tool Example

Example 1


Example 2

John Ruskin's description of the craft activity as a system is co-dependent, tetrahedral and therefore quadratic. It defines the craftsman’s pride in his work as affording benefits at four locations.

  1. natural environment
  2. client/customer
  3. the craftsman himself
  4. society/community

Example 3

A similar example is the The Walking Bus, which can be seen to yield at least 4 benefits - for example:

  1. Healthier (e.g. children get more exercise)
  2. Cheaper (e.g. less need for families to own a car)
  3. Environmentally better (e.g. reduces carbon footprint)
  4. Better social cohesion (e.g. more opportunities for friendship & business cooperation)
Examples of Auspicious Combinations


  • Joseph Schumpeter (1833-1950) drew attention to the economic importance of entrepreneurial innovation
    (although he believed that the culture of innovation fostered creative destruction (by damaging established synergies)
  • In the 21st century, capitalism is openly welcomes innovation...so 'creativity' has become sexy
  • In the last fifty years, pundits (e.g. Koestler, de Bono, Buzan) popularised ideas of 'bisociation' and 'lateral thinking'
  • This trend derives from a backlash (Romanticism) to the Enlightenment's emphasis on rational 'truth'
  • Hence, Charles Peirce's (1867) idea of abductive reasoning may remind us that (Greek/Roman) logic only worked 'forwards'
  • Instead of the western tendency to see logic only as a summative, truth-validating method, it could also be used for innovation
  • Gregory Bateson (1979) corroborated Peirce's notion that abduction is extant in Nature
  • JW (2005) asked whether the potential of abductive reasoning might, ultimately, be to design miracles
  • Nassim Taleb (2007) validated the scale of thinking idea by reminding sceptics that highly improbable events do cause cataclysmic change
  • Rupert Sheldrake's (1981) 'morphogenetic fields' theory had also addressed the issue of improbability
    says that unprecedented incidents may act as 'feedback' to precipitate (massive) change in the ecological status quo
  • JW suggested that designers/inventors would need a tool to move us (conceptually) beyond the assumed limits of singular invention. This is inspired by Bohm's (1983) descriptions of quantum physics that reminds us there are no actual boundaries between thoughts and actions
  • JW (2008) incorporated this idea in his essays on (e.g. Auspicious Reasoning)
  • JW unsuccessfully tried to formulate a practical version before a visit to the Arcola Theatre consultation workshop (now renovated) in November 2007.

John Wood's overview of this theme in a TEDx talk in Oslo 2013)


  • Bateson G (1979) Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: E. P. Dutton
  • Bohm, D., (1980), Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, Boston
  • Florida, R., (2002), The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life by Richard Florida today! Basic Books, New York
  • Jones, H., (2007) Bisociation within Keyword-Mapping; An Aid to Writing Purposefully in Design, Journal of Writing in Creative Practice, Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp.
  • Sheldrake, R. (1981), 'A New Science of Life',
  • Taleb, N. N. (2007) 'The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable' 2007. New York: Random House
  • Taylor, P., &Wood, J., (1997), "Mapping the Mapper", in collaboration with Paul Taylor, a chapter in "Computers, Communications, and Mental Models", eds. Donald Day & Diane Kovacs, Taylor & Francis, London, ISBN 0-7484-0543-7, pp. 37-44, January 1997
  • Wood, J., (2005), “How Can We Design Miracles?”, introduction to “Agents of Change: A Decade of MA Design Futures”, pages 10-14, (June 1, 2005), Goldsmiths College, (Hardback), ISBN 1904158617
  • Wood, J., - chapter 8 of his book Design for Micro-Utopias