Tuesday, 20 September 2011

An Insight into Creativity and Innovation

Following on from an earlier discussion of the theories of Donald Brook and applying some elements of this (though avoiding his memetic theory for the moment) to an emerging trajectory within a number of posts on this blog I’d like to put forward what seems to be a radical new understanding of creativity and innovation that finds support in the work of Wasserman and Blumberg (here). I realise that this is a grand claim so until it can be more extensively tested and debated I offer it up here simply as a conjecture.

Ordinarily we think of discovery and innovation arising as the consequence of human ingenuity and creative engagement with the world. But imagine if this were a wholly inaccurate representation. Imagine instead that innovation arises as an epiphenomenon, side effect or by-product of variations in human engagement with the world. Imagine also that creativity is no mystery of talent and divine ability but is simply a process of multiplying - of varying - the physical and cognitive approaches we apply to problems, materials and relationships and that the consequent variety of outcomes and perceptual perspectives results in an increased probability of innovation and discovery.

How different would this world appear to us?

In such a world there would be numerous people engaged in a vast multitude of activities, from fearsome risk-taking to mindless repetitive drudgery, from feats of unutterable beauty and wonder to acts of unspeakable immorality. Far from being a chaos of variation though, such a world would have to carefully monitor and guard against all forms of exploitation and criminality to ensure that these did not infringe or impede the more general impetus toward cooperative engagement and variation. Similarly there would be a need to avoid unintentional harm or obstruction of the free flow of variation. Laws and codes of practice would therefore have to be instituted and on occasion these processes of regulation, legislation and policing would themselves slow and even halt the progress of variation in some quarters.

It will already be obvious that this description bears all the hallmarks of exactly the world we inhabit. What is most striking about this hypothesis is how snugly it fits all situations to which it is applied. But it isn’t simply a case of a convenient fit or a congenial alternative view but more importantly that the outlook it affords makes clear a whole range of what were previously murky and confused ideas about creativity and innovation. It explains why notions of creativity are mired in the hocus-pocus of genius and talent peddled by such people as Sir Ken Robinson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or Eric Booth. It explains why so many so-called geniuses rarely have more than a single major insight in their lifetime to which they return in endless variety. It explains why other geniuses (perhaps the only ones who deserve the title) only arrive at further insights via a mountain of hard work and failure. It explains why using FMRI scanners to locate the neurological core of creativity is a wasteful and futile quest for the most impossibly wild goose, a goose that is in fact no more than a phantasm. It explains why all forms of regulation are a hindrance to innovation and why highly regulated cultures exhibit such a paucity of innovation. It explains the unwavering tension between tradition and innovation and how science’s lack of concern for tradition propels it forward with far greater momentum than art. It explains why innovation will continue to consume ever-increasing quantities of natural and human resources. It explains why there can never be a "calculus of discovery or a schedule of rules by the following of which we will be lead to the truth" and why the notion of "the" scientific method is a myth. It explains how the desire for specialist expertise is very often a desire for access to a territory of greater opportunity. It explains the tension between learning (as a form of pattern recognition) and discovery (as a form of play). In short, it corroborates and deepens the vast majority of the principal insights I have shared on this blog in the last 2½ years.

So to reiterate the main thesis: innovation arises as a by-product of variations in human engagement with the world. And what makes some people stand out from the crowd is that they are in the right place at the right time and/or that they have worked damned hard to get where they are - simple as that.


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