We Need to Build a Better Future: Why Creativity Matters

Talk for the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Civil Society Fellows given on 11 September

Download the accompanying powerpoint here

Southbank undercroft

If you asked people “do we need more creativity?” very few people would be likely to say no. Indeed, we know that when people are asked about creativity they want more of it. Business leaders regularly say it is the most important skill they need in the coming decades. In a recent study by Accenture where over half of the executives of the world’s largest companies said exactly that, rather worryingly they also said they didn’t know how to be more creative.

Today I want to show you three ways in which you can be more creative. But first I want to suggest that the reason so many people struggle with being creative is that they don’t really know why they want to be creative. They imagine creativity is some kind of magic bullet, a 21st century “philosopher’s stone” as it were, but they don’t really know what it’s a magic bullet for.

To put it in simple business terms, most people who say they want to be more creative don’t really know what problem they want creativity to solve.

When I run creativity workshops, I start by asking this question.

People give fairly predictable answers. They talk about the importance of making better products, of having an edge over competitors. They speak of a new type of “creative economy”, of offering better service to customers, making their business more human, or simply living a richer, more humane life.

I want to suggest a much simpler, and a much more compelling answer than any of these.

I believe creativity is essential if we want to make a better future. And it may be essential if we want a future at all. The reason for this is simple. Many of the greatest threats we face have a single cause: us.

Take a look at this table produced by the organisation 80,000 Hours.

Risk At least 1 billion dead Human extinction
Number killed by molecular nanotech weapons. 10% 5%
Total killed by superintelligent AI. 5% 5%
Total killed in all wars (including civil wars). 30% 4%
Number killed in the single biggest engineered pandemic. 10% 2%
Total killed in all nuclear wars. 10% 1%
Number killed in the single biggest nanotech accident. 1% 0.5%
Number killed in the single biggest natural pandemic. 5% 0.05%
Total killed in all acts of nuclear terrorism. 1% 0.03%
Overall risk of extinction prior to 2100 n/a 19%

 

It outlines the greatest threats to our survival as a species in the 21st century. These threats between them give a 19% probability that humanity will not survive the 21st century. Only one of these threats, the second smallest, is not a direct result of human action.

The way we do things now could be the end of humanity. We don’t know what the answer to these problems will be. But we do know that any successful answer will mean we have to do things differently. And that is what creativity is: doing things differently.

This principle applies in so many areas, and on so many levels, not just the extinction level. Businesses that have survived for hundreds of years face disruption that could wipe them out; anti-establishment populism threatens to overturn political stability and peace, and has contributed to an overturning of scientific consensus that has fuelled climate denial and seen diseases we thought we had eliminated begin to return.

We need creativity because if we are going to solve these problems, we must do things differently. But what exactly does that mean?

I want to suggest three ways in which we can use creativity to solve the most serious threats we face, and I want to offer some very brief ideas to help with each of these:

We need new ideas

We need new ways of communicating those ideas in order to make sure they really happen

And

We need new institutions, more willing to listen to creative ideas, more able to do things differently.

Each of these is important on its own. But when we say that we need creativity, what we really need is all three, working together. We need new ideas, effectively communicated, and willingly implemented. And you are in the wonderful position of being able to contribute, whether it is to the establishing new ideas, better communication of those ideas, more open institutions to implement them, or all three.

If we accept this, then we need creativity on three levels, and we need to do what we can to practice, and to empower, creativity on all those levels.

  1. We need new ideas.

Specifically, we need to find possible solutions to our wicked problems. We need new ways of addressing existential threats. These answers will only come from a place of genuine difference. That is why we need to make the skills needed for thinking creatively a fundamental part of every human being’s education. It is why we need to embrace difference in everything we do, because the best way for different ideas to emerge is for us to give skills and platforms to as many, and as different, people as we can.

The raw material for new ideas is knowledge. But to be more effective at creating new ideas we need to change the way we think about knowledge because ideas are not just facts. Ideas are connections between facts. Connections that lead somewhere new – whether that is a new product, a new technique, a new area of research. We cannot be creative without knowing lots of things about lots of things – we cannot form connections without the different bits of knowledge to connect. So learning things is vitally important. But it is not the only thing. The important thing about a fact is not that you can remember it, but that you can use it.

I want to suggest two ways of helping you use the things you know more effectively.

