Why Possibility? Why This Project?

Great questions, these.   The Social Possibility Lab seeks to look around and learn about ways to see, to think, and to do – that advance the greater good.  

This is critical work for all of us – it is not only the poets, prophets, and visionaries who should “dwell in possibility”.  Emily Dickinson championed possibility while living a fairly reclusive domestic existence. For many years, she rarely left home, although she maintained lively correspondences, produced a wealth of poems, and became a serious student of botany.  She even left behind an extensive herbarium (as seen in this image from Harvard University’s Houghton Library collection). Dickinson was exceptional but her example is powerful – our everyday circumstances are fertile fields for curiosity and creativity. 

Possibility, or social possibility, suggests a sense of what is attainable within the present circumstances and structures. The notion conveys the horizon of opportunities currently available to people.

We live within that horizon of possible opportunities, and sometimes we push back, peer over, or rupture that horizon and discover new realms of possibility – alternative futures

Wherever and whoever we may be, anyone can benefit from:

  • Seeing more deeply or in different ways;
  • Thinking differently about the present and future; 
  • Doing projects and practices that help reveal and realize new opportunities

Possibility is an imaginative, creative practice, a work of discovery.  We are always discovering and rediscovering, and we need to look beyond the easy, trite, simplified answers.  Instead, we pursue questions: 

What is possibility? How does it work?  What does it look like? How does possibility relate to innovation and imagination?  How might a more robust consideration of the concept of possibility better inform responses to enduring challenges and better advance development, human flourishing, and agency?  Why is this important?

The Social Possibility Lab seeks, in writings and projects, to discover new ways to see, think, and do – for the greater good.   Perhaps this can best be described by considering these components in turn….

DISCOVERING new ways….

Our core project here is a humble one – rooted in discovery and learning.  What have others written, what is being done, what can we learn? What can be learned from examples and exemplars, from thinkers and scholars?  But, just as centrally, what can we learn from the everyday lives of people in places?

The Lab’s working premise is that possibility matters.  That a clearer cartography of possibility’s realms is worthwhile.  That many of the realms are still largely unmapped. Moreover, people and places experience deficits of possibility, whether actual or perceived.  And these deficits have real and recognizable implications – for human flourishing, social change, and development.  

We fully expect to support a range of projects and pilot initiatives.  However, the focus on discovering is an important foundation. It places us as humble observers and interested learners first.  

By discovery, we also refer to a kind of journey or quest, a movement.  In some ways, there is an affinity to what the cultural scholar Michel de Certeau described in his writing about the practice of walking:

“…a spatial order organises an ensemble of possibilities (e.g., by a place in which one can move) …. the walker actualises some of these possibilities. In that way, he [or she] makes them exist as well as emerge. But he also moves them about and [she] invents others, since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisation of walking privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements…”   The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), p.98

As walkers or workers, thinkers or tinkerers, change agents or curious humans, we have the power to bring new possibilities into existence, to engage with the current situation or status quo and re-shape it to some extent.

We seek to discover how people, in places, reveal, contest and construct possibilities.  For us, this is a journey. Like Lewis and Clark – we aspire to be a kind of Corps of Discovery.  We also recognize that there is no one best way to do this work, and that we really don’t know where we are headed for “…there is no path.  The path is made by walking.”

To SEE,

Discovery begins with looking around.  Exploring the neighborhood, the city, the world.  In the planning or consulting world, we might call this situational analysis.  In the academic world, we might call this field research or data collection. In the everyday world, most of us would call this looking around, or noticing.

Possibility begins with the relevance of paying attention, the reminder that the ordinary is not so very ordinary.  There is a magic in noticing. Astonishment and wonder and awe are just at hand, always ever at hand, and the world is more than we realize.  To notice more is to live more, to revel in a kind of strident particularity; a celebratory disconnectedness from the everyday calls of rote duties.  One of my favorite authors was Brian Doyle, whose essays, poems, and novels often featured the recurrent themes of noticing, story, and connection. He reminded his readers often that there really are no little things: 

“You know how everything seems normal and usual and orthodox

But actually everything if you look at it closely with all four eyes

Is utterly confusing and puzzling and mysterious and astonishing?”

