Bricolage: The art of the possible

My favourite new word is bricolage. It sounds very french, very exotic and sophisticated.

According to the Oxford Premium Online dictionary, bricolage is defined as:

Bricolage. N. (in art or literature) construction or creation from a diverse range of available things: the chaotic bricolage of the novel is brought together in a unifying gesture .

While historically used in the context of art and literature, I’ve started to see the word bricolage applied to innovation. Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From discusses the concept of adjacencies. That is that good ideas usually come from other ideas or concepts that have already been created. In other words, from bricolage.

When I was sharing my new favourite word with a Facebook friend, she immediately referred to brioclage as a kind of MacGyver experience.  Okay, so you have to be of a certain age to appreciate the reference.  Every week on TV, MacGyver would get himself out of a jam with the bad guys by putting together whatever he could find lying around into some thing that would help him escape or defeat the bad guys.  I remember in one particular episode, he made a light aircraft out of stuff lying around a barn, and was able to escape from the bad guys.

Johnson describes a scene of bricolage in the movie Apollo 13.  The astronauts have moved into the lander, trying to return to earth.  The are starting to poison themselves, as they are exhaling carbon dioxide into the air.  The engineers on the ground must make a CO2 scrubber from parts available on the lander. Classic bricolage.

Which brings us to the idea of innovation and creativity. We often think of creativity as “thinking outside the box”.  But our most useful and effective creativity actually has constraints, in other words, we’re inside a box, limited to inventing with the material, the science and the knowledge we have available to us. In other words, most creativity or innovation is limited to bricolage.

I love new words, don’t you?


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