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"So what are the possible lines of escape? How [do we] break entrained practice in order to open up new possibilities of action and interaction? How do we allow the system to flow, to allow for leaks that may of themselves create new possibilities or create the necessary tension to make the energy cost of remaining [still] too expensive? We need to find a means to discover those pathways" - Snowden, 2020

The 3As is a typology to describe a situation in such a way that we can focus our decision-making where change is possible. Rather than ask questions about what mindset do we need, which is a level of abstraction too far and focuses on the individual, we instead look at the situation through three lenses (agency, assemblage, and affordance) and start to identify where we can make changes, and of that set of actions where we can monitor the outcome so we can encourage attitude shifts that are heading in the right direction. Complexity theory says that you can’t directly engineer an emergent property, but you can manage constraints, catalysts, and energy allocation and then monitor direction.

We always want to look at the relationship between the three components; each element can affect and be affected by the others. This is not a language of categories but rather a typology with different perspectives on the same generative structures of what is an ongoing dynamic process.

An example of using the 3As in decision making can be seen in entangled trios. We give three people from different backgrounds agency to have authority which breaks hierarchies and changes affordances (the things that are easier for them to do). We play with factors that are concrete aspects of the system that you can change and then monitor for emergence. It is worth remembering that it is usually easier for the system to return to its prior state so you have to make the return path difficult to follow.

Name and history

The 3As move beyond the idea of mindset, taking focus away from just the individual to their social context and their social interactions. If consciousness is embodied, then the responses of the body play a part in things. If consciousness is enacted and/or embedded then the interactions with our environment are critical as is what we do. If consciousness is extended into our environment, through social processes and shared narrative, then that too is a constraint – not in the sense of a limit, but in the sense of something that shapes what we can and cannot do. If we are to break patterns, to see emergent possibilities beyond our current imaginings then the non-cognitive and the non-verbal are as important, if not more important than the cognitive and the ability to use language. Not that those are diminished in any way as a result, it’s just there is more to human sense-making and we need to use it.

In order to move beyond some of the mental models and mindset framing, to recognise the brain, the body, and social interactions, it was evident that new language was needed that relates to what we actually can change. This need triggered the development of the 3As.



Agency: Who or what has the freedom to act and to what degree?

The concept of agency refers to anyone (individual or collective) and anything (e.g. a computer or building design) in a system that can act in it and make a difference, affecting the system consciously or unconsciously. The key question asked here is who or what acts in the system, the degree of freedom they have around that action, and their level of influence. A way to shift the system is by changing the degrees of agents’ capacity to act, usually by increasing it. Note that agency should ideally be distributed and not delegated.

This concept is linked to identity e.g. an individual might have multiple identities (underlying belief systems or attitudes) that act within the system. Here we would identify what agency each identity has, could be given, or should be restricted.

Role based crews and entangled trios play a role here, to ensure diversity in attitudes and in changing agencies and to use agency in scaffolding that enables distributed decision-making at the appropriate level.


Assemblage: Heterogeneous patterns that coexist in a dynamic way that come together, are brought together, that happen to be together, and that evolve, change, and create effects in their environment and in one another. It is more than just putting things together but is also about the flow and dynamic between. These might be, among other things, patterns of belief, collective experiences, understandings, expectations, narrative tropes, cultural practices, and so on.

"The basic proposition I have been working to…is the proposition that as a species we tend to conserve energy, so we will, to use a colloquialism, tend to go with the flow. If people tell us stories that resonate with our views and opinions then we tend to listen and repeat them more; a tendency that social media has only exaggerated. Those patterns trigger an assemblage from which we find it very difficult to escape" - Snowden, 2020

The concept of Assemblage draws on the work of Deleuze, referring to a pattern of interaction of elements that influence and shape one another. The characteristics or properties of an assemblage are created out of combination and interaction rather than out of the constituent parts, and assemblages tend to create their own attractions and dynamics that can be hard to change. Awareness of assemblages helps us map their elements by paying attention to relationships as well as to the possibility of disrupting or reinforcing their patterns of interaction. We aim to use the natural affordances of the system to create low energy cost paths.

Understanding assemblage structures (e.g. through SenseMaker) tells you about the entrainment patterns as well as the escape opportunities. You need to explore their strengths, their gradients, find their weak points, and find ways to move away from that.

There is also a wiki page for a deeper dive into the different schools of thought on assemblage theory. Assemblages are not to be confused with assemblies, which are components that are deliberately put together.


Affordance: What opportunities are provided or inhibited by the ecosystem of which an individual or a group is a part? And what can you change over a time period? For example, certain soil is only appropriate for certain plants.

The concept of affordance originates from evolutionary biology and refers to the things that the environment makes available to us. By identifying the most available paths in the environment, the opportunities it provides or forbids, we are able to understand the evolutionary tendencies of the system as well as shift them through intervention. Counterfactuals are about what is and isn't possible, and affordances are about what is and isn't easier - so some affordances will be counterfactuals but not all.

The estuarine framework creates an affordance landscape, an indication of where we can act. Everything to the south-west of the counterfactual line is the affordances, the area where you can operate. Everything to the north-east of that line is an area where you cannot easily operate


Frameworks and methods


Books and articles

Blog posts