Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 32! Are We Born Creative?...
Good morning all!
We have had a busy week working with others on a number of really interesting projects from health to future energy systems — all of which would be super fun to talk about at a later day (or reach out for a chat — we are never too busy not to talk).
While working on these projects we have also been engaged in reconsidering the future of education. COVID has been a big impetus for this, but for us the question has always been there — after all we teach innovation at a university.
For us the frustration is not that the education system sucks or is beating creativity out of us from a young age. It’s that even when we are really focused on teaching creativity, we are focused on all the wrong things. Why?
Because we have the wrong concept of what creativity is.
And as long as we have the wrong framework it really does not matter how well or poorly we teach it, we will be teaching things that are at best of little use and at worst making matters much worse.
This week we want to really get entangled with this topic.
Over the last week or so on LinkedIn we have been posting about this topic from various perspectives. One of our posts explored the topic “we are not born creative”. That naturally led to a really great discussion which is really worth taking a moment to read.
That got us more curious about the entire space of this topic, and so we decided to run a poll on LinkedIn — obviously it was not going to be scientific — really our hope was to spur more discussion by offering an easy way to engage. The discussion was pretty amazing with over 45 comments — some very lengthy and all insightful (a huge thanks to Maurizio Goetz, Donna Svei, Claudio Toni, Deb Curtis, Mani I, Tom Pauly, Jennifer Pierce, Michael W Compton, Roderick Harris, José Ignacio Mora, Michael Munton and many others for contributing!).
The poll asked the question: Is creativity something you're born with? And we gave respondents three possible answers:
And, yes these are not the best or only choices, but we were curious about what the responses would be. (Our review will not do justice to the great responses — it is worth following the above link and reading the total dialog for yourself).
The results: 49 people responded choosing one of the following options to answer:
What is interesting is that over three quarters of respondents were in the framework of creativity is something innate or learnt or both.
Our own interest in this topic is to move outside of the entire nature vs nurture or nature + nurture debate. For us, creativity is neither something innate nor is it something that can be learnt.
This can sound preposterous — how could anything be neither innate nor learnable?
Well, we are pretty certain that creativity is neither. And we are curious if we can convince you of what we mean by this.
We hear this quite often. And it is famously the thesis of the most popular TED talk ever: Do Schools Kill Creativity? By Ken Richardson.
We are not going to go deeply into Ken’s talk (give it a watch— he is charming in that patriarchal english manner) other than to say that he conceptualized creativity as the human ability to generate novel ideas, and that this is an innate capacity that can be improved or hindered by an education system. There are many parts of his talk we love like his definition of education as a process of slowly educating less and less of the body until it is just for what is above the shoulders.
That said, his approach to creativity is a poster child for the “creativity = nature and nurture” framework. And this is exactly what is the problem — it is a wrong framework for creativity and so no matter how good the proposals, they are taking us in the wrong direction.
Our question is:
When we say “Creativity is beaten out of us by our education system” — Does this then mean that creativity is a thing inside of us?
Is creativity something we can point to on a very sophisticated brain scan?
Can we find the genetic correlates for creativity?
For us the short answer is NO. But, let’s go much further — for after all we need to convince you that creativity is neither innate nor learnt!
There is a useful analogy that compares Creativity to Flight (this is inspired by a talk by the theorist of Enactive Cognition, Evan Thompson):
When you look at a bird that flies, and you ask: where is “flight”?
Is it inside the wing?
Is it in a feather?
Is there a genetic correlate for flight?
Of course not.
If you cut off a bird's wing and pull out a feather and examine it down to the genetic level you will not find flight.
Obviously for certain birds to fly they need wings & feathers. But they also need hollow bones, a specific skeletal structure, muscles, a unique breathing system, a sensory system, & an aerodynamic form.
But is that enough?
No, they need an environment with a certain air density, winds, gravity & much else.
And how does, for example, wind come about? Wind requires thermal differences. So now we need the sun, & the different absorptive properties of water, rocks, earth, etc.
The wings, feathers and bones are needed because of the air density — the body and the environment are in a mutually reciprocating dance — they are wholly conjoined.
This list of the systemic features would need to be extended & the total assemblage would be quite vast.
And of course we could take away or alter some of these components and a bird could still fly, but the relation between the parts is only partially decomposable. The whole system hangs together as one thing that collectively via mutually reinforcing feedback loops makes flight happen.
This begins to give us a better way to understand flight:
Flight is an emergent process that is the outcome of specific relations that must be maintained dynamically across many unlike things.
It is not “in” any one thing, nor is it the aggregate of many things. It is an emergent process that has come from the relations and can then shape both the things and the relations.
If it is in any “thing” we would loosely say that flight is in the relation. But notice how odd that sounds — what is it for something to be “in” the relation?
