For success, create the conditions for creativity?

By Grant Jacobs 10/03/2010

Annually the TED (Technology, Education and Design) conference is held at Long Beach, California. Devoted to ’ideas worth spreading’ smaller TED events are now being hosted in other centres through a range of programs.

A event making it’s way around the internet again was a lecture by Sir Ken Robinson at Vancouver, Canada, in the latter part of last year speaking about stifled creativity in education.

After writing this post I saw that scibling Fabiana Kubke pointed to this lecture in December. I’d like to persist with it, as I’m thinking of another context again. As you shall see, while Sir Robinson was talking about (high school) education, my thoughts strayed to research institutes.

Jump to about 16 min if you want to cut to the chase. You’ll miss a lot of good banter, though. For example, Sir Robinson describing maths theses: ’Page after page of math.’ [Pause.] ’With equals at the end.’ (It doesn’t come across well on it’s own; the delivery is very dry.)


Here’s my summary of the closing few minutes of his presentation, with extensive paraphrasing:

He defines creativity as ’the process of having original ideas that have value’ then points to a number of misconceptions he feels people have about creativity:

  • that creativity and intelligence are different things.
  • only special people are creative. (He says everyone is creative, the trick is to cultivate it.)
  • creativity is about ’special things’, e.g. the Arts. (It’s equally Science as Arts.)
  • that there is not a lot you can do about your creativity. (The notion that you are either creative or you are not.)

He suggests we need to move from an industrial model of education to an organic model, with an allusion to gardening. You don’t make things grow. The plants grow. You create conditions in which they might grow.

At this point my thinking segued from education to research with the thought that you can’t make scientists succeed. You could look at the people, try understand the conditions that particular person needs and provide those conditions. Is the current approach to research too–to borrow his term–industrialised?

He goes on to say that where there is no creativity present doesn’t mean there can’t be any, using an analogy to to rain bringing life in Death Valley. The ’missing’ life was not dead but dormant. The seeds were there, able to bloom if the conditions were right.

A parallel to research might be that making science work (well) is more than about giving money, or providing a room, but providing the conditions in which creativity might occur.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking that scientists need to be mollycoddled or sheltered.

I’m wondering what style of management of science and scientists brings out the best research or, alternatively, what approaches repress creativity.

Another view might be that in a sense science is self-managing, that scientific group leaders are a little like self-employed people or people running micro-businesses. If so, is this the best approach? If that doesn’t suit someone, should that mean that their ability in science itself be discarded since they don’t ’fit’ the current regime?

I’m not intending this to be a platform for me to bore you with my thoughts on ’how it ought to be.’ That would most likely would reflect what would best suit me. I can just mull about that on my own! (Admittedly it is part of a point I’d like to raise: different people need different conditions and I’m not convinced this aspect is well catered for.)

Just as the TED lectures are about spreading ideas, I’d like this post to be about encouraging discussion of ideas. Not enough of that happens around here…

What conditions do you think would help good research to occur?


Other articles on Code for Life that might interest readers:

Peter Lawrence’s Kafka tale of research grant funding

Gluckman on science in small countries, part I

Universities and (lack of) showcasing use of science degrees

Study of where academic careers lead

More inclusive re-entry to encourage departure to businesses?

Forgetting older science