Serendipity: Creative Process between Accident and Sagacity

by Sebastian Olma

The notion of serendipity is quickly becoming an important reference for the creative industries as well as for our innovation-obsessed economy in general. This is remarkable as it was originally conceived in the middle of the 18th century within literary circles where it led its marginal existence until very recently. The term ‘serendipity’ was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, art historian and eccentric son of the first British Prime Minister. Walpole had come across the “silly fairy tale” Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo which was the Italian translation of the ancient Persian parable of the three princes of Serendip, the ancient name of Sri Lanka. The king had sent his sons on a punitive expedition for having refused succeeding him after their education. As Walpole writes, during their travels the smart royal kids where constantly making “discoveries by accidents and sagacity of things they where not in quest of.” This became Walpole’s definition of his newly coined term serendipity and as such, it spread through the world of literates and bibliophiles. Scientists, of course, were always able to relate to the term as it describes pretty much the principle of scientific discoveries and inventions. Louis Pasteur’s often-cited adage about chance favoring only prepared minds is only the most famous statement as to serendipity’s significance for the world of science.

Today, serendipity has left the libraries and academic circles in order to start a new life in the network economy. Within the creative industries with their coworking spaces, creative hubs and start-up centers, the notion has become a guiding reference for the new generation of creative producers for whom the principle of the valuable unexpected encounters (of new ideas for products and services, funding opportunities, contracts, business partners, etc.) is something like the foundation of economic survival. Pop-science and management theory are at equally keen on serendipity as it seems to provide a lead into understanding the social dynamics involved in the emergence of novelty. Yet, in this wonderful world of TED, PechaKucha and awesome one-liners, it should not be surprising that serendipity is quickly becoming a fad. This is unfortunate as I believe that the notion offers more than meets the google-glassed eye.

In fact, I believe that serendipity provides us with an important lead regarding the mechanics of novelty to the extent that human cognition is responsible for it. In this sense, our contemporary ideologists of innovation are not wrong in their interest for serendipity, they just miss important parts of the picture.

In Walpole’s definition of serendipity, there are two important dimensions: accidents and sagacity. The first dimension, accidents, stands for the conjuncture of ideas, objects, intuitions, knowledge fragments etc. that in the usual course of things would not encounter each other. Contemporary philosophers refer to this dimension in terms of a multiplicity: relations forming the potential out of which the new may emerge. The second dimension, sagacity, is where this potential gets embodied, where it is actualized and enters into the world. Without this second dimension, serendipity does not work, which is to say that the act of creation does not take place. Sagacity is where the depth of experience, expertise, craftsmanship etc. enters into the game initiating the creative process by which unexpected encounters acquire their novelty value. So serendipity needs both the multiplicity of encounters (accidents) and the creative act (sagacity) actualizing the encounter for and into the world.

Let’s take at look at each of the dimensions separately. With regard to the first dimension, that of the accidental encounter, the diversity of elements encountering each other is crucial for the generation of novelty. It depends on the possibility of diverting from the known path; it hinges on the disturbance of the normal flow of things. French philosopher Michel Serres has recently made this point by critiquing the current model of academic discipline, which he likens to that of the Roman army. He proposes the jumbling of university departments as a way of “mobilizing the disparate against classification.” While there would be a lot to say about Serres’ critique of academia’s obsolete structures, it might be interesting as well to relate it to those emphatically creative and innovative spaces, hubs and incubators that make up a crucial part of our so-called creative cities. In terms of their populations, these places often display a homogeneity similar to that criticized by Serres with regard to the university. In Amsterdam, this has recently led to a debate on “creative ghettos,” questioning the sensibility of spatial policies where creative producers remain largely among themselves. While this debate is an important one, it is part of a bigger problem, i.e., that of understanding creative production in terms of a unified economic sector. It is high time we accept the obvious fact that the generation and valorization of knowledge and creativity follow rules that differ from classical economic goods and resources and adjust creative industries policies accordingly. Serendipity provides a valuable lead for such readjustment.

Yet, in order for serendipity to really happen, its second dimension, sagacity, has to come into play as well. This is the dimension of serendipity where the potential formed by the accidental encounter is led towards its actualization. Sagacity describes the ability to see what others don’t, namely, to recognize the potential of the encounter and act on it. As such, it is not at all a question of luck but of patiently acquired skill or expertise. While the encounter per se might indeed be a fleeting moment, sagacity is the result of individual and social learning processes or, as philosophers say, individuation. Sagacity does not mean the quick valorization of an idea; rather it might be described as the ability to do something much more interesting with it. In this sense, it is closer to craftsmanship than to the entrepreneurial principle of ‘effectuation’.

While it is true, as Miriam Meckel wrote some time ago, that serendipity has come under pressure from the algorithmic reductionism of Amazon, Google, Foursquare and so on, its sagacious dimension suffers more from the decline of independent knowledge and maker cultures that for instance Richard Sennett bemoans in his recent books. Yet, while his sociological romanticism is certainly heartwarming, the challenge today is to bring the crafts(wo)man’s virtuosity – this kind of sovereignty over materials and processes of production –  into the digital age. It is great, of course, to see the emergence of Fablabs, Makerspaces, independent design and software movements but let’s be honest: what is their impact in the face of what Bernard Stiegler aptly calls the general digital proletarianization? As German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues, the human being is in its essence a Übungswesen, a creature that needs exercise or training to grow into and beyond itself. Übung macht den Meister goes the German proverb and it doesn’t only ‘make the master craftsman’ it also generates sagacity as crucial prerequisite for the serendipitous disruption of current cultural and economic templates. To create the necessary Übungsräume or training spaces, we need a new wave of social innovation that liberates our educational institutions from their docility and opportunism. Today’s self-acclaimed social innovators have not even begun to address this question.

If we approach serendipity from the double perspective of accidental encounters and sagacity we realize that there is more to it than the multiplicity of ‘cool ideas’ dancing to the tune of the west-coast investment boogie. What we have to keep in mind is that there would be no serendipity at, say, TED at all if we were to reduce our understanding of valuable knowledge and creativity to the principle of “ideas worth spreading.” When infotainment replaces critical engagement with the real material world for the sake of technological progress, it is only a matter of time before our beloved OS are going to leave us for more interesting exploits. A creative economy based on the logic of serendipity requires methods and infrastructures that make space for both, accidents and sagacity, with sagacity being something else than the wisdom of the market, the investor or the algorithm suggesting what “you might also like.” In fact, finding a timely definition of sagacity might help us answer the question of what it means to be ‘creative’ as a human (individual, collective, network, etc.) among more or less ‘intelligent’ machines.