notes towards new field of study
Goldsmiths, University of London
Swansea University of Wales, TSD
In his 1983 book ‘The Synergism Hypothesis’, Peter Corning depicts evolution as the continuous unfolding of new synergies. Given the urgency of the Climate Change debates, one might have expected this idea to have gained traction since then. There are many reasons why it has not. For one thing, Darwin’s theories remain so compelling that we may unthinkingly assume that evolution is confined to the biological realm. The main obstacle is that we seem to find it hard to grasp the implications of synergy. Perhaps this is because our consumption-based economy has encouraged us see the world as a set of disposable ‘things’, rather than a complex relational system. This essay is intended to challenge such assumptions. Ultimately, its purpose is to ask whether switching to a more synergistic paradigm might give our species a better chance of survival.
What is Synergy?
We might regard synergy as what we get when we combine things in the right way. However, as there will always be more relationships than ‘things’, synergies may be too plentiful and ubiquitous to describe. If we are unable to describe them they may remain unnoticed. We borrowed the word ‘synergy from the ancient Greek 'synergos' (συνεργός), which meant ‘working together’. This definition could hardly be clearer, but it seems too bland and generic to be useful. The commonly overheard expression: ‘2+2=5’ is a little more helpful, in that it reminds us that ‘wholes’ can be more productive, or valuable, than their ‘parts’. In business parlance, we might interpret this as saying that we can make a profit by combining existing assets. Here, by ‘profit’, we simply mean obtaining additional assets at no extra cost.
Our Reluctance to See The Big Picture
If this last point is correct, why have universities failed to develop Synergistic Innovation within their departments of business, or design? One reason is that it is harder to work with new synergies than it is to replicate, or to modify, existing products. This is implied in Richard Buckminster Fuller’s definition of synergy as “the behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the behaviour of their parts taken separately”. However, although humanity has a huge vested interest in how ‘whole systems’ behave, over the last few thousand years we have developed increasingly sophisticated ways to focus on parts, rather than wholes. Moreover, governments, universities and corporations survived and grew by creating divisions of labour and the ‘silo’ thinking that these processes engender. In short, we appear to have opted for dull lifestyles that will deliver predictable outcomes, rather than systems that would deliver more opportunities.
At Home With ‘Things’
Of course, the cognitive ability to project our desires onto codes and numbers goes a lot further back than the invention of agriculture, coins, or promissory notes. Somewhere between 13 and 4 million years ago, we parted ways with our chimpanzee cousins. Indeed, what we might now recognise as modern humans emerged around 5 million years ago. One of our defining features is the ability to shape hard materials into effigies, talismans, tools, weapons and tokens of exchange. These transitions were rendered ‘thinkable’ by our physical and mental dexterity, and then informed a succession of subsequent innovations, over the last 3 million years, or so. Arguably, the technologies that brought about mining, agriculture, warfare, manufacture and unit-based money all began with our unique ability to focus onto single objects and to shape, count, distribute and use them.
The Synergy in Grooming
Today, we tend to regard the global economic system as a social lubricant and a catalyst to enterprise. In comparison with the reciprocal grooming habits of Bonobos, however, money reduces synergy. Social grooming has a complex regulatory social purpose that rewards participants immediately and directly. This can also be said of money, although it is doubtful whether humans have evolved sufficiently to understand it fully. Both humans and monkeys are bemused by large numbers (Du Sautoy, 2009) and confuse quantities with qualities (c.f. Kahneman & Tversky, 2011). Of course, money seems to be so simple that monkeys can use it (**), however, its indirect nature reduces its potential for conviviality. Here, it is important to note some key differences between humans and other Great Apes. For example, whereas our chimpanzee ancestors live in groups of up to thirty, humans can sustain convivial relationships in larger groups. Even so, our brains find it hard to maintain synergistic relations with more than around hundred and fifty tribe members (Dunbar, 1992).
