Is there a creativity and innovation crisis?


Creativity and Innovation past, present and future

No matter where you are – on Earth, on the moon or even in the far reaches of our solar system – there is evidence of human creativity and innovation. From ordinary household implements to NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft, our materially rich world abounds with objects, the origins of which can be traced back to the simplest of inventions our ancestors concocted to overcome basic obstacles they encountered in their lives.  The wheels of an F1 travelling at 375 km/h are vast improvements on the first stone wheels invented around 5,000 years ago for somewhat slower chariots, but their basic functions remain identical.  Indeed, one of the principles of innovation is that what is new is also very old, because innovation is in essence either an improvement to what already exists, or the reassembly of existing, known parts into a new form.

Whether the perspective is looking back in time or towards the possibilities of the future, it’s clear that the human trajectory depends inextricably on creative thinking and innovation.

In the modern world, the notion of creativity is most often associated with the Arts, and understandably so, since artists of all types are deeply creative people. But creativity is much more than that. Every field of activity in the modern world, from engineering, to law, to cooking, to agriculture, to politics and beyond, relies on creative thinking and innovation.

This is particularly obvious in the business world, where gains in productivity and product innovation are only possible when creative thinking is involved. Finding new and more effective ways to reach a buying public – the very keys to survival in the business world – is also best achieved in a climate of creativity.

In sum, creativity and innovation are evident in every corner of our world and have been central to the evolution of every society on Earth.

Creativity and innovation are being neglected

In spite of the fundamental importance of creativity and innovation to all human endeavours, the role of creativity and innovation has received relatively little attention by decision makers.
With some exceptions, creativity isn’t explicitly taught in schools, and business leaders routinely neglect to make room for it in their daily operations.  The consequence, some believe, is a worrisome decline in innovation in recent years.

Innovation at a standstill?

The venerable British newsmagazine, The Economist, ran a cover article in its January 12, 2103 edition that weighs the experts’ opinions on the state of innovation in the world. There is serious concern amongst some analysts that profound innovation has come to a standstill. They point to the internal combustion engine, plumbing, electricity, petrochemicals and the telephone as the last of the discoveries or inventions that have profoundly affected our daily lives or whose impact can be measured in substantial gains to economic productivity. None of these big five discoveries or inventions is recent. The “invention pessimists” lament that most recent innovations have simply been improvements to what already exists, rather than new inventions. Specifically, they claim that there have been no significant recent improvements in heating, cooking, refrigeration, speed, or medicine. Amongst the many examples, the authors point to air travel that is no faster than it was 40 years ago, or our life expectancy that has increased only marginally in recent decades.   The Internet and computing capacity are obvious counterarguments to these claims, but the pessimists contend that while information technologies have had a big impact on our lives, they have done little to alter rates of productivity.

Creativity in decline

Another worrisome take on the state of creativity and innovation comes from an article published in the July 10, 2010 edition of Newsweek magazine. They focus on a creativity index, first designed by Professor E. Paul Torrance of Minneapolis. This index requires people to engage in a series of tasks, the accomplishment of which measures the extent of their creative thinking. The results of this index are considered to be the gold-standard in creativity testing.  Contrary to trends in IQ testing, recent research, notably studies carried out by Kyung-Hee Kim of William and Mary University, shows that scores on the Torrance tasks by US youngsters have been in a steady and worrisome decline over the last 20 years. The obvious conclusion of such findings is that the US has embarked upon a serious crisis in creativity.  And the US is surely not alone in the Western world.

 While various studies decrying the state of creativity and innovation in our world have their supporters and detractors, one factor is clear: creativity and innovation are important and need to be nurtured. Creative thinking and resulting innovation are required to put to rest some of the unresolved issues like the numerous flashpoints in the world, our environmental crises and the continuing economic fragility.