Designing Creativity (Pt. 1)

What if 65% of students will work in jobs not yet existing?

How do we get ready for an unknown job with unknow requirements and in even more unknown fields?

Some steps can already be taken now. For example, one step is developing a T-shaped knowledge. Familiarity with different fields helps us foresee where future changes and opportunities may happen. Moreover, it gives us a headstart in case we decide (or are forced) to switch careers. In her book The Shift, professor Lynda Gratton actually describes a “carousel career” – becoming an expert in one field, then taking sabbatical time and switching to a different one – as a plausible career path.

For this reason, developing the ability to learn new things quickly will be crucial. People will be expected to become more and more self-directed learners, ready to devote up to one third of the year to study. And with tools such as OER (open educational materials), MOOCs and learning apps, learning won’t be just more accessible – it will become inevitable.

But what else do we need to imagine what is not yet existing?

A look into the future

Actually, this is what intellectuals and writers have been doing since humanity was born. Science fiction in particular has foreseen many inventions (and jobs!) of today, and scientists have taken inspiration from the strange devices described in these books and movies. For example, before the launch of Facebook&co., no one would have imagined a job like “social media manager”. But Ray Bradbury, John Brunner, Arthur C. Clarke and others had already described their versions of Google, Youtube celebrities, fake news and Tinder.

Creatives can see (and even create!) the future, even when it doesn't exist yet.

On the other side, history is full of companies who weren’t able to imagine these shifts on time, or who didn’t realise their potential until they were lagging behind. Think of Blockbuster’s lost chance to buy Netflix, Blackberry and the rise of touch screens, or Kodak’s refusal to switch to the digital.

There are a thousand reasons for each of these stories. But the connection I want to make here is that, ultimately, it was also a matter of creativity. Not all sci-fi writers are scientists, but they are able to predict our times because they have a bigger vision of the context they are writing into. They can see where gaps in knowledge and technology are – and imagine what kind of seeds they would generate. These are the two sides of true creativity.

Discovering possibilities

Research specialist for the LEGO Foundation Elisabeth McClure calls them originality and relevance, and it’s their combination that fosters creativity. But while we are all familiar with originality – and actually, we often equate it to creativity –, what we sometimes miss is that creativity is born out of a context. Creativity is understood only in the frame of the time and space it lives into.

We still consider creative the greatest artists and inventors because we understand the impact they had on their time. Einstein and Picasso were innovative, but because of their time. Not only did they had a deep knowledge of their fields, they were also deeply immersed in their contemporary world. Connected to what was happening, able to spot the edges, see where they could push for new possibilities, unafraid of making mistakes because they are opportunities to learn and discover something more.

Creativity is present at every stage of the design thinking process, but few see the connection with the prototyping phase. And yet, aside from the Empathy stage, this is the stage where we are more immersed in the context we are creating for. We actually replicate the context, allowing people to test a version of the future we are trying to implement and the designers to refine and improve the prototypes so that they can best serve the context it was created for.

The dimensions of creativity

“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

To imagine what doesn’t exist, we have to get ready to fail. If we are learning or creating something new, we are charting new territory – and mistakes not only are inevitable, but can also lead to the most important discoveries. Edison’s story of his 10000 versions of the light bulb is world-wide famous, but the history of science is full of examples of how failures were necessary in the creative cycle.

However, how many of us are actually afraid of mistakes? If we think about how assessments are planned today, most students learn that there’s only one right answer and, if they fail to find it the first time, there won’t be recovery, just a bad grade. Numerical measures of learning and tight-packed programs with close deadlines don’t leave space for students to learn from their mistakes (and frame them in a more positive light), and teachers too lose a valuable opportunity to help their students gain deeper knowledge of their subjects.

One of the biggest obstacles to creativity is exactly fear of faliure, and that’s where the Prototype stage of design thinking can lend a hand. During this phase, it’s vital to make mistakes. Because it’s vital to iterate, experiment and explore many different solutions. Testing a prototype with the people it ought to serve can give us precious insights, and this is something that we can’t find if we don’t put ourselves out there. That’s why new educational approaches are teaching students and teachers to reframe failures as a fundamental, even playful moment on the long road to learning.

P.S. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.

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