Maybe There’s Very Little New to Be Said About Creativity But If So, There’s An Awful Lot of People Saying The Same Old Thing in Imaginative Ways on the Internet

All I did was ask Google Alerts to tell me for a couple of weeks every time the words “creativity,” “creative problem-solving” and “innovation” appeared in something new on the Internet. Before long, my e-mail box runneth over.

The intent was simple. I wanted to see if there was anything new under the sun being said on the subject of using our imagination.

After having scanned synopses of a few hundred Internet items and having given several dozens of them my rapt attention and many dozens more at least a glance over, it’s time to tell you what I’ve learned.

I can report some serious soul-searching about the alleged tepidness of today’s technological creativity. Also, that the fuss and bother about whether we are adequately encouraging creativity in young minds shows no signs of letting up. Nor is the advice about how grownups can best to partner with their own imaginations in short supply.

Perhaps the tartest candor I spotted on the lack of world-changing technological creativity in recent years was from a blogger named Raghuraman, who writes Intuivator. He tells us next to nothing about who he really is—his name may even be apocryphal—but he sounds like an engineer, possibly from India, and a very observant and thoughtful one.

Was 2008 Simply the Year Consumers Wised Up?
Raghuraman faults the creative technological spirit of the times worldwide for producing things that are merely larger, cheaper, faster, better, thicker and thinner instead of producing breakthroughs capable of feeding great new fundamental, society-improving shifts.

To him, creating the automobile was a fundamental shift, creating the SUV was not. Creating the computer was a fundamental shift, creating Web 2.0 was not. Creating the steam engine, aircraft and antibiotics were fundamental shifts, but
… starting with a 21-inch TV in the 1970s and adding two inches every year
… starting with a 10-MHz processor and adding transistors until you hit a 2.5-GHz multi core
… moving from normal TV to high definition TV
… going from a 10 Kbps modem to 10 Mbps fiber to 20 Mbps intense broadband
… going from newspapers to analytics to intense analytics to real-time analytics
… going from two story buildings to 50 story buildings to 120 story buildings
… going from voice over IP to IP over voice
… going from pay for content (magazines) to get paid for content (AdSense)
… going from employment (you go to work) to telecommuting (work comes to you)
… going from TV (content comes to you) to the Internet (you go to content)
… going from stocks to derivatives to futures to options to derivative loans to traded derivatives of loans
… going from cars to sports cars to two seaters to 10 seaters with different shapes and sizes and now the same car with different bodies from two different car vendors

were not fundamental shifts.

For the past 15 or so years, argues this critic, technological creators and innovators have been coasting on old creative and innovative waves and wares, “re-selling, re-packaging, re-wording, re-branding, re-furbishing, upgrading and pushing [products and technologies] mercilessly into the customer’s hands….The economic crisis of 2008 was the breaking point for all those innovations. [Suddenly,] the buying stopped, in a terrifying instant. Because, consumers realized that there was no real need for any of those things that they bought since the Ford Mustang or the PC.”

Copycatting at the Speed of Innovation
Mr. Raghuraman seems to be warning that too many of today’s business and technology innovators are whoring after the false gods of copycatting and concept recycling in the name of innovation, and we have reason to fear more of the same. An item the other day on a Wall Street Journal blog made that clear. Listen to this pair of MIT professors exult over how quick and how cheaply a company can use today’s new IT capabilities to copy-cat and recycle concepts:

“Innovation initiatives that used to take months and megabucks to coordinate and launch can often be started in seconds for cents. And that makes innovation, the lifeblood of growth, more efficient and cheaper. Companies are able to get a much better idea of how their customers behave and what they want. This gives new offerings and marketing efforts a better shot at success.”

Uh-huh … until it doesn’t. And then, as we saw in 2008, the bottom may drop out.

I found several gloomy discussions of why entire countries are having grim thoughts about their perceived failures to innovate adequately. One expert lamented that Canadian success stories like the invention of the BlackBerry are far too rare. “[Innovation] is not in Canada’s DNA,” he concludes. A fearful observer of another country’s innovative paralysis notes, “Pakistan is experiencing a major existential crises.”

Even in America, if not a renewal, there is at least a continuing concern for just how effective the country is proving to be at cultivating “skills of inquiry, problem solving and creative thinking” in its children. Think-tanker Batista Schlesinger has made the issue a focus of her new book, The Death of “Why?”: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy.

She writes, “”We have the mistaken belief that even the most pressing challenges facing our country—climate change, globalization, healthcare, poverty—are problems to be ‘fixed’ once and for all, if only we can find the right solution and the right person to implement.”

