Responding with More Not Less

I like this… in Designs for Hard Times, the battle cry for the Cebu furniture industry brutalized by a global recession is “Resilience through greater creativity.”

outdoorfurnitureWhen the environment changes, the species within that environment are forced to adapt. Some species will come out stronger because the previously dominant species have lost their position. Other species will die off in the new conditions.

Being human, we are lucky that our ability to adapt isn’t exclusively determined by our genes, but by our culture as well. We can have “species” of ideas that flourish, die off, and recombine to adapt to the circumstances.

So what are we to do when times change? Hunkering down and weathering the storm can definitely be one approach: think of how resilient spores and bacteria can be. But another way is to redouble your efforts in doing serious creative experimentation.

Notice I say serious. I’m not talking about trying anything and everything in a panic to do something. I’m talking about all those other ideas and projects that you put off for short-term gain (for example, consider the fact that GM already had advanced design ideas for hybrid vehicles years ago, but never acted on it). Or brushing the dust off your personal R&D department that you’ve neglected (such as reading books, doing market research, and building prototypes).

Respond with more not less.

A formula for being creative?

Depth of Understanding + Breadth of Exploration + Striving = Potential Creativity

I came up with this formula as a way of capturing the essence of creativity, but upon reflection it can be misleading because it is not meant to be applied in simplistic ways. The formula above says something about what is necessary for creative activity, but it is not be sufficient.

Functional or gimmicky?
Functional or gimmicky?

For instance, say you wanted to create a new chair. You would need to know about other kinds of chairs and materials, how they work, and how they’re built. In other words, you need a depth of understanding because without it, there is nothing to create from.

But in order to create something original, you will also need to bring in other fields and disciplines because often ideas from the “outside” is what generates a new way of looking at the problem. Consequently, you need to understand broadly.

True creative efforts though will suffer many frustrating setbacks due to your lack of understanding. It is original work afterall! Thus the energy source required to push through this barrier is striving. Without it, the creative effort will never see its fruits.

Sadly, despite all that work, the outcome is only potentially creative because I have neglected other forces that may strike down the creative effort. What if this new chair is not tolerated by society? What if the competition steals the idea? What if the political environment changes?

Still… it doesn’t hurt to play around with a formula, does it?

Dying without solving a totally new problem

shadows-in-the-sun-book-cover“Most people live and die without ever having to solve a totally new problem. Do you wonder how to make the bicycle stay up? Daddy will show you. Do you wonder how to put the plumbing in your new house? The plumber will show you. Should you serve grasshoppers at your next barbecue? Why, nobody does that.

But – how do you deal with a Whumpf in the butter? What do you do about Grlzeads on the stairs? How much should you pay for a new Lttangnuf-fel?”

Chad Oliver Shadows in the Sun

The Power of Pattern-Seeking

Orion's Belt
Greeks map out the story of the Orion constellation.

We are naturally pattern-seeking creatures. When the ancient Greeks looked up at the stars, they invented a whole series of rich stories and mythologies to go with the constellations. These stories and patterns may on one hand seem arbitrary to us, but on the other hand it was an early way of remembering where the stars were positioned in a time when navigation by the stars were critical.

We have since found far more powerful uses of patterns. Some of you may know the story of how one man discovered the cause of cholera outbreaks in London. Before anyone knew about germs, these outbreaks were thought to be caused by bad smells.

Dr. John Snow thought otherwise. He investigated the outbreaks by mapping the location deaths with a black bar on a street map.

Dr. John Snow tracks cholera outbreaks on a map of London.
Dr. John Snow tracks cholera outbreaks on a map of London.

He discovered that cholera would kill people on one side of a street but not the other, or that one person would die blocks away from a cluster. How then could this be caused by bad smells?

Then by interviewing every family, he was able to find the commonality that each person drank from the same water pump. To test his theory, he took the handle off the water pump and the outbreak stopped.

What is important is not the map, but how he was able to identify the patterns and create a solution by creating the map.

Finding patterns and testing them allows us to understand the underlying cause, which often cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Much of human behaviour is that way. You can watch a chess player move a piece or a boxer throw a punch. You can even mimic the movement, but you will not have a clue why they do so or what they will do next. We can see the action, but not the thought behind the action.

Whether you are trying to understand how to be creative, innovative, or successful discover the principles behind the event, the pattern behind the isolated data points.

Science – The first open-source system?

What is science? Most people will associate it with test tubes and experiments and miraculous inventions, but this only points to the unfortunate way we teach science. We neglect to learn the most valuable contribution of science which is the process of science. Ken Low from Action Studies defines science as disciplined knowledge creation. This systematic approach to understanding the world is an outgrowth of the explosion that was the industrial revolution.

What is even more interesting about science is that it is also a form of collective disciplined knowledge creation. New discoveries are shared in journals so that others can challenge it or build on it. Scientists and engineers can then find ways of applying this body of knowledge to new or old problems.

While admittedly human beings have always had a form of open collaborative in the marketplace or in philosophical and political debates, using empirical standards mixed with peer review in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the world is new.

This wasn’t always the case. In the Roman times, many engineers and inventors took their inventions with them to the grave. Without a trusted community of explorers, individuals could not easily learn from other people’s failures. Today, a biologist can spend his whole life discovering the function of a specific hormone which can then contribute to future discoveries.

This is not to say that scientists are altruistic knowledge seekers. There is prestige and fame that comes with being the first to publish in a journal. There is a kind of collaborative competition. This may seem paradoxical until one realizes that the latin root of competition means “to strive together”. Competition is a form of collaboration.

The processes behind science are tremendously powerful. Let’s put it to good use.