Applied Creativity

One of Ewan McIntosh‘s Twitter posts sparked inner fury in me yesterday when he linked to a TED talk (a TED talk, no less!) claiming somehow it would be wrong to try and define creativity. Creativity was unknowable and magical it claimed confidently, without even a sense of disappointment or shame. Almost as though it were a good thing.

Ewan wrote:

I think one would be crazy to try to define what creativity is and where good ideas come from – the pressure to then come up regularly with great creative ideas would be so intense as to stop any such activity taking place.

“Poppycock”, I thought. It had been a while since I’d reached for that particular word in the darkest depth of my vocabulary, but if ever there was an appropriate moment this was it.

The fact that creativity remains elusive, unknowable and “magical” is at least a large part of what’s holding humanity back from taking its next significant step forward. And so I replied, postulating that far from being “a good thing” it was in fact a very, very bad thing, and definitely not something we should be trumpeting. I also claimed, somewhat melodramatically perhaps, that our ability to properly harness creativity would actually lead us towards civilisation’s next Industrial Revolution. (Ooooo – get me, eh?!)

You see, I consider creativity to be akin to the elusive forces studied by scientists of the past: electricity; magnetism; X-rays – there was a time where I could easily have found a majority of people who would have agreed with any assertion that these forces were also “unknowable and magical”. Fortunately for us all, there were a few determined sceptics less interested in using these natural phenomena to reinforce some spiritual agenda, and more interested in getting to the bottom of what was really going on. And while I’m not claiming creativity is any sort of “force” in the scientific sense I am here to wrestle the concept back from the hands of spiritualists, quacks and charlatans and in to the nurturing arms of scientific reasoning and debate.

Today we run the risk of thinking of creativity in the same way as we once thought of electro-magnetism – magical, unknowable, a black art. Poppycock, I say again! It’s a series of deliberate choices – some serial, some parallel, some conscious, some sub-conscious – made by assessing the values of many variables simultaneously through the filters of knowledge, experience and aesthetic appreciation. More variables than we can currently define and measure perhaps, but that doesn’t make it magic. I subscribe to the school of thought that says “art is a science with more than seven variables”, and from where I’m looking creativity is precisely that.

Of course it appears magical to us at the moment, because we don’t yet understand it fully; but that doesn’t stop it happening all around me every day. It’s tangible, measurable and ultimately knowable. Creativity is a subject desperately in need of much more considered scientific study, and far less poetic reverence.

I look forward to the first institution brave enough to instigate an undergraduate course in “Applied Creativity”.