How research and collaboration can keep people within a ‘box’
I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar recently about creativity. The speaker was an ‘old-school’ designer, who does not really interact with technology, and enjoys the freedom of using pens, paper and space. Although interesting hearing about his creative story, there was one aspect of the talk that really got me thinking. The discussion turned momentarily to talk about ‘research’, and how academic research showed and highlighted different things in life, which was all very good. Yet, the response was fascinating — the designer was concerned about how, for him, research helped to box people in with research ideas and findings but to be a creative thinker, and a creative person, you need to break free of the confines, otherwise you are restricted in the walls of the research, unable to break free, as this goes against the convention.
At the time, I thought this notion of research restricting ideas was interesting but didn’t give it much more attention. It was only later, when I was mindlessly mulling over the talk and the discussions that I really started to think about this, and completely agree with the opinion shared. My subconscious took the essence of the talk and started an internal conversation, grappling with the notion