The affordances provided by institutions

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

In October 2020 I participated in a week-long exploratory retreat hosted by Cognitive Edge. Actually, there were two different events in the same month and I experienced them as one event where we explored amazing concepts around complexity, sense making, aesthetics, knowledge management and so on. During one of the many breakout groups of these events, I was confronted by the concept of affordances. I was introduced to the concept by Greg Spencer and I was immediately intrigued by it. Since then I have been thinking a lot about my work in innovation systems, institutional change, and the adaption of various meso organizations from this new angle.

Greg explained that an “affordance” is what the environment offers the individual. If I recall correctly we were talking about resilience at the time and Greg wondered how organizations provided affordances to their people that enabled individuals and collectives to be more resilient in the face of unexpted challenges. Although I have heard this word used in user-interface design contexts, I have never thought of it as being useful to think about what institutions, organizations, or other resources made available to users. I have in the past simply thought of the concept of functions, as in a technology transfer organization performs a certain set of functions in an economy that is taken up by users.

The word affordance was first coined by James Gibson in a book in 1966 (read more on Wikipedia). In 1979 Gibson refined his defintion to:

“The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment”

J. J. Gibson (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), Boston.

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines an affordance as:

“the quality or property of an object that defines its possible uses or makes clear how it can or should be used”

“affordance,” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/affordance. Accessed 1/11/2021.

Gibson was thinking of ecology and how an environment provides support or resources to an animal. At the same time, the animal must possess the capability to perceive the affordances and to use it. From a human perspective, it means that things must be designed in a way that makes certain actions possible. Imagine how a door handle invites you to reach out and open the door, or how the presence of a button on a reception counter invites you to press it, or how stepping stones in a garden invite you to explore around a blind corner. However, not all the characteristics of an affordance need to be explicitly designed. Many of the affordances that make some organisations more resilient than others appear to be in what is allowed or accepted or maybe even forgiven in the arrangements in the organisation, in other words in the culture and the relationships between different people. It implies that some affordances in organisations emerge out of the interactions and the relationships between people, and I guess the same is true for communities and locations (or even societies).

For humans to draw on affordances, they must have an idea of what actions are possible or desired. They must feel empowered and capable of using, exploiting or drawing on a resource. The verb “afford” is useful to consider the energy and commitment required by a user to exploit an affordance. If the energy costs are too high, most people would not bother. This is a problem in societal change because those with more resources can often afford to invest in finding out more or exploring new ideas at the edge of common knowledge. Therefore, it is about the presence of the affordance AND the energy cost combined with the required capability (the pre-requisites) of a user to engage with the affordance.

Architects, urban planners, and many other professions already think of affordances and how people use spaces, pathways, and everyday objects. In software development, the consistency of menus, icons, and screen layouts all make affordances easier to access while reducing the effort to figure things out all the time. For instance, to improve the quality of life in many cities, urban planners are turning roads into pedestrian zones. This then changes the affordances provided by public spaces. I recently saw an interview on the National Geographic Channel (about airports) where a person explained how they design icons for signage in the Frankfurt airport that must cater for diverse travellers, languages and understanding of symbols. It struck me that the signage in the airport itself offers an affordance, but it also directs people to affordances that they might need.

When it comes to how societies create and then adapt a range of institutions that shapes market incentives and behaviours, the problem is with abstraction. There is often a low-equilibrium relation between the affordance provided and whether using the qualities of the affordance can be afforded by a typical user. Let me provide some examples of challenges in this dynamic between the availability of affordances and the ability of a user to afford drawing on it:

  • The service offering or capability of a certain organisation is not entirely an object, partly because services, advice and information flows are largely tacit.
  • It is also hard to fully understand the value of the service beforehand. Sometimes, the value of a service only becomes apparent during or it was used. Think of heart surgery, asking for technical advice from an expert, or paying for tax advice.
  • Often, knowledge-intensive services require active participation by the user – the user must be able to share relevant context-specific information with an expert while absorbing information from the expert that must be integrated back into a specific context. It is not the same as sitting in an opera and experiencing a great audiovisual experience.
  • To use knowledge-intensive services you need a certain level of knowledge intensity. The barriers to using many public affordances may be quite high, and we do not often enough consider these pre-requisites. This may also be true for many more elemental services. Today, many services offered by the public service here in South Africa assumes that users or citizens can read and write.
  • A further problem is that there is so much emphasis on the capacity and responsiveness of the providers of affordances provided by public organisations (the supply-side) while the challenges and obstacles to fully participate (or absorb) costs faced by users are out of focus.
  • With increased global mobility of knowledge and knowledge workers, if a certain environment in a country or a place is not good at providing the affordances needed in the society, some of the more mobile members might access these affordances from other places. Globally this is happening in science, technology, innovation and technology development. Increasingly it is happening in education. The challenge is that in many countries only the elite or highly mobile can afford to search for affordances beyond their borders or location. This will increase inequality, but it might also undermine the just development of the potential of places and people.
  • Lastly, there is also the challenge of time. For me to access an affordance today might be shaped by my schooling (a long time ago), the role models I had as a child, and so on. It means that we have to pay attention to the justice or injustices that may be perpetuated by certain affordances and their relations with preceding affordances that are only weakly connected. I am thinking of how some low-paid workers must spend hours a day travelling to work on unsafe public transport. Their affordances are fewer, but to access even those affordances (like a regular job) might also cost them proportionally in relation to the transport costs of a more affluent family.

I wanted to share these ideas with you because I found the idea of affordances to be refreshing. I am glad I signed up for these events to make new friends like Davina Burgess and Greg Spencer. In particular, they helped me draw back the curtains on this concept that felt so profound to me. The idea of affordances helped me to start thinking beyond the technicalities of supply, demand and persistent failures for these gaps to be closed. It also highlighted the importance of paying more attention to the capability of “users” that are trying to innovate, solve problems and the resources that they could afford to invest in drawing on affordances in their environments.

2 comments

  1. Thanks Shawn. I’ll be using this concept in my work – it does remind me a lot of the concept of ecosystem services that I have followed in my work for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

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