The adjacent possible

Dani and I have been spending a bunch of time recently thinking about the relationship between applications and infrastructure.  It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation.  You need infrastructure to build apps, but often times you don’t really know what kind of infrastructure is needed until you build some apps.

For example, we didn’t get AWS (the infrastructure) until we had Amazon (the app).  Often times, the early innovators need to build all the infrastructure themselves in order to build the app they want to build.  And then that helps lead the way for the next generation of infrastructure: taking what was built for a killer app and offering it up to everyone.

One of my favorite books is Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From — punchline is: innovation is typically not a single “eureka” moment, but rather an accumulation of many years of cumulative discovery.   This blog is an example of one of my favorite ideas in the book, the “slow hunch” reinforced by the “commonplace book“.  Another idea from the book is the Adjacent Possible: essentially, that we can innovate only with what we can see and touch today.  But by innovating at today’s edge, we continually stretch the boundary of what’s possible:

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.

For more on how this concept applies not only to “web 3” (crypto/blockchains) but how it played out looking back at the history of technology (internet 2.0, planes, cars, etc), here is our post.

8 comments on “The adjacent possible”

The Adjacent Possible is the same logic which created the Edge City phenomenon whereby great cities attracted growth but the growth did not want to replicate the ills of the city itself, so they grew into an edge city which provided to all the great things about the sponsor city, but which added something new on the edge of the city.

The Edge City then fed and served both itself and the sponsor city.

Look at every dynamic city in the US and you will find a universe of edge cities revolving around the sponsor city.


Does this help to explain why there is always the need for government planning and funding intervention at the earliest stages of innovation, especially in what has fashionably but erroneously sold as the Silicon Valley ‘miracle’ of private finance and thrusting individualism?

Perhaps – seems like you are interpreting this as “private sector takes the low hanging fruit” and some other mechanism needs to exist to support long term infrastructure planning

That may or may not be true – I think the point here is that lots of infrastructure innovation can’t happen so far ahead of time. And even the infrastructure that seems way ahead, is actually often a response to an application that needs it

I wonder what Darwin would have to say?

In evolution most species go extinct. They are replaced by adaption to environmental change. I think this is a very difficult reality for long term investing.

“punchline is: innovation is typically not a single “eureka” moment, but rather an accumulation of many years of cumulative discovery” ????

I prefer Albert’s “expanding the space of possibilities” from his Blockstack talk. I liked it so much I’ve appropriated some of it (I told him).

Mine is “Expanding everyone’s perspectives.”

The issue with “fat protocols” is that it references the fat part of bell curves and I’m making a system to up-end that.

Bell curves and utility curves are a very Industrial Age concept which, yes, enabled us to measure Production Possibility Curves and Pareto efficiencies.

However, we’re now entering the Quantum Age which means new frameworks, tools, apps and infrastructures need to be built.

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