Keynote address to HSE International Academic Conference ‘Сreative Economy: Main Development Trends and State Policy’, 24 November, 2022
I thank you for this opportunity of sharing ideas with an international audience, and look forward to an exchange of views.
One of my great pleasures over the years is to have seen how the fields of creativity and innovation have benefitted from efforts of practitioners and academic researchers. In particular, there has been improved international cooperation with the continued influence of the internet, itself a widely acknowledged world-changing innovation.
There is one important point I like to make at the star of events such as this. I am well aware of the famous Professor Pangloss, in Voltaire’s masterpiece Candide. Pangloss epitomises an unshakeable belief that all is for the best in this “best of all possible worlds.”
In my talks about creativity I focus the enormous benefits from the everyday creative efforts in ‘business, the arts and everyday life’. But not in a way of a Dr Pangloss. There are problems to be solved of global significance that will only be resolved by creative efforts regardless of religious, political, or cultural differences.
Turning to the matter of creative discoveries, I would start by quoting from inventor Tim Berners-Lee on his thought processes involved in the discovery of the World Wide Web.
He explained it as follows:
Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN [The European Centre for Nuclear Research] later. Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already.
I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.
This is clearly a description of how an exceptional innovator described his thinking processes which have had such an impact on our world. But for me there is an apparent paradox. I want to suggest that even in the extraordinary lies the everyday.
My choice of the word apparent is because I believe there is a universal human faculty for discovering the new, shared by world-changing and everyday ideas alike.
In that universality there’s is a deeper reality in our shared capacity for creativity, in our everyday practices. To create is part of what it means to be alive.
I am using the terms creativity, innovation, and human potential as they seem to be used in conferences where participants have a shared understanding of then. One of the purposes of such meetings is to explore important differences, maybe in the lecture room, and subsequently in our more social interactions.
My plan is to take you through my personal creative journey, and offer my reflections on it, and on its future implications. This meeting is well suited for discussions on the future of our personal and social lives, and of the planet.
One useful starting point, is the process of flow, a state in which actions seem effortless, be it on the football field, workplace efforts, or creative tasks. Time seems suspended or distorted as you ‘lose yourself’ in the task.
The outcome is a release of creativity, a flow of ideas.
I can imagine Berners-Lee playing around with those ideas, as he described his great innovation, I suggest the process is also part of the universal experience when anyone tries to complete a jigsaw or a crossword puzzle, or make sense of a work problem.
A recent illustration from my personal life is a period where despair almost overcame me. It was on my 80th birthday, last December. I began to contemplate the end of my days.
I decided sadly to give up the creative process of book writing, as too arduous.
That a friend persuaded my to try my hand at podcasting. I started anew learning a skill. Over a period of months I learned how to create audio blogs.
Soon, my creative energy returned. I found ideas for new podcasts all around me. In science, the arts, and yes in everyday life, all flowing into existence.
The ideas are modest, ideas for taking the everyday news I encounter, and turning news reports into a story. My everyday life became enriched with such moments of personal discovery.
In doing so, I am connecting each new experience with a large number of other experiences, some remembered clearly, some only like the residues of older experiences, like geological strata, each deposited on an older one.
My podcasts are being helped by my earlier writings some of which spread, as they were communicated more widely.
One of the most famous descriptions of this creative process is from the French intellectual and novelist Marcel Proust. It occurs in Swann’s Way, the first volume of his masterwork, Remembrance of Things Past. He describes the experience in great detail, so I have shortened it, already in translation.
“As soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of madeleine [cake] soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me, the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents, and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took, when it was fine”
Proust wrote in one flowing sentence with diversionary thoughts included, to capture the flood of ideas jostling for attention. In a far from everyday way, he was trying to capture the universal. What lesser writers might suggest to be ‘the whole of my life flashing before me’.
Clearly, Proust and Bernard-Lee are exceptional, as judged by the impacts of their creative thoughts. I suggest however, that there is a process of creativity which is universal. It’s the same processes for highly gifted as for those of everyone else. It is captured in the term Everyday Creativity.
The term has already used, and the concept studied, by the American scholar Professor Ruth Richards.
She writes in The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity:
‘Everyday creativity, as a construct, is not, as some think, confined to the trivia of life. This is an important misunderstanding. It concerns almost anything, anytime to which any one brings originality in an everyday context, including in major projects. Nor are eminent and exceptional creators excluded. Everyday creativity can be seen as the ground from which more publicly celebrated accomplishment can grow. In fact, many an important invention, equation, or painting that has changed culture, started with a fleeting image or wild idea on an everyday walk or hike’
I can illustrate this from personal experience in creating what turned into a well-established international network and its academic journal Creativity and Innovation Management.
I trace its history back to a newsletter typed out manually at the Manchester Business School nearly fifty years ago.It circulated by post, long before the electronic systems that required the idea of the web. It began to strengthen the sharing of ideas, spreading geographically, first to other academics and practitioners of creativity. It was called Creativity Network.
Over time it changed, and eventually became Creativity and Innovation Journal, which is now reaching more and more publishing success, although no longer influenced by my everyday creative efforts, but by an international network.
The success does not come from a single moment of inspiration followed by implementation. It is the result of everyday ideas put into action over time by many within a wider community.
The process includes not only production of ideas, but learning through those experiences, which results in ideas about ideas.
This approach I helped develop became known as the Manchester Method. It treats experiences as living cases from which learning takes place,
Incidentally, these studies have shown repeatedly that the individual efforts result in wider changes. There is a collectivity in team work. Also, that to support the wider goals, a leader has to work at encouraging the creativity of individuals. When such efforts fail, the team eventually fails. We classed such groups teams from hell.
In conclusion, I want to mention a specific example of everyday creativity.
Last week, I met for the first time with two leaders of a group reaching out to encourage sustainability in their locality.
They posted a message in the village square for help with projects. Volunteers have responded in efforts such as repairing computers and domestic products. Other volunteers are planting trees, and helping reintroduce declining species into the landscape.
As you can see, They even recruit ageing academics to spread the word.
To summarise, creativity is an everyday occurrence through which the ordinary can lead to extraordinary results. Each of us has opportunities through experience to develop ourselves, and others.
I wish you success in your creative ventures. Maybe they will help us all create a world a little more realistic than the one Dr Pangloss believed in.