Sir Paul Callaghan
Monday, September 03, 2012
Creating a culture of Creativity for New Zealand
New Zealand appears to be drifting into the 21stC with the hope that self-interested capitalism will be enough – our current government is re-invigorating the premises behind the ‘market forces’ ideology of the late 80s. This is spite of the ethical failure of the financial sector and the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor is continuing to grow causing endless social problems – 270000 children living in poverty (1 in 4). Equity issues continue to grow as a source of future conflict.
The image of New Zealand is increasingly difficult to express beyond ‘brighter futures’ slogans – a brighter future for fewer and fewer it seems. Even our historical green image is now at risk and more the result of geography than policy.
With such ambiguity the time is right to establish a national conversation about what kind of country do we want to be seen as? What is the vision for our country we can all see ourselves part of? Could we, if we worked together, be seen as a world leader in such things as social equity, environmental sustainability, and ‘smart’ business ventures and as a place known for attracting and developing the talent of all citizens?
To achieve such things would mean challenging many assumptions about how things are organised in every organisation and this turn would affect current power relationships and threaten the self-interest of those who are currently advantaged. Equity is a key issue – the status quo is no longer an option if we are to be seen as a progressive, creative, humanistic and democratic society.
One idea would be to set up selected an apolitical respected citizen’s group to work with other interested groups to develop some viable alternatives for citizens to consider and for politicians to take a position. Modern media could assist such enlightenment.
When it comes to creating a creative culture Steven Johnson, in his book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ provides excellent ideas to consider. He has tracked entrepreneurial innovations over historical time to see patterns that emerge. What kinds of environments have made innovation possible? It is no longer a choice between free enterprise market capitalism or state planned economies.
In earlier times single inventors were dominant – the inventive genius. Over time groups of individual became the norm requiring collective environments. Many of these environments existed apart from the marketplace. Today Johnson writes such environments will not emerge from ‘efficient’, corporate research or private capital but from the area of more ‘inefficient’ non-market networked or open arrangements. In such openenvironments ideas can flow between disciplines with no restrictions allowingfor serendipitous innovations to emerge. The power of the Internet is integral to this new explosion of creativity.
Encouraging such an open environment(or ‘platform’ in Steven Johnson’s book) is an important aspect of developingsuch an inventive and creative culture.
Johnson’s idea are expanded in Jonah Lehrer’s book ‘Imagine – how creativity works’. Human genius aren’t’ scattered randomly across time and space but tend to arrive in tight local clusters. Think of Athens, or Florence, Elizabethan England or Silicon Valley. Consider how art movements gravitate from centre to centre attracting or ‘growing’ creative artists.
Could New Zealand become such an innovative culture equivalent to Shakespeare’s England? Was Shakespeare an isolated genius or the result of cultural conditions or both? ‘Elizabethan England,’ Lehrer writes, ‘provided the ideal place for a young dramatist to develop’. It was an age obsessed with theatre aided by a massive increase in literacy. The result was a ‘dramatic democratisation of knowledge’.’ Shakespeare is a reminder…that culture largely determines creative output.’
Culture can as well ‘hold us back. Instead of expanding the collective imagination, we make it harder for artists and inventors to create new things. We stifle innovation and discourage the avant- garde. We get in the way of our geniuses’.
Instead of stumbling upon an ideal cultural mix could we not in New Zealand create such a culture to develop the talents and gifts of all citizens? If so the best place to start would surely be in our schools?
Creative enterprises like Google, Apple and 3M have learnt the trick of valuing ideas and sharing them to develop new innovations – maybe only within their own organisations! Sharing is the key .According to economist Paul Romer ‘the thing about sharing ideas….. is that they naturally inspire new ones – think for instance, Silicon Valley and Elizabethan England.’
The question is ‘how to create a multiplier culture.’ ‘There is talent everywhere. The only question is whether we are taking advantage of it.’
It seems in Elizebethan England one important factor was that there was ‘a benign neglect of the rules’ …. a ‘forgiving attitude encouraged playwrights to take creative risks to see how much they would get away with.’ Shakespeare sure took advantage of such an opportunity.
Creativity, or ideas, in such times becomes a source of wealth.
And most importantly creativity in Elizebethan times ‘involved the spread of education’.
The artistic creativity of the Elizebethan era wasn’t an accident T.S. Elliot wrote that ‘these artists were lucky enough to live in a culture that made it relatively easy to make art’.
Lehrer writes about a school in a poor part of the US that created such a talent based environment for failing students. In this school students spent all their creating. In contrast traditional education sends the wrong message ‘basically telling them creativity is a bad idea’. Research has shown that teachers find creative students difficult in their classrooms. ‘The point is’, Lehrer writes, ‘the typical school isn’t designed for self-expression…..Everyone agrees that creativity is a key skill for the twenty-first century but we are not teaching our kids this skill’. Current schooling is becoming increasing test orientated; a standardised rather than a creative culture.
‘Our kids are growing up in a world of constant change’ writes the principal of High Tech School, ‘there is no test for the future we can teach to. What we do know, however, is that being able to make new things is still going to be the way to succeed. Creativity is a skill that never goes out of style.’…’there is no textbook for ingenuity, no lesson plans for divergent thinking. Rather ingenuity must be discovered; a child has to learn by doing’. A philosophy outlined by John Dewey a century ago! Alesson ignored by schools. Curiosity is , as Albert Einstein wrote, a fragile thing
So how can we develop a culture in New Zealand?
According to Lehrer, ‘We now have enough evidence to begin prescribing a set of policies that can increase our collective creativity. In fact we’ve already proven that it is possible to create a period of excessive genius, a moment overflowing with talent. The only problem is that the geniuses we’ve created are athletes’
‘The same excess does not apply to other kinds of talents.’
‘The question now is whether our society can produce creative talent with the same efficiency that has produced athletic talent. Our future depends on it.’
We need a society and a school systemthat that ensure every citizen and students get a chance to develop theirtalents.
A creative culture has to begin in our schools.
Education properly imagined is the key to a future creative culture. The schools system, as currently arranged, seems determined to waste the imagination of its students focussing instead on standardized achievement in literacy and numeracy.New Zealand needs to encourage talented people to come, or return to New Zealand. As the late Sir Paul Callaghan said to see New Zealand as a place where talent wants to come.
Another ‘crucial meta’, idea says Lehrer, ‘is a willingness to take risks. It doesn’t matter if we are giving out small business loans or research grants to young scientists: we have to constantly encourage those who take chances’. Many will fail but these failures ‘need to be seen as a sign the system is working’. We need organisations to explicitly encourage researchers to take risks, explore unproven avenues and embrace the unknown – even if it means uncertainty or the chance of failure.’ ‘Betting on potential is always a risk but it is the only way to get a surplus of talent’.
The final essential meta-idea is to encourage a culture of borrowing and adapting. This is elaborated in Johnson’s book.
On the bright side this is the default way of young learners until schools interfere by increasingly being based on standardising and sorting.
We must, as economist Paul Romer has written, ‘keep searching for the meta- ideas of the future, for the next institution, or attitude, or law that will help us become more creative. We need to innovate innovation.’
It is time, Lehrer writes, ‘to create the kind of culture that won’t hold us back.’
‘What kind of culture do we have to create’?
‘Are we willing to invest in risk takers?
‘We have to make it easy to become a genius’.
Let’s start with our schools. The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum is a good start. This curriculum asks for every learner to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’.
We have a long way to go.
It goes back to what kinds of country do we want to be seen as?
Time for that conversation!