There were a couple of hundred of us in a large room, scattered around small tables. We were in intense conversation. I had never heard the word before, but when I heard Peter Senge describe a particular kind of learning as ‘generative’ I intuitively understood, at least partly, what he meant. The word resounded with meaning for me; I heard something about creativity (generating). I heard something about people (generations). But it was more than understanding, there was something about the word, so pregnant with meaning that captivated me. That was a long time ago, and I had been using it for a number of years before I decide to dig a bit deeper. What I found intrigued me even more.
Unknowingly I had encountered the concept of generativity way back in my year 11 English class. Being a mathematically oriented student I tolerated English classes, managing to get through most literature assignments without actually reading the texts. But there was a unit of year 11 English that suited me down to the ground. In our class it was called transformational grammar. In transformational grammar we learned the ‘code’ behind sentence structure. The idea was that if you understood the basic elements of a sentence, you could then create meaningfulness by inserting your own content. It was the ‘science’ of English that facilitated creativity. But if the elements were not well formed, no content would make sense to the receiver. As with any design practice, the application extends to diagnosis as well as construction. If a sentence is non-sensical, transformational grammar allows us to diagnose why.
When linguist Noam Chomsky developed the theory I encountered as transformational grammar he had called it generative grammar. I was curious about the common meaning between Senge’s generative learning and Chomsky’s generative grammar. So I dug further.
Psychologist Erik Erikson, known for his work on stages of human development, coined the term generativity in the early 1950s to describe the struggle against adulthood stagnation. In his work, it meant living with a concern for the next generations, typically characterised by an optimistic outlook. More generally, generativity came to mean the ability of an independent system to generate new content, unique to that system, without external intervention from the creators of the system.
OK, so that started to make sense of the other uses of the word I was now discovering.
Renowned producer Brian Eno used the word to describe ever-different and changing music that is generated by a system. While Eno’s generative music is electronic, we could also think about a wind chime in a breeze as an example of generative music. Generative art, similarly, is art that is autonomously created, whether by computer algorithms or other patterned systems.
In 2011 I came late to the genius of Christopher Alexander. After a trusted recommendation I trawled the specialty bookshops in Melbourne for his 1974 classic ‘Pattern Language’. The day it arrived I sat down to skim the contents and was instantly mesmerised.
The scope and brilliance of the book was intoxicating. From the design of the universe, through how to arrange nation states, right down to where to put windows in hallways, here was a mind so attuned to ‘what works’ it was like ‘waking up’ to a way of thinking I didn’t even know existed. Alexander had understood the design of ‘things and people’ in the same way Chomsky understood language, and had broken it up into rules that everyone can understand. Generative design. (My label)
While the dictionary definitions of generative tend to focus on the ‘capacity to generate offspring’, the use of the term in the contexts I have come across imply a richer meaning. From these examples I have distilled my own, more nuanced appreciation of generativity.
For me, generative has three dimensions.
- Hard coded, non-negotiable but non-prescriptive design elements.
- The outward expression is intentionally and continuously evolving creatively.
- Positively oriented; it generates positive experiences and cultivates a positive future.
I then tested this general frame against the other uses of the word I had encountered. Tick:
- Erikson’s struggle against adult stagnation,
- Chomsky’s generative grammar,
- Peter Senge’s generative learning,
- Eno’s generative music,
- Generative art.
- Alexander’s generative design (my label).
But as interested as I was in language, learning, music, art and design, for me the main game was about living. And so I wondered what generative living might look like. What started as a book draft eventually got crunched into a personal manifesto called Notes on Generative Living (PDF download).