What Lies at the Heart of Creativity? Good Question

Schlesinger wants us to teach our kids and acknowledge ourselves that we don’t know everything. “We cannot know everything,” she says. “Knowledge changes….The future is a moving target, and the ground beneath us will never be still. The only thing we can count on to see us through an uncertain future is our ability to ask questions.” One more time, she reminds us that asking good questions lies at the heart of knowing how to think creatively.

You don’t have to spend very much time researching creative thinking to realize that the British are world leaders providing answers to this question: “How do you do a better job of teaching youngsters to think creatively?”

And a person you’ll find very near the top of any knowledgeable list of British creativity experts is Sir Ken Robinson. His big idea about teaching creativity is that you make it clear and operational, “like we have done with literacy.” And the big man with the big idea has spared no opportunity to spread his thoughts on just how to proceed with this. For example, his 2006 TEDTalk on the subject is in TED’s top ten viewed programs and has helped make him a kind of rock star on the creativity circuit.

But any time you catch him elucidating on the subject, you quickly understand that what he really bleeds for is his enthusiasm for being human.

“One of the points I make in the TEDTalk, and that I make generally, is that the human mind is essentially created. We live in worlds that we have forged and composed. It’s much more true than any of the species that you see. I mean, it seems to me that one of the most distinctive features of human intelligence is the capacity to imagine, to project out of our own immediate circumstances and to bring to mind things that aren’t present here and now. You know, to conceive of the past, to anticipate the future, and not just a future but multiple possible futures and many different sorts of pasts.”

Creativity Has Its Ways—and Often They Are Liberating
When we look at the Big Picture, we see that this is a defensible view of the way it’s been. And for all the bumps in the road, that it has the potential to continue.

And that was what really struck me as I worked my way through Google Alerts’ smorgasbord on creativity. The sheer multiplicity of ideas out there in cyberspace and other spaces about how to have better ideas and produce unprecedented combinations—in short, to make a better world. It’s a feast of energies and aspirations, even if in various aspects and at various times, it falls short.

For sure, how to be creative is one of America’s favorite topics. We may sometimes take a back seat to understanding how to use our educational institutions to make it happen to people like Britain’s Sir Ken. But when we put our best imaginations to capturing the essence of what creativity entails and how to have more of it, nobody gets right to the nitty-gritty with quite the energy and, yes, creativity that we Americans bring to the topic of having a new idea that’s different.

Take, for example, this fellow named Hugh MacLeod. He enjoys drawing cartoons, usually weird ones, and he’s very good at it. Not that anyone much noticed for a long while. He confides:

“One evening, after one false start too many, I just gave up. Sitting at a bar, feeling a bit burned out by work and life in general, I just started drawing on the back of business cards for no reason. I didn’t really need a reason. I just did it because it was there, because it amused me in a kind of random, arbitrary way.

“Of course it was stupid. Of course it was uncommercial. Of course it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Of course it was a complete and utter waste of time. But in retrospect, it was this built-in futility that gave it its edge. Because it was the exact opposite of all the ‘Big Plans’ my peers and I were used to making. It was so liberating not to have to be thinking about all that, for a change.

“It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to impress anybody, for a change.

“It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to have some sort of commercial angle, for a change.

“It was so liberating to have something that belonged just to me and no one else, for a change.

“It was so liberating to feel complete sovereignty, for a change. To feel complete freedom, for a change.

“And of course, it was then, and only then, that the outside world started paying attention.”

And, wow, is it paying attention!

On stupdity’s cessation and other inspired topics
At the moment, MacLeod’s new book, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity, is Amazon’s No. 1 selling book on creativity. Each of MacLeod’s 40 keys has its own small, snappy, pure-gold commentary. (You can read the first 12 commentaries and see a list of all 40 keys for free here.)

And if you don’t find the inspiration you need in MacLeod’s 40 keys, then you may very well find it in the list of quotes that one of the members of the Advertising group on Facebook sent his colleagues. That showed up in my automated Internet search, too. (My favorite is from Edwin H. Land, who said, “Creativity is the sudden cessation of stupidity.”)

If after all that, you are still hungry for more on this topic, just ask Google Alerts to do you your own search for a few days on, say, “imagination.” You’ll get the good, the bad and the ugly, and that’s pretty much the way it’s always been with creativity, both the topic and what comes out (if anything does) at the end. Hugh MacLeod gets the last word on that, too: “Whatever choice you make, The Devil gets his due eventually.”

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