Some 12,000 years ago, humans began to switch from hunting and gathering to the more sedentary lifestyles of farming. The success of this shift is largely down to the effective cultivation and harvesting of grain, which provided sufficient food surpluses that would enable us to build cities, colonies, nations and global empires. As the cultivation and standardising of grain production was so important, it is not surprising that it inspired forms of trading using currencies that were, quite literally, ‘granular’. Today, our banking systems depend on our faith in the dubious axiom that each ‘grain’ (i.e., number) is exactly equal in value to all other grains. The rise of granular thinking encouraged the switch from ‘qualities’ to ‘quantities’ that are almost synonymous with modern banking, accountancy and corporate regulation.
The Victory of Form Over Content
Studies of the brain suggest that our ancient skills of stone knapping influenced the evolution of motor and language skills which, in turn, informed the way we do transactions and organise ourselves. As Marshall McLuhan put it, "we shape our tools…and then our tools shape us.” Crudely speaking, we learned to fetishise objects as talismans, then as tokens, and then to fetishise the numbers of tokens. After this, we learned to manipulate the numbers, then the systems that manage the numbers. The transition from values and actions to indexical codes has been a victory of form over content. For some reason, it did not quell the acquisitive urge that leads, in some cases, to addiction. Humans find it all to easy to forget that, whenever we estimate the price of a product, we are reducing complex values down into units that are intrinsically worthless. This process was expressly designed to hide potential synergies from us, in case their complexity might distract us from the immediate ‘deal’.
The Industrialisation of Daily Life
Why do large organisations focus more on compliance and efficiency, rather than attaining flexibility and fitness-to-context? One reason is that, unlike ecosystems, money can be scaled up indefinitely. This explains why standardisation, quality control and strict accounting procedures remain so popular. In the 17th/18th century, scientists normalised the breaking down of complex problems into simple, repetitive tasks. By the 20th century these methods had evolved into a working culture based on strict measurements and the setting of targets. The 'command and control' methods used on assembly lines eventually migrated to other aspects of the public sphere. Yet in politics, for example, these industrial methods have repeatedly proved to be ineffective because they are so removed from the task at hand. This is also true in other non-trading contexts.
A Summative World
Whether in politics, education, or business, the same logic routinely reduces the world to the logic of addition and subtraction. In democratic systems we use unit-based thinking to convert individuals into ballot box numbers. Similarly, the dependence on setting targets is a feeble, low order process because it is designed more for managerial validation, rather than for elucidating future scenarios that might be imaginable, desirable and attainable. In the grading of academic assignments, the granular nature of numbers eventually forces teachers to judge one learner to be exactly equal in value with another. In monetary systems, it may force us to pretend that living organisms can conform to the actions of an abacus. Historically, all of these habits came about through scaling-up of our societies beyond our cognitive comfort zones. They produced a ‘flatland’ of the mind, in which synergy became the biggest elephant on the square.
Trading Synergy for Certainty
Although, in the art of accountability, things always ‘add up’, living systems do not. They multiply in ways that are too unique and complex for mathematical systems to predict with certainty. On the other hand, by reducing ‘dimensionality’, we made the world seem understandable and manageable. This enabled us to set up wholesale production systems and to make large foreign investments. In other words, it encouraged us to scale up commercial endeavours without needing to understand their local dialects or context. Presumably, we knowingly traded synergies for certainties. In this sense, the invention of money was an act of genius, because the rules of arithmetic put transactions beyond reasonable dispute. But this only works if, pedantically speaking, we can delude ourselves that every units of a currency’s denomination are identical.