  1. Don’t think about knowledge as what you have when you add together every individual thing you know. Instead, think of knowledge as what you have when you multiply together everything you know. First of all, if what matters about knowledge is connections, then this is true. But second, it is an incredibly powerful way to motivate your mind to want to keep learning. Think of the difference like this.

Suppose you know 10 things. If knowledge is everything you know added together, what do you gain by learning 1 more thing? You increase your knowledge by 10%. And every new thing you learn increases your knowledge by less and less as a percentage as a whole. The motivation to learn decreases as you know more. But if knowledge is everything you know multiplied together, then the 1 more thing you learn doesn’t increase your knowledge by 10% but by more than 10 times, more than 1000%. And the more you know, the more each new thing you learn increases your knowledge. And the greater your mind’s motivation for learning even more becomes.

  1. Change the way you think about things you know to make them easier to connect with other things. When it comes to how we think about things, our minds create shortcuts. These were essential for our evolution, and they are still essential for us to function in the world. But they do not help us to form connections.

Take the kind of question you might get asked in a standard creative thinking test.

“What would you get if you crossed a dog with a skyscraper?”

 

Our brain tends to present us with an image of a particular dog and a particular skyscraper. So now the question has become “What happens if I cross my childhood pet with the Flame Towers?” And that isn’t very helpful. It’s very hard to move past those images.

When we think of things, we need to get used to thinking of all of their properties. All of their associations, personal, cultural, historical as well as physical. These properties are hooks, waving around waiting to connect with each other. The more of these hooks you can set, the more connections you will be able to find with other objects.

So when we think of “dog” we break that idea down into its properties – having four legs, eating meat, that dogs are known for their friendship of humans, for giving their Latin name variously to puncturing teeth (canines) and a group of islands (The Canaries), then we start getting some interesting possibilities.

Obviously, this is something we can’t do all the time – we need shortcuts to be able to do anything at all beyond sitting all day thinking. But it is nonetheless an essential habit to get into, because the risk of spending too little time being distracted may be greater than that of spending too much.

  1. We need new ways of communicating ideas

But creating brilliant ideas to solve the world’s problems is not enough. For those ideas to work, we have to implement them, and that is a problem, because the systems from which so many of our problems arose are the same ones that decide which solutions get implemented. The more creative your idea, the more likely it is to succeed, the more these systems are likely to reject it.

This is especially true of those systems that seem to welcome creativity – because they seek a creativity which is “acceptable”. They want new ideas, but not too new. Ideas that will feel new enough to be exciting but not new enough to challenge the system – that is to say, not new enough to actually work. The famous designer Raymond Loewy called this kind of approach “most advance yet acceptable”. And it is great for doing the kind of things Loewy and his followers did, like designing a new model saloon car, or improving the performance of your national cycling team. But it won’t do for solving wicked problems, where the answers most likely to succeed have to go way beyond what is “acceptable” to the current system.

And so we find ourselves in a situation where our most creative people increasingly find themselves in the role of Cassandra, the prophetess of ancient Troy who was cursed always to tell the truth and never to be believed.

I want to talk about two things which prevent institutions, however well-meaning, from implementing really creative ideas.

The first is the Local Maximum Problem. This has to do with the way we think we should solve problems. We are very good at making small changes, and seeing if they work. If they do, we make more small changes, until nothing we try leads to any further improvement.

This is a great way of finding what we might call the “local maximum”, a “good” solution to a problem. But if the “best” solution, the “overall maximum” is somewhere else entirely, making tiny changes will never help us find it. We need to make occasional very big changes. But we are very bad at doing that.

A second issue is the Overton Window.

This is a very simple idea from political science. It notes that for any political question, there are many possible answers, and that these come from many different points across a vast spectrum. But only a very few of those possible answers has any chance of being adopted, because we can only ever talk about things that lie on a very small part of the possible spectrum, the so-called Overton window.

The only answers we will ever choose to a problem are those which lie somewhere in that window. In the middle are the things you will hear people say in the street, and see written in newspapers. At the very edge of the window are the kind of ideas you might find in viral memes. For any subject, if you place the middle of the window over the point on the line that represents what most people think, you will get a sense of which ideas lie inside the edges of the frame and which lie outside.

But you see the problem. The behaviours and ideas at the centre of the window, the ones we take for granted, our norms, are the ones that have paved the way to the cliff we are in danger of walking over. Any answer that will pull us away from the cliff edge is likely to be so far away from the window of acceptable conversation it will never be considered.

This feels like a very bleak picture.

But we are not helpless.

