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An Untapped Resource for Innovation in Complex Systems

Reos Partners
June, 2011


Creative Image

In facilitating groups on the topics of creativity and the U-Process in the context of complex systems, I have become aware that “creativity“ can be a loaded term. People have radically different internal pictures, or mental models, of creativity. Many participants have explained to me that they feel creativity is the domain of artists and “creatives”, and that they would rather avoid it because they themselves do not fall in those categories.
For some of us, the word “creativity” conjures a variety of images, from starving artists in berets, to children’s activities involving dried pasta and glitter, to young people with unusual haircuts and skinny jeans. For now, let’s put aside the strong association of creativity with art and return to the word’s root. “Creativity” derives from the Latin verb “creare,” meaning "to make, bring forth, produce, beget," which is related to crescere, "arise, grow."
Thus, creativity is rooted in making, producing, growing, and birthing. From this perspective, it is broad enough that it can encompass a wide range of human activities, not just the arts, but science, work, academia, friendships, parenting, community groups, projects, questions, explorations, and more. The list is endless. So let’s reclaim creativity as something that people in any field, not just the arts, can draw on.
The Beating Heart of Social Innovation
Creativity is not just an integral part of life; it is also core to innovation in complex social systems. The creative process lies at the beating (and at times bleeding) heart of efforts to address difficult social and environmental issues.
Richard Florida, head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, has argued that it is possible to predict growth in American cities based on whether the city is attractive to what he describes as “the creative class”. This class is a diverse mix of theoreticians, writers, academics, architects, analysts, artists, and so on who create and rework new forms and ideas. They draw on various bodies of knowledge, including their own, to solve complex problems.

Florida has broadened the definition of creativity and has been remarkably effective at predicting economic growth. He has forecast that cities with a higher percentage of people in the so-called creative class will be more economically prosperous than those with lower percentages of people in that category. Florida's work shows that creativity can be a fundamental part of everyday life - an integral element of social and economic activity that enables a different, and more effective, kind of performance and systemic learning.

The Power of Imagination
What lends power to creativity is imagination. Whatever we choose to create, we have to imagine first, in the sense of holding a picture in our minds. Once we imagine it, we can build it, be it a train station, semiconductor, oil painting, or new institution for funding climate change projects. Imagination is something that can revolutionise politics, business and technology, culture, and individual behaviour.
We are quite familiar with the some of the products that have come from the imaginations of certain business leaders, such as Steve Jobs. Jobs continually seeks to redefine how we use technology; in doing so, he has changed both people’s behaviour and entire industries around the world. Gone are the days when we would hear a song on the radio and then drive to a store to buy the artist’s CD. Downloading is as common as tooth brushing, and record shops are going out of business. Today, many of us habitually purchase music by simply downloading songs onto our computers, phones, and iPods.
Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple reimagined what life could be like for music lovers across the globe. When asked how Jobs did market research, an Apple marketing manager said it consisted of “Jobs looking in the mirror every morning and asking himself what he wanted”. Jobs imagined a scenario of what life could be like using a Mac or an iPod. As a result, he began producing computers that didn’t need optical drives because people were watching movies on computers via iTunes. Likewise, by producing iPods that are music systems, Apple moved beyond the MP3 players that preceded them. In this way, according to Roberto Verganti, author of the book Design Driven Innovation, Apple didn’t respond to market needs; rather, it designed, imagined, and created its innovations.
Potential for Lasting Change
What does Apple’s roaring success in redefining the music industry have to do with dealing with complex social problems? It is relevant because it reminds us that we all have the potential to create what we can imagine, and that creativity and imagination contain power and potential for lasting change.
For example, if we can imagine living and working without producing waste, then we can innovate by finding others to think through how to make it happen. If we can imagine a world where policymakers always consult the people who will be directly affected by their policies, then we can make it happen. If we can imagine a world where people are protected from domestic violence and have the right support structures and legal rights, then again, we can make it happen. If we can imagine a world where HIV is not stigmatized, all we have to do is find a way to get there.
My partner in Reos Partners’ UK office, Yvonne Field, who has decades of experience working with African-Caribbean communities and women in the UK, has put her imagination to work. She designed a programme called “Ubele” to build the capacity of leaders to address problems such as underachievement and gang violence within the Afro-Caribbean community. Now that her dream is firmly in place, it is up to those who are willing to help to make it happen.
Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela all imagined a different reality. In addition to their legendary leadership and influential political philosophies, they also believed in the power of their dreams, their imagining of the future. The world watched as they paved a way to achieve those dreams: Black rights in the US, independence from Great Britain in India, and an end to racial apartheid in South Africa. These men contributed monumental steps toward human progress and changed the lives of millions by letting their imaginations guide them. We can learn much from them, such as following our dreams as road maps to the future.
Our Inherent Creativity
And so, creativity and imagination have a long history in the fields of politics, development, social work, environment, economics, town planning, and more. In addressing complex problems of all kinds, inspiring leaders remind us of the power of dreams and imagining the world anew. We are all inherently creative and can dream what we want to see in the world into being.
This summer, Reos Partners is running a Social Change Festival in Oxford, England, 30-31 July. The thematic question for the festival is, “What is the role of creativity in a complex world?” We invite you to come and explore this question. Bring your own experience and ideas about creativity to this important conversation.
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