Affordances – the key to creativity?

As I went through the photos that we took in northern Kenya to work on the idea of fences, I came across this one of an acacia tree and thought that it brilliantly illustrates the idea of “affordances”. It’s appropriate too because affordances became an important way of understanding the peace building processes we observed in this area.

Let me explain.

Affordances are like opportunities for action offered by your environment. The idea was first developed by James Gibson in ecology. The acacia tree offers several affordances that have been made use of. The weaver birds have used the tree, and probably its twigs, to build their special hive-shaped nests that hang down from the ends of branches. There’s a person sitting by the tree – I first thought he was benefiting from the shade that the tree retrieves from the hot sun but he’s not. Perhaps he is waiting for someone he arranged to meet there.

And there’s that fence – it’s been made from thick and thin branches of the trees and bushes, placed in the ground and tied together. A fence can serve many purposes – marking boundaries of family land, keeping cattle in at night, or keeping cattle out to protect growing crops – but it is the shape and growth of a tree that provides the affordance for the action of building the fence.

Apart from these three visible affordances, there are many more – trees can be climbed for lookouts, used for building houses, eaten by goats, used by ants and bees, etc etc

Affordances are just there doing nothing until people or animals notice and exploit their possibilities. Affordances are a source of creativity – something new can emerge when we notice a possibility and exploit it. I like to think about who might have first noticed the musical affordance of cat gut, and invented the violin.

A creative leader in peace building notices and uses the affordances of the situation, even the least promising. Credit for buying tea is an affordance for building trust; development funding for dairy goats becomes an affordance for empathy building.

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