The Creativity Complex

The Creativity Complex

Along with the rising notion of innovation, the concept of ‘creativity’ has gained a significant place in the ideal skill set of the modern professional. This readymade sign of originality, novelty or invention has taken on a convenience value as a discourse without content, a general-purpose term in PowerPoint presentations on entrepreneurship and innovation, the cultural industries, retail and marketing, science and technology, and lets not forget, art and design. The unwieldy nature of creativity is problematic, it is difficult to capture and define as an object of knowledge, and to standardise and control as a formal practice. Creativity’s resistance to rational thought is reflected in one of the longest entries in Wikipedia, which has a multitude of definitions – historical, psychological, socio-cultural, neuro-scientific, philosophical – not to mention the various contexts inseparable from the creative act, and related articles such as ‘Creativity Techniques’, ‘Intelligence’, ‘Invention’, and the ‘The History of the Concept of Creativity’. The very complexity of creativity is the cause of its simplification when it is one of many factors working together in the practices of commercial or public organisations. It is understandable then, when academics and industry professionals neglect to outline creativity in terms of a specific form or content, its complexity being a source of disruption and discontinuity in the rational discourse of institutions.

If we dismantle the idea of a general Creativity, a multitude of creativities begin to emerge, as the bits and pieces of material practices that are contingent with their social and cultural situations. Creativities that give rise to unique forms are never absolutely original because they are themselves taking place within specific environments, at particular times and places, and in combination with available technologies and expertise. According to Bob Sutton, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Stamford University’s Graduate School of Business, ‘doing new things with old things’ in intelligent ways can lead to complex interactions between knowledge and culture, resulting in unique combinations of ingenuity and practice. To illustrate the point, Sutton describes how the children’s toy Play-Doh was developed from a substance originally used to remove soot from wallpaper; as the need for the product declined, a chance encounter with the business owner’s sister, a nursery school teacher, led to her realisation that its malleability was an ideal tool for the imagination of young children, resulting in a cultural transformation of the product from one of limited utility to an open and creative substance. There is no eureka moment in this case, but rather a gradual shift in perceptions, followed by a culture change, whereby specific creativities in manufacturing, education and marketing, form a mutually beneficial connectivity with one another, in order to realise a market potential that was previously unknown.

In terms of exploring the potential for combining creativities, we can draw an analogy with the bio-logic of co-evolution, where individual organisms are said to have tendencies and capacities, which are ‘teased out’ through connection with other organisms in the environment. There are no bad ideas in evolution, only the experimental overtures of creation, where in the first instance quantity drives quality, because the greater the number of combinations the higher the chance of unlocking the previously unseen potentials in nature; variety is indeed the ‘spice of life’. In his Ecology and Realist Ontology essay, Manuel De Landa talks of an ‘open set of capacities’, which in ‘biological organisms are capable of forming the heterogeneous assemblages we call ecosystems’. If we extend the idea of the ecosystem into the particulars of any given social and historical situation, we can conceive of the initial ‘set up’ of experimental networks of creativities, as contents without discourses, which if assembled and re-assembled in a variety of ways, ‘give up’ their unknown potentials, and find new applications within the existing discursive environments of business, education and culture. In future, those individuals and organisations who aim to build effective creative ecologies, will reap unexpected benefits from the compilation of detailed and systematic inventories of creative theories, definitions, processes, technologies and techniques, as these will form the basis of new, and as yet unknown, practices in 21st Century life.