The Importance of Difference
In the seventeenth century, Leibnitz (1646-1716) compounded Plato’s fallacious proposition, ‘A=A’. He argued that, if two entities are similar enough to be indistinguishable, we can be assume them to be identical. Actually, this works well in monetary tokens. Two people can swap 100 dollar banknotes in the full confidence that their financial status will remained unchanged. In virtually every other context, however, even an infinitesimal difference can become critically important. This has been explored in different ways by theorists of chaos, who showed how the tiniest of differences become accentuated over the passage of time. The transformation of such differences into unique culinary moments has also been a central feature of the molecular gastronomy movement. And it would be hard to explain these processes without alluding to the profoundly synergistic nature of cooking.
Fig.1 - Table Salt
Some of the simpler synergies in cooking can be explained using basic science. Let us take, for example, the two elements, sodium and chlorine. Each is poisonous to humans, yet we can synergise them as sodium chloride (table salt), which is a useful, non-poisonous supplement to many foods. This is a qualitative example of ‘2+2=5’. If the management of synergy is so useful and convenient, why has the fast food industry failed to put molecular gastronomy in a box? At certain production levels, it already has. However, many of these world-class synergies may be unrepeatable. At their best, they synergise the synergies that exist within specific physical and biochemical levels but they also orchestrate them with synergies embodied by the particular chef’s creativity, situated judgements and many years of experience.
Towards a Synergy-of-Synergies
Buckminster Fuller’s description of the universe as a ‘synergy-of-synergies’ is a useful starting point from which to create a regenerative, rather than a ‘sustainable’ world. However, in order to achieve a global synergy-of-synergies we might first wish to cultivate a ‘diversity-of-diversities’. This would enable more synergies to be coaxed out of more places, by more people. Such an idea may seem inefficient because it fails to exploit the ‘economies of scale’ paradigm that justifies centralised production. On the other hand, if we all lived in cities that were synergistically planned there would be less need for high speed transportation. Ironically, growth-based economic theory is based on a fear that entropy is endemic and must be resisted. As such, it fostered the belief in the ‘law of diminishing returns’. Fortunately, synergism more closely resembles the way that living organisms share information using the ‘law of increasing returns’.
It is important to note that, in developing a new field of synergy we should refrain from seeing structural distinctions between matter, form, actions and information. This is a tough call. In order to design (or ‘metadesign’) a synergy-of-synergies, we will need a more mutualised, creative learning culture, rather than a teaching industry. Without this it will be difficult to help society to transcend disciplinary and professional boundaries. We can see this in the domain of innovation, where a critical synergy at one level needs suitable synergies at other levels to be effective. The conventional business perspective shows this as a managerial hierarchy, whereby new products require regulatory oversight at the HR, planning, technical feasibility, supply chain, manufacture, cost control, management, marketing and retail levels. By contrast, exploring innovation from a synergistic standpoint will need to seek complementarities at all levels, modes and domains.
Synergising Problems As Assets
Sometimes, synergies are counterintuitive therefore, in order to notice them, we may need to play with entities that straddle, or transcend, the epistemological and ontological divide. In thinking beyond the language of ‘things’ we must remain open to possible combinations, whether or not they sound reasonable. For example, it seems counterintuitive that the making of table salt requires two poisons. The more complex example of molecular gastronomy shows that, in some cases, it is the precise ratio, or subtlest blend of ingredients that is critical to its success. In other cases, it is possible to combine two problematic, or ’negative assets’ in order to turn them into ‘positive assets’. One example of this process is the practice of introducing stray dogs to prison inmates, so that each can care for the another. A synergistic alternative to building larger wind turbines is to build smaller, cheaper, low efficiency models and cluster them together. This can appear to improve the average efficiency of each turbine by almost 10%.
Mechanical engineering is an interesting field of inquiry, in that it deals with phenomena that may need re-definition within the synergistic paradigm. Indo-European languages have long tended to make clear distinctions between form and materiality, but it may be useful to question this habit. Our industrial traditions have made it ‘normal’ to analyse a structure in terms of its component parts and their respective stages of manufacture, rather than seeing it as a synergistic whole. An alternative approach is to watch living systems in action and to try to register, then increase, the number and quality of synergies. Observing a gymnast on a bicycle is a good place to start, because the human rider will have learned to match her skills with the bike’s affordances. Some of the synergies will reside at the urban planning level, some will relate to the road surface and others will depend on material properties and form of the tire and how it engages with the road surface.
