Lessons from a creative mind

22nd April 2020
On the 11th of April, British mathematician John Conway, most famous for his invention of the “Game of Life”, passed away in a nursing home in the US, where he spent most of his career at Princeton University. Tech Foresight wants to remember his great contribution to imagination, speculation and mathematics.

Professor John Conway loved solving simple problems that revealed big truths. Gifted at using metaphors to simplify difficult mathematical and abstract concepts, he enjoyed his hunt for mathematical epiphanies. He considered his research as “play” and discovered breakthroughs while “being lazy”. According to those that know him, he would isolate himself for days to sort out a mathematical riddle (similar to thinking how a teenager wouldn’t mind spending whole days playing videogames).


One instance of his creative process that is particularly telling is the journey in how he discovered “surreal” numbers, an extension of real-numbers that have been defined as “infinite classes of weird numbers never seen by man”. The birth of the idea came to him all of a sudden, in a flash of insight, while observing the Asian game of GO being played. The game of GO is an amazingly simple and yet complex game between two opponents. It unfolds as an alternate dance of disposing black and white stones on a large grid, similar in style to a simplified and widened chessboard. As the game goes on, the tension between the two players leads to emerging structures that occupy more and more territory. The individual with the most territory wins.

By observing the simple and evocative endgames of GO, he had an intuition that led him to make the analogy of how these games/numbers form new number systems – surreal numbers. Initially, the connection to games and numbers might feel distant. However, it inspired him to creatively consider the project and see the invisible connections behind one.


Einstein once said, “I am not a genius, I just stay with problems longer”. Conway had similar principles, a well-known quote from him explains: “Becoming sufficiently familiar with something is a substitute for understanding it”. These quotes show the importance of remaining engaged in a problem – familiarising ourselves with it – to create new interpretations of what these challenges might become. The conceptual space of a problem is important to understand its opportunities, what can we learn from this?


The desire to find new solutions and ideas can be represented by the concept of flow. The state of flow is when an individual is in full concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. In an interview in Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.” Similar to when Conway became immersed in the game of GO. To be able to find these states, we need to create spaces where we can achieve flow. Often this can be made by balancing difficulty and ease in tasks.


How does this connect to foresight and futures? Often futures are unmapped territories that still have not been fully explored. Imagine the boundaries of drawn maps, where they might not have future territories yet explored nor imagined. What we can learn from creative people, both in science and art, is the ability, the resilience, and the courage to explore new and unfamiliar territories—often challenging the status quo and what is known. Exploring future and present to gain insight and clarity on what might be next. In foresight, we use the notion of weak signals and uncertainty to understand and create clarity on the narratives that might emerge. As Imperial Tech Foresight, we work to explore a variety of futures by exploring the uncertainties that they inhabit. It allows us to remove boundaries of categorical thought, exploring the realms beyond the probable, plausible, possible. But we also explore the preposterous futures, that remove the boundaries of what is possible and technologically viable. Pushing the common boundaries of thought, under the litany of the zeitgeist. Often the areas that feel awkward and strange are those that are critical for future understanding and exploration.


With all futures, especially now, we need to be even more engaged in the interdependencies and consequences that co-exist. As these layers create impact across multiple areas, we need to be able to figure out and observe the novel properties of the mega-structures they generate. A little bit like the concept of water being wet, it’s a property of water, not of hydrogen and oxygens per se. Collective dynamics give rise to new structures that obey to new rules. These emerging natural phenomena – from water molecules being wet to collective behaviours of plants, insects, animals and humans – are the results of a phenomenon called self-organization, that characterizes the spontaneous emergence of some form of global order out of local interactions. Along with this concept, Professor Conway developed his ideas on “Game of Life”.


The future, as Conway referenced it in his work, is not a direct function of the past. It doesn’t necessarily come from projections of previous past patterns, especially in situations of uncertainty. As we are exploring the future in these uncertain times, learning to deal with complex systems is fundamental to unlock a full spectrum of thinking. Thriving in uncertainty requires new thinking. In the current situation, we see new ways of thinking where novel solutions are implemented, such as the Doughnut Economy by Kate Raworth or the Ecological Economics by Robert Costanza are great examples of that. Both of these examples showcase how we can encourage growth within planetary boundaries.


Developing futures that are inclusive and include the unexpected, is necessary for us to imagine possibilities positively. We need those that explore to create new routes for future paths, those that promote disruption and intuitive perspectives, such as Professor Conway.