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CongRegation 2017: Innovation

I was recently asked to give an outline of what I might be speaking about at CongRegation 2017, the theme of which is Innovation, and here it is...

Michelangelo destroyed a number of his preparatory sketches so as to appear to be a divinely inspired 'creative' genius. Francis Bacon, destroyed much of his early work, for similar reasons. Both acts serve to indicate the importance of immediacy in relation to the perception of 'creative genius.' There has been a long held perception that creativity genius is related to immediacy, without proof of effort or learning, that creativity is based in epiphany and not the 'menial and mundane!' This is not true, creativity and creative thinking takes time and effort, it can be taught, learnt and practiced. Creativity is within the grasp of anyone willing to reach out and engage.

For far too long humanity has been weighed down by the burden of the ‘creative genius,’ the divinely inspired or melancholy outsider who drags society, kicking and screaming into the future. My talk at CongRegation 2017 aims to challenge that perception and unburden humanity of the ‘originality’ ball and chain.

The creativity narrative is littered with tales of figures who displayed traits that separated them from the run of the mill man or woman on the street. This perception of the creative individual, a packaged and branded product of culture, has served to inhibit and nullify our great innovative potential. For the many who have been inspired creative followers, a multitude have had their creative potential stunted.

In my capacity as an innovation consultant I have encountered any number of people who immediately declare ‘I’m not really the creative type, y’know. I’d like to be, but I’m just not.’ This must stop if we want to go forward.

Ok, let us start with something simple, how many artists, authors or inventors can you name?

The likelihood is, the ones you can name are the ones with the most ‘colourful’ biographies, the divine, the rebels, the outsiders, the damaged, the heroes and antiheroes. Despite the number you can name, when you apply some critical thinking, it is not just unlikely, but laughably impossible that they were even marginally responsible for the scope of human creativity, invention and innovation.

What is also worth considering is, how many of the names were female? Do we really engage with the fact that the vast majority of celebrated creatives, inventors and innovators are men? Do we really think that the Y chromosome is responsible for creativity? This is just another chapter in the flawed cultural narrative of creativity.

Very often there is a desire to celebrate identity more than achievement, arguably because, many underestimate and undervalue their own potential for creativity, making the ‘creative act’ seem more ethereal than it is in reality. There is a great emphasis on originality as being a feature of innovation. It is very easy to appear original in a room that is not populated by your peers. I have been called an original thinker on numerous occasions, but I will wholly accept that my thoughts and opinions are shaped by my engagements within a broader nexus of preexisting thoughts and opinions.

We talk widely about disruptive innovation. We celebrate heroes like Steve Jobs, and the design originality and elegance of the Apple machine, but what percentage of the population of iPhone, iPod or iPad users are familiar the designer Dieter Rams? The first rule of design according to Rams was, 'good design is innovative.' The scope of our knowledge has a great deal to do with our perception of originality, the creative act and innovators.

Picasso is alleged to have said, ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal.’ Picasso would know, despite being considered a groundbreaking artist, his work shows little evidence of originality to the trained eye. As a critical theorist I have engaged variously with the concept of intertextuality and the perception that each ‘text is a tissue of quotations.’ I would extend this sentiment to argue that every innovation is an extension of a preexisting idea or combination of elements, and there is rarely if ever an innovation of pure originality. Within the context of a particular entrepreneurial paradigm an innovation may indeed be disruptive, however, I would argue that arriving at that innovation was as human as sliced bread.

What does this mean for Innovation and Creative Thinking?

The real skill to celebrate, it may be argued, is not necessarily ‘creativity’ as it is widely perceived, but awareness. The capacity to see a problem to be solved, and combine elements already in existence, whether tangible or abstract, to solve the problem. What is required isn’t the presence of a muse, divine inspiration or an eccentric or melancholic disposition but critical thinking and awareness, a willingness to engage in the trenches of creative processes, such as Design Thinking, and the capacity to apply the results of this multifaceted approach.

Creative thinking and innovation take place every day in kitchens, back gardens, school rooms, bathroom and bedrooms. There is no lab or studio that solely serves as ground zero for innovation and creativity. Creative and critical thinking skills, which are the precursors of innovation, have been stunted by school, jobs and varying levels of cultural pressures or pigeonholing. Rarely in Ireland are we encouraged to question, or challenge the status quo.

Do we have a poor history of Innovation?

Or a poor perception of Creativity and Innovation?

I have met people who in the space of seconds, have reconsidered their preconceived perception of a failed capacity for creativity and innovation once the shroud of mystery and the aura of the creative genius had been removed from figures like Michelangelo or Elon Musk. Awareness, hard work and critical engagement are at the heart of the creative and innovative endeavor, to presume otherwise is to embrace a flawed and obstructing cultural narrative.

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