Synergising Engineering Synergies
Of course, the bicycle itself represents a veritable synergy-of-synergies that are too numerous to detail, here. Some of these are well-known. A bicycle’s wheel spokes (see fig. 2), for example, are made from stainless steel, which resists rust and is much stronger when used in tension than in compression. Its composite nature makes it 35% stronger than any of its ingredients (i.e. nickel, iron, and manganese). These factors enable the spokes to be a mere couple of millimetres in diameter and, therefore, extremely light. They are tightened in tension against the wheel rim, whose circular form also enables it to be very light in weight. The synergistic integrity of rim and spokes gives the wheel a formidable strength-to-weight ratio. Indeed, it should be strong enough to support the weight of up to 700 comparable wheels.
Fig.2 - Bicycle wheel
Obviously, the above examples were chosen to highlight some particularly impressive synergies, but also to give a sense of the large number of co-dependent factors that play a role in a sophisticated synergistic system. In seeking an effective methodology for managing complexity, we developed the idea of ‘keystone synergies’ which was inspired by the critical role which ‘keystone species’ play in enabling other species to survive and flourish within a shared habitat. This idea will enable innovators to look for synergies with a special capacity for attracting other synergies. In the cycling context, the invention of wheel hubs with ball bearings is a good example, as it offers unexplored potential for human-powered, or solar powered devices. Ultimately, we may also need a much more comprehensive taxonomy that is designed to classify relations and synergies, rather than to focus us back to the familiar language of materials and forms.
Managing multiple levels of possibility and complexity means finding ways to optimise the number of possible synergies, while remaining realistic about the capacity of the human mind to juggle multiple possibilities at the same time. There are cognitive limits to the number of relations humans can manage effectively. Despite optimistic stories about ‘multi-tasking’, experimental evidence suggests that humans are very poor at it (see fig. 3). Indeed, humans find it increasingly hard to innovate in clusters bigger than four. In order to orchestrate more synergies it will be necessary to re-invent the old paradigm of ‘invention’. After the 18th century, the popular fascination with individual ‘genius’ helped to create a genre of creative practice in which brilliant ideas were assumed to have originated in the unique brain of an extraordinary individual.
Fig. 3 - finding the optimum working number for synergistic innovation
However, according to Arthur Koestler’s theory of creativity, the act of invention is always a process of combination, or re-combination. This implies that the practice may take place between several places in one brain, or within a meeting of collaborators in different places. Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi speaks of re-domaining, which sees the act of invention as the (re)combination of a few things. It describes changes that occur across different levels. He defines creativity as any act… that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.” However, we can upgrade the genre of invention by moving beyond the casual assumption that it must represent the combination of only two entities.
An Ambitious Agenda
This document is a short draft of my possible chapter. It began by citing Corning’s hypothesis that invites us to see the living world as a system that embraces synergy. However, as we have seen, synergies exist as a dazzling proliferation of ‘multipliers’ that deliver many unexpected results on every level. Like all paradigms, our current synergy-blind economy is self-sustaining. While few managers, educators or politicians would refute the need for things to work better, we have no synergy-seeking methodologies, therefore we don’t teach students about it. We have accrued quite a lot of tools and methods. The following workshop process is outlined here by way of illustrating one approach that we developed in our research..
The Creative Quartet
Suffice it to say that a quartet is six times more productive than a duet. This can be explained visually, using a tetrahedron, as it has 4 vertices and 6 edges. These models remind us that there are always more relations (edges) than things (nodes) when the number of players exceeds three.
Fig. 4 depicts the 6 relationships that can be managed during 3 consecutive paired meetings that bring all of the quartet’s participants together.