Brian Doyle

There is a kind of beauty in paying attention to what strikes us as holy and fascinating and curious and striking.  The word, astonishment, is at least partly derived from the Latin “attonare” – “to strike with lightning”. To be astonished is to feel dazzled or overwhelmed by something.  And this can happen anytime, anywhere, even in the midst of the mundane and the ordinary. An initial work is to look around, to see what is being done, to see what is needed, to see what might be – to become astonished:

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

Annie Dillard

By seeing issues differently, we can create powerful new directions and language.  Drawing from their organizing work with Chicago urban neighborhoods, John McKnight and John Kretzmann at Northwestern University described a new way to look at neighborhoods -as collections of assets rather than as places with needs.  This, in many ways, was transformative for many federal and state funders and development organizations. At the time, the practice was to focus on deficits – what was lacking in a place as a way to justify funding, services, and attention.  Kretzman and McKnight argued against the detrimental effects of describing communities this way and instead offered an asset-based community development model, now widely referenced and adapted.   Community development today, to many, means starting with assets – a fundamental and powerful shift away from beginning with needs and problems.  

There are countless other examples of individuals and movements that have brought about change, at least partly through helping others see their situation (and its possibilities) more clearly or differently.  Beyond the exemplary figures like a Rachel Carson or Rosa Parks, there are multitudes of other, smaller, less heralded leaders and projects and places. 

Looking around more widely for these examples, pursuing our astonishments, and sharing these stories is a big part of our project at the Social Possibility Lab.

THINK,

By think, I refer to reflecting on our discoveries – exploring connections and complexities.  Some have described this practice as bricolage, or a “deliberate mixing of qualitative methods and ways of thinking in order to address a specific issue or problem.”

Bricolage is derived from bricoler, a French verb meaning “to putter about.”  The term is related to the French noun bricoleur, a jack-of-all-trades. Bricolage was applied to qualitative research The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used the term as a metaphor for research that makes do, using whatever is at hand – and so out of miscellaneous components “shapes the beautiful and useful.”   Borrowing this metaphor from Levi-Strauss, Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln in their 1999 text on qualitative research describe a methodological bricoleur as one who combines multiple research tools to accomplish a meaning-making task, as one who “engages in fluid, eclectic, and creative approaches to inquiry.”

Bricolage suggests an emphasis on understanding complexity, applying an interdisciplinary lens, revealing power dynamics, discovering new ways of seeing, connecting theory to lived experience, and identifying with those on the margins or with less power. 

This entails a conscious reflexivity as this work unfolds.  Our project is a kind of digital “commonplace book” on the idea of possibility.  Notable figures in history from Marcus Aurelius to Leo Tolstoy kept versions of these collections.  Steven Johnson has described the frequent use of “commonplacing” by 17th and 18th century scholars and thinkers, from Locke to Jefferson, Milton to Bacon. 

The process involved keeping a volume in which one recorded snippets, quotes, and thoughts, sometimes related to one or more themes or topics.  The books sometimes served a practical function of making important and useful passages easier to find and reference but also, “served the higher purpose of ‘facilitat[ing] reflexive thought.”  The posts and resources on this site aspire to a similar purpose  as a kind of living repository of reflexivity around more varied ways to explore social possibility  – a discovering of new ways to see, think, and do – for the greater good.  

And, DO

By do, we are interested in nurturing new ideas and experiments.   We also suggest the importance of creating more spaces and places where playing with ideas is encouraged.  We need more creative experiments, not fewer. 

By some measures, creativity in the US is in decline, a “crisis of creativity”. Young children frequently score higher than adults on creativity assessments.   Psychology researcher and writer Alison Gopnik found that preschoolers outperformed college students on problem-solving tasks.  KH Kim is a professor at William & Mary professor and author of The Creativity Challenge.  Her research found that creativity assessment scores in the US now decrease as we age, not increase – at least since 1990.  Between 1966-1990 scores rose over time. Since 1990, results have suggested a decline.   