It would be better to say it is held “across” the relation, or emerging across the relation.
And in reality it is even stranger: it is an emergent process arising from the relation.
Flight is an emergent process that is held across a set of complex relations.
We can go even further “flight” is any emergent process that satisfies an abstract criteria. Flight does require sentience, wings, feathers, or any of the existing known ways to fly. New assemblages are possible that can engage with this space in wholly new ways.
One of our favorite alternative approaches to flight is the giant spinning ball airplane. While it looks like a hot air balloon — it is not a floating lighter than air balloon. It is literally just a spinning ball that by spinning backwards produces lift (the Magnus effect). It does not even need to be a ball, a spinning tube works equally well.
Creativity is not something either innate or learnt — it is an emergent process that is the outcome of relations that must be cultivated across many unlike things…
And like flight there are an open-end number of ways to participate in this process: you do not need a certain form (say a human form, or even a brain).
Emergent process relations like flight or creativity are abstract dynamic relations that we join or participate in; they are not things we possess or can acquire.
Creativity cannot be beaten out of us, because creativity was never in any thing in the first place.
And for the very same reasons creativity is not some “thing” that we can acquire by learning.
Creativity is a dynamic event and our role in it cannot be adequately summed up by either a dynamic that involves the two poles of the nature/nurture framework: internal capacities + learning.
We are engaging with it all wrong.
The creative processes that led to human flight is an ideal starting point.
What does a creative dynamic event look like? It is Orville and Wilbur Wright and their team at Kitty Hawk attuning themselves to sands, prevailing winds, soaring birds, wing warping, kite systems, struts, fabrics, novel concepts, historical actions, metals, motors and much else. It is Kitty Hawk, the sands, winds, materials, concepts actively attuning themselves to this event. And in all of this each agent whether it be a person or a sand dune is transformed. It is an assemblage becoming an emergent whole. And it is a whole becoming more and different than the sum of the parts, and in turn shaping its parts (including the Wright Brothers themselves— they are an outcome of this extended event).
This system as it comes together and as it is sustained is producing novel relational properties that the parts possess. These were not there before nor are they to be found in any discrete part on its own.
The Wright Brothers did not invent human forms of flight — it did not emerge from inside of them or their ideas. It was the creative outcome of a creative process that was itself the outcome of a specific assemblage.
We tend to ignore the system and its powerful agency and put all the agency into singular individuals and their minds.
This is what Ken Richardson is doing and this is what the “creativity as internal capacity that can be nurtured” framework is doing. But this western cultural habit is a mistake. Individuals are not creative because of some internal thing or one intrinsic capacity — all novel outcomes happen because of a system that as it comes together has unique powers of emergent global to local influence.
The creativity of the system did not just lead to a form of human flight — the Wright Brothers became who they were — they were invented by the very same process that invented the first plane, the Wright Flyer. They too, like all of us who engage with creative processes, became made anew and differently by the very process they participated in putting into motion.
One could reply, “yes that is true but who made the system? Surely someone — the Wright Brothers in this instance, had to have the idea to make the system, and is that not the source of the creativity?”
And of course they did. They made all sorts of decisions. But these decisions were also made from within emergent dynamic systems. We are never not Embodied, Embedded, Extended, and Enactive as part of specific intra-acting emergent environment that is co-shaping us.
We have to put aside the false choice of the chicken-egg dichotomy — causality is not linear and nor should our conceptualization of creative processes.
There is never a moment that is not systemic or where we are not fundamentally shaped by the things we are interacting with.
Marshall McLuhan, put it this way: Tools “by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, people change.”
The development of new ways of sensing, new senses, and new sensory experiences emerge as new networks of tools are invented. McLuhan called this interconnected network of tools and practices a “medium” (or just “media”) and we are calling this a system— here the terms are not so important as the bigger point:
“Any understanding of social and cultural change [creativity/innovation] is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments”.
If we come back to the question “what is creativity?” — for the answers to this question guides all the various educational approaches.
Ken Richardson and the“creativity as internal capacity that can be nurtured” framework defines creativity as the innate ability for humans to general novel ideas (which can be improved or hindered via learning).
We would like to suggest that it is something entirely different:
Note: We have also written more about this in other essays.
What does this mean for educational approaches to creative practices?
Ultimately you are neither born creative nor can you learn how to be creative. What we can do is develop the skills to engage with and participate in worldly creative processes. This can be “taught” but it won’t happen in any of the traditional manners— “school” needs to be a world called Kitty Hawk filled with “creatives” called sand, wind, struts, birds, motors, people— or better yet: also called simply Kitty Hawk. You don’t go to this school to learn something but to become something other — you will be invented by Kitty Hawk…
Have a wonderful week becoming a glorious and improbable novel event!
Till Volume 33,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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