Creative Surplus

In the summer of 2015, I was finishing a wonderful engagement with CO: Collective with the big question of: how could we reframe MoMA’s relevance in a new era of culture and visitor expectations? The project was densely interesting, and I like saying that Co: has the biggest concentration of smart, creative people per square foot (more on the work at

Finishing the engagement, I returned to my desk at NEW INC and had an uneasy feeling. Through the process of months of interviews, ideation, ethnography, and presentations, I was left with unused, relentless energy.

In working with strategists, designers, and business analysts, I was asked to explore and explain my practice’s deeper edges, which could show up in my work but are rarely articulated. In the cycles of articulation, I had to write and rewrite what otherwise would be unstructured creativity. This left with a set of new mental models and axioms to work with—rough connective tissue between systems, complexity, language, AI, and augmentation.

I decided to do something with that energy and write. Initially a set of 1000 words essays for a whole week, but when that didn’t ‘cure’ it, I started a weekly newsletter for the entirety of 2016 to act on this creative surplus.

Creative surplus is the creativity that no one is asking for (yet), which without care and attention will disseminate as the background of one’s work, or worse yet as professional resentment.

In hindsight, this moment of intuition was pivotal. On a local level, it gave me the conviction I needed to read and write, develop academic collaborations, deliver ambitious talks, and write a report with Ken Goldberg at UC Berkeley on the same topic that started as a small kernel of unused creativity a couple of years prior.

On a meta-level, I experimented with the idea of self-authorship. The idea that a creative can explore intellectual property, based on strategic intuition and future thinking, ahead of what the market is asking for, supercharge their relevance through intellectual and creative ‘travel.’

Beyond the work in AI, this has led to a larger narrative. It changed my experience as a design professor, acting as a steward to my students’ learning experience, as opposed to the material itself. And in my consulting work, I realize that I act as a mix of strategist and a coach. The latter is differentiated from the former by asking questions instead of giving answers—an idea that is coincidently inline with my work in AI and views of abundant technology. With the world’s knowledge connected and increasingly indexed, it is the questions that carry merit and innovation potential.

This year I went through a similar exercise focusing on creativity as part of Meta Medium and Circles. Both of these year-long efforts are linked and inform each other. I like to say that Meta Medium is a study of the future-of-self in a post-AI sense (we live in a post-electricity world).

Whether you are a manager, a freelancer, a CEO, or a student, I urge you to ask yourself what your creative surplus is? When the day ends, what is left with you that no one is asking for? Teachers, boardrooms, clients, and the little voice in our heads set out certain obligations and requests to fulfill; once those are done: what is left? I plead with you to reflect on it because that might be the signal and everything else the noise.