Kim writes that “America has an increasingly limited number of individuals who are capable of finding and implementing solutions to problems the nation faces today.   If this trend isn’t reversed soon, America will be unable to tackle the challenges of the future.”

Thinking on my own experience, I was a latch key, lax-parented child of the idealized 70s- growing up in a subdivision carved across the curving slope of a small mountain among the remnants of forest and orchard. Just up the street, my two friends- M&B were the kind of friends you only fully appreciate in retrospect.  You could arrive at their house anytime and be welcome. Even if they weren’t home, you could use their basketball goal out back. You could grab milk and cereal from their fridge (because your parents only had the bran-filled healthy cardboard flavored kind from the Food Coop). You could help them torment their babysitter, read a book on their couch, play the video games you did not have. 

And they were allies you could enlist in escapades of possibility.  On one occasion, we were zealous treasure hunters, convinced that the legendary Beale Treasure was buried on our mountain.  Together, we procured metal detectors and shovels and we dug – under boulders and old stone foundations and along creekbanks.   M & B were not always willing collaborators – but they were often open to whimsy, the audaciously impractical.  

We spent, and I recall this quite clearly, an entire day searching for entryways to other worlds.  Infected by one too many readings of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I became convinced that if we searched hard enough with a clear intent that we could find a door, a passage, a hole.  Scared of heights, I summoned my courage to jump off their roof, thinking that perhaps it was the falling at great risk that might pierce whatever veil separated our world from others.  Convinced that if you looked hard enough THROUGH the ground, expecting not to make impact, that your descent would simply continue on to somewhere wondrous.  

I learned that day that this is a hardened dirt-packed world, one not so easily escaped from. Earth hurts. And yet, I also was practicing the arts of imagination, of possibility.  And like the kids in Kim and Gopnik’s research, as the years passed I practiced these arts less often and less adeptly.  

And our society can be a deterrent to thought and action – the mental models we employ, the cognitive frames we are influenced by, and the language we use.  We say, for instance, that we want big ideas but when people with paradigm-shifting ideas come forward, we apply standard business model thinking and rationalistic assessments.  We dismiss out of hand ideas which we should perhaps let marinate and stew. Effectively, we are in the habit of discouraging and eliminating new voices, non-traditional approaches, and truly out of the box thinking.  

We too readily privilege the feasible over the impractical.   But the two are not mutually exclusive – to generate more people with practical solutions, we need more safe spaces and support systems for experimenting with the impractical.  Building an imaginative ecosystem involves a broader, kinder, more creative, more grassroots set of strategies and approaches. Many truly innovative endeavors were at first impractical, even ridiculed.    

Like Don Quixote, the iconic hero of Miguel de Cervantes 17th century classic novel, or like me on my friends roof – we become disillusioned when our lofty ideals crash to the hard-packed earth.  The quixotic refers to the “exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical”. It means, “having intentions or ideas that are admirable but not practical” or being, “caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality.”  It can also mean capricious, impulsive, incompatible with reality, or absurd.

I believe that we should sometimes court the admirably impractical and more readily recognize the value of those certain acts of idealistic inspiration, of whimsy, that most would consider as having no lasting value.   

For the GREATER GOOD

Our project endeavors to contribute to the collective good.  We are no philosophers but the questions must be asked: what is it all about?  What are here for? We are on a search for meaning and at least part of the answer must be – as just about all faiths and wisdom traditions assert – that we are here for others and to contribute to the good.  

What are the ways of seeing, thinking and doing that contribute to social good – that hold potential for people and places to flourish?  We need a fuller, more inclusive range of solutions for the challenges with which we are confronted as communities and as a society. How can we broaden the scope of social possibility and respond to challenges such as inequality, climate change, and social isolation through specific projects and interventions? Who is doing this work, and how can we share these stories and create more of them?

We will be catching and sharing these stories and reflecting on the perils and potentials of this work.  This will necessarily be through our own perspectives and positioning – but we believe that the best way to explore a topic is to bring a creative, roaming, wide-ranging spirit of curiosity and interest.   This is a way of discovery, guided by the aims of an essay, to make an attempt at expressing ideas on a subject.

I welcome you along as we begin this journey.