White Rabbit Anomalies: how to implement creative solutions

Southbank undercroft

I talk a lot about creativity’s Cassandra problem. That is to say, when it comes to overcoming existential threats our problem is as much how to implement the solutions as it is coming up with those solutions. The reason for this is simple – when the threats we face have emerged because of our actions, the systems and biases in which those actions occurred are the same systems, with the same biases, who get to implement the “answers”. The answers with the best chance of being right are those that remove the biases or change the system. They are, therefore, extremely unlikely to succeed in finding anyone to implement them.

Traditional answers on “how to get your innovative ideas heard” simply don’t work. They tend to be variants of Raymond Loewy’s “most advanced yet acceptable”. That is, they reframe the solution in terms that make it acceptable to the system that makes the decisions, nudging away at the edges of that system to try and move it bit by bit. That’s great when it comes to designing a new car. Less good for existential threats.

So is it impossible to have truly creative solutions implemented?

In saying no, I want to appeal to a more recent story. But first we need to understand, very briefly, that what we are talking about is the possibility of a paradigm shift. Paradigm shifts, in Thomas Kuhn’s ubiquitously-cited “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” are exactly what we are looking for – changes in the whole system. They occur when those on the inside of a system, or worldview, start to notice “anomalies”. Anomalies here are simply inconsistencies, things that the current system cannot explain. What you specifically can’t do with an anomaly is to make it fit by reframing it. Instead, what you need to do is to find a new worldview in which the anomalies also make sense. A great example of this is the way the fossil record eventually led us to a new dating of the earth.

Leave that thought there.

Now I want to think about Alice. That is, of course, an occupational hazard of living in Oxford. Though in fact for a while I clearly haven’t been thinking enough about Alice. Because I have been talking about anomalies using the idea that they pull you “down the rabbit hole” without actually realising what I was saying. The white rabbit is, of course, the classic case of an anomaly. Why does Alice go down the rabbit hole and find herself in a completely different world? Because the white rabbit is exactly the right kind of anomaly – one that makes her so curious she has to find out what’s going on, not by catching the rabbit and examining him within her own world but by following him into his, where he “makes sense”.

If we want to enable truly radical paradigm shifts, the kind that will see creative (and therefore potentially successful) solutions to existential threats implemented, we need to create white rabbits. We need to pepper the current system with anomalies. Not things that we try to make accessible and acceptable to the current system, but things which are inaccessible and unacceptable to it in just the right way. The way that encourages it to follow down the rabbit hole into a worldview in which they are not anomalous but part of a fully-functioning and coherent system.

White rabbit anomalies, that is to say, must do two things:

  • They must remain consistent with the “answer” they seek to implement.
  • They must be inconsistent with the prevailing worldview in just the right way.

So what does this mean in practice?

That is for a detailed study in later posts, but I do want to talk about one wonderful example.

If you have known me for any length of time, you will know how much I love the Southbank Undercroft. I use pictures from there a lot. It is one of the most famous skateboard venues in the world and I, like many others, have spent countless hours watching as some people do amazing things on their boards, others learn from scratch, and others still just hang out. About a decade ago, the skate park came under threat from a proposed expansion to the National Theatre. The theatre proposed moving the skaters to a site a few hundred metres up the road. They didn’t understand why that would be a problem.

What followed was a wonderful example of how to change a worldview using the two principles I mentioned above. The Long Live Southbank campaign did more than simply secure the future of the Undercroft. It changed the way the occupants of the theatre thought about the incredible community that had been their neighbours for 30 years. As a result, the Southbank now celebrates two creative cultures who share space beautifully.

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