Do you ever wonder why cars aren't called "horseless carriages" anymore? Today's cars are just as horseless as they were a century ago. Horselessness is standard equipment on most new and late models, both foreign and domestic. Framing the question this way may seem a bit absurd; yet, it's a playful reminder that innovation does not emerge out of nothing. New innovations evolve from historical, iterative processes. The automobile developed out of, and in opposition to, concepts associated with the horse and carriage. This was the familiar frame of reference when the automobile first emerged. Early automobiles extended and adapted the accustomed 19th century understanding of locomotion. However, long after the automobile had made the horse and carriage obsolete and the association had faded, the concepts of each still defined one another; this synthesis is still present today. Traces of the horse and carriage are found in terms like "horsepower" and in the names of classic cars like the Mustang, Colt, and Bronco. Consider the form of a car's design. You can see how four legs evolved into four wheels and headlights into the eyes of our metal beasts of burden. The vestiges of formative features still affect how we make sense of the built environment and our material culture, even if the original antecedent has long been forgotten. Often, when searching for a new way to understand a familiar idea, we look for its opposite. By doing this, we create a spectrum of possibilities between what it is and what it is not. This strategy is somewhat similar to what is often referred to as the Hegelian Dialectic, although Hegel himself probably never used this term, or its familiar formula: Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis:
-Thesis is a proposition about a prevalent paradigm; e.g. a horse and carriage;
- Antithesis is a counter proposition that opposes or negates the Thesis; e.g. the first generation of automobiles called "horseless carriages";
- Synthesis emerges from the tension between the Thesis and the Antithesis, blending the opposing ideas without fully negating either of them completely; e.g. our modern understanding of the car.
A creative, innovative mind also seeks to move beyond the given categories of thought established by binary either/or frameworks (such as the Hegelian model just described). This is still a move towards synthesis, but it includes opposing concepts that are internal to that binary framework and to ideas outside of it. If you're a visual thinker, you can think of the internal concepts as a "vertical" axis and the external concepts as a "horizontal" axis. Lateral thinking, the ability to move horizontally across different categories of thought, often manifests itself as a synthesis between seemingly incongruent ideas; think of Roger Martin's classic, Opposable Minds.
Let's extend the horselessness example to imagine how horizontal moves across categories can play out. Beyond the familiar four-wheeled vehicle, which may have evolved in response to animal anatomy, we can imagine other categories of vehicles. We might imagine a vehicle with three wheels or five wheels or no wheels at all. But why stop there? We can imagine even more divergent, lateral moves across other categories as we consider vehicles that fly or hover. Once upon a time legs became wheels, which eventually took on a variety of divergent configurations, so why can't wheels become something else entirely?