Enabling environment

An enabling environment significantly expands its participants’ capacity to do things they find meaningful and important.

Schools ostensibly aspire to this purpose, but Educational objectives often subvert themselves in large part because Enabling environments’ activities directly serve an intrinsically meaningful purpose. In general, Enabling environments focus on creating opportunities for growth and action, not on skill-building.

Many other social institutions represent powerful enabling environments. Highly functional corporations are often great examples of enabling environments. In these organizations, new employees might feel far more personally capable than they ever had before, even after many years of experience. Likewise, Y Combinator is an enabling environment.

Great software environments are enabling environments. Photoshop expands experts’ range of artistic expression and unlocks previously-rarefied photo enhancement techniques for novices. Software development tools enable teenagers to make games and distribute them to millions at zero marginal cost. By contrast, Most games aren’t enabling environments, and Educational games are a doomed approach to creating enabling environments.

Books and videos rarely deliver here: Mass mediums are typically bad at helping people translate ideas to practice.

A collection of densely-connected Evergreen notes can be an enabling environment for the author: Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate. (See also Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work)

Designing enabling environments

Enabling environments are generally authored, but Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes. Authored environments are significantly colored by authors’ motivations; that often means Powerful enabling environments focus on expert use.

Designing new enabling environments can be framed as designing a University++

Challenges in authoring enabling environments:

Some mechanisms for designing these environments ==TODO expand into notes:==

  • design representations which expand the range of action for a participant’s existing expertise / efforts; e.g.:
    • Photoshop’s content-aware resize tool
    • checklists in airplanes/hospitals
  • design representations which expand the upper bounds on participants’ capacity; e.g.:
    • Arabic numerals
    • non-linear video editing
  • design representations which subsume the expressive range of existing representations but with lower / different effort / expertise demands; e.g.:
    • Figma’s vector network bezier tool vs. Photoshop’s pen tool
    • automatic retain counting in Rust and Objective-C vs. manual retain counting
  • design representations which subsume the expressive range of existing representations but with smoother effort / expertise on-ramps; e.g.:
    • SICP
    • Minecraft’s 3D editor vs. pre-existing voxel editors
    • (many existing environments here, like SICP and most executable notebooks, interplay weakly with where the enabled action happens, which significantly limits their power)
    • (here’s the opportunity for dynamic Cognitive scaffolding, Enacted experiences amplify the power of narrative, and some other Primer design elements)