Cool Innovation: A Descent Into Chaos
“ It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.”
I am a great jazz enthusiast. From a very young age I was fascinated by traditional jazz melodies, its vitality and exquisite finesse. Jazz music has been a private passion whereas helped me to sense many other aspects of life and business. English poet and jazz passionate Philip Larkin started writing a monthly jazz review in Daily Telegraph at beginning of 1961. He loved traditional jazz but was after all no expert and would need educating his taste for the new modern jazz that Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie founded. He early summarized a jazz shift from ‘trad’ to ‘mod’ in the mid-1940s changing the status quo. He understood that Parker, Davis and Coltrane were modernists in more than a chronological meaning. With an acid drop he defined their jazz style as a ‘descent into chaos’. He assumed they invented something under the constant pressure to be different. For Larkin this strain demanded greater and greater technical virtuosity and more and more exaggerated musical non-sequiturs. Today, looking at the big picture, we see that modern jazz and remarkably Miles Davis made a dramatic break from his past creating a very successful style. How that break came about is interesting. Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ masterpiece has been also the most commercially successful jazz album ever. Miles Davis is a fascinating example of creative leadership. ‘Kind of Blue’ is an example of challenging boundaries and taking experimentation right up to the edge of failure to innovate. Most said that Davis played in the very edge of jazz. This definition shows a high degree of similarity with one idea that theoretical biologist and leading complexity theorist, Stuart Kauffman, has underlined. Kauffman began to see that living systems operated at their most efficient level in the narrow space between stability and disorder — poised at “the edge of chaos.” In this extent, he says, agents within a system bear the fullest range of productive interactions and information exchange.
“Living systems operated at their most efficient level in the narrow space between stability and disorder — poised at “the edge of chaos”
Kauffman also introduced an interesting idea about biospheres evolution. The idea is that biospheres on average keep expanding into their adjacent possible, increasing the diversity of what can happen next. In latest 1960’ Davis introduced fusion to his jazz records, exploring combinations by mixing funk, rhythm and blues or rhythms with the electric instruments, amplified sound and electronic effects, playing styles of rock music together with jazz’s complex. That was innovation and expansion trough the adjacent possible. Today this experimentation is still very much with us, showing its widespread influence throughout music history. In addition to Kauffman adjacent possible idea, however, he noted the fact that we cannot prestate all the future possibilities. The emergence of new, unprestatable technologies or business ideas and new, unprestatable innovations are constant and continual.
Finally, Larkin took a decade to recognize that those ‘irresponsible’ men, despite making anything like the jazz he loved and began collecting, gained his due respect.
“A lot of people ask me where music is going today. I think it’s going in short phrases. If you listen, anybody with an ear can hear that. Music is always changing. It changes because of the times and the technology that’s available, the material that things are made of, like plastic cars instead of steel. So when you hear an accident today it sounds different, not all the metal colliding like it was in the forties and fifties. Musicians pick up sounds and incorporate that into their playing, so the music that they make will be different.”
Miles Davis: The Autobiography
We are seeing how the digital revolution has pointed a new shift from ‘trad’ to ‘mod’. And we are seeing also how in particular investors rush to achieve “the next big thing”. Artificial Intelligence, Internet Of Things or Big Data (or Virtual Reality or Astro-tourism) are only new explored adjacent possibilities increasing the diversity of what will be next. Is the result of undergoing an increasing pressure in the markets to be different and the making of a technological virtuosity –in the words of Larkin. Innovation today, like modern jazz was, is a descent into chaos. To predict witch innovations will flourish in 2016 is a visionary topic and is in the narrow space between stability and disorder. We could simply say we have chaos since we have exponential growth of uncertainty.
This vision far from being pessimistic, quite to the contrary, is very ‘cool’. Miles Davis inaugurated a new genre in 1948: cool jazz. “Keeping cool” was an expression of emotional self-control in times of crisis that was found in American street slang as well as in the language of army test pilots. Cool jazzists belonged to a younger generation and had been raised playing with the gurus of bebop. But cool jazz was largely independent of the traditional preoccupation with rhythm and melody. It focused on creative sounds in a “cool” fashion. After World War II, American attitudes were shifting due to both a newfound affluence in the 1950s and a growing uncertainty of the future; cool jazz reflected a subtracted emotion and quiet intellectual control. Cool jazz re-popularized jazz and found new audiences. But the most relevant fact was that musicians, especially black musicians, transited from been entertainers to explorers. They were pioneers of a musical genre, its structure, rules and limits. And, as if this were not enough, cool jazz generated a geographical movement. Bebop was associated with the East Coast (New York); cool jazz was associated with the West Coast (California).
Maybe the reader senses that this story bears a strong metaphor to what’s happening today with innovative startups. I do. We have a younger generation that explores the limits (examples like Uber, Airbnb, Tesla, Space X, Amazon are just a small sample). New entrepreneurs aren’t any more “finance entertainers”: they are explorers and pioneers of another way of understanding business with other rules and their own limits in front of a very uncertain future. They innovate for themselves, like we had not done since the second industrial revolution. At the same time they talk “about” themselves in the self-referential sense. They have brought innovation back to the mainstream. They remained cool and calm while the world exploded around them (Zuckerberg have taken a paternity leave like the most normal thing in the world). Finally, I do not think it’s merely anecdotic, they do not live anymore in Wall Street; they prefer to be in Silicon Valley. They are doing cool innovation.
This article was originally published in Linkedin on January 13, 2016