The Adjacent Possible is a theory developed by Stuart Kauffman about first-order combinations. Kauffman was a theoretical biologist and his theory initially described autonomous agents looking to obtain higher orders of complexity.
It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it. There’s a lot of neat science to be done to unpack that, and I’m thinking about it. -Stuart Kauffman
This has obvious implications for biology specifically, in regard to how carbon molecules developed amino acids and then DNA and then increasingly advanced biological forms and then complex ecosystems, step by step. But the concept of the adjacent possible can be understood much more broadly and be applied to many different kinds of sciences and processes, particularly human innovation.
In his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (which I’ll go into more detail later), Steven Johnson threads the concept of the adjacent possible throughout his narrative.
The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.
To think about this physically, think of a room with four doors. Each door leads to another room, where there exists another four doors, and so on, such as conceptualized in the inane but stylistically interesting movie The Cube. The general idea is that very rarely does anyone, or even a group of people, jump directly to an idea in a so-called Eureka moment. In the rare occurrence that they do make such jumps ahead, like Da Vinci sketching out a helicopter, society is not far enough along in its support structures for an idea to be viable. Instead, ideas and society more generally evolve in such a way that doors opened yesterday allow for different doors to be opened up tomorrow, like how a walkman led to an ipod, or a company intranet at CERN turned into the beginnings of the World Wide Web.
In any case, this recently published TED video (below) was inspiring on many levels, partly due to this context of the adjacent possible. These two guys, and I’m sure members of a team they work with, found a way (and a marketable way!) to continuously explore the adjacent possible, so that messing around with food led to making a desert that looks like nachos which led to replacing tuna with protein-cured watermelon which led to making extremely useful and tasty creations with local ingredients that are almost never used for food. One door led to another, which led to another, which led to another, and the opening of the new doors was as much the point as getting to another room, so they kept on (and presumably will keep on) innovating.