I want to suggest that it is possible to have our most creative ideas implemented. We just need to find new ways of communicating our ideas.

Our hope lies in the notion of the paradigm shift, and specifically in the role of anomalies within that mechanism. A paradigm is a complete way of looking at the world. It is faulty paradigms which have given rise to our worst problems, and the same faulty paradigms that stop us solving them.

For our creative ideas to be implemented, we need those people who have the power to implement them to adopt a new paradigm. To do that we need to understand how paradigms shift. This is a very simple process. It starts by noticing anomalies. Anomalies are things which the current system cannot explain. When we see enough of them, we realise it is not enough to try to find a way of explaining them in the existing paradigm, we need a new paradigm which explains them completely.

Nothing illustrates this better than the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is a small girl who enters a magical world, Wonderland, in which the rules of her everyday world are turned upside down. What is important about the story is how Alice enters Wonderland. One day she sees a white rabbit, dressed as a human and looking at its watch, saying to itself “I’m late.” Now that’s something that is clearly impossible. There was something so curious, so startling, so unusual about the white rabbit that Alice followed it, not just down the street but down a rabbit hole into a different world where the human-like figure of a white rabbit with a watch made perfect sense.

What we need to do is to make our creative ideas like the white rabbit. We need to create anomalies that draw attention to our ideas, anomalies that are so original, so unusual, so startling and most of all so curious, that people will follow them, and be drawn into the world where they make perfect sense – the new paradigm.

A very good example, one we see around us every day, is graffiti. This graffiti is from the Southbank Undercroft in London. When we see graffiti we often struggle to “understand” it. And just as often we ask the wrong questions – “who would make a mess of this place?” “why would someone be disrespectful of property?”, “why doesn’t someone clean it us?”, “why don’t they use proper sentences and proper punctuation?”

Even the more considered approaches miss the point. It is often considered “cute” or “exotic” or “fascinating.” But when graffiti, like this at the Southbank, is so intriguing that instead of trying to understand it we enter into its world, we find that it’s actually just a regular part of someone else’s world – in this case the community of skateboarders who make this space their own.

In fact the Southbank skateboard community is the very best example of communicating ideas differently, without compromising their creativity. In 2010 this space was threatened with destruction by the theatre which occupies the space above it. The theatre offered to build a skate park a few hundred metres away. They had no way of understanding that this would be devastating to the skating community. Their paradigm simply could not imagine it. The skaters staged a quite brilliant campaign. They filmed videos about the history of their community in that space. They invited people from the theatre’s board to meet them, to experience their passion, the depth and richness of their culture. In the end the space was saved and those on both sides came to appreciate the how valuable each other’s culture was, how each was using their space in their own way to experience something unique and historic and beautiful and important.

  1. We need new institutions

Of course, it would be best if we didn’t have to find difficult, time-consuming ways to convince institutions to act on creative ideas. It would be best of all if institutions were really good at implementing ideas that came from outside their own narrow experience. Which brings me to my final point.

We need institutions that find it easier to implement creative solutions. And that is a call to all of you as future leaders and shapers of those institutions.

  • Follow white rabbits. Never lose your curiosity.
  • Always ask “why do we do things like this?” And when you set out to question things, don’t stop until you have questioned your most basic assumptions.
  • Don’t save these questions for what you think are pertinent situations. The idea that some situations are more relevant than others is just another assumption. Do this for everything, down to how your order your coffee. And always look out for unintended consequences. You can discover some of these by developing your imagination and your empathy. But you will learn much more by asking people who are different from you. People you might think couldn’t possibly be affected. And you will learn even more if you believe what they tell you, especially when it makes no sense to you – that is exactly how you start to understand new paradigms.
  • Change the assumptions and criteria you use for empowering people, such as providing funding or mentorship. Look more to the possible benefit than the likely outcome pf any project. Before you make your final decision, ask yourselves always “what if this person was right and I was the one who said no?”
  • Speak up for the people who are difficult in meetings. Put those people on your decision-making panels, don’t “listen, nod, reject” them, but give them vetoes on your decisions.
  • Create truly diverse panels, projects, teams, workplaces – if you want ideas that are truly outside the box, instead of taking a whole group of people who think in the same box and trying to teach them to think differently, it is far easier to bring together a team of people who each have different boxes and simply have everyone think inside them.

To sum up. Why do we need creativity? Because it is our only hope. But for that hope to amount to something we must take creativity seriously. We must be creative pn many levels and it must be a creativity that does not compromise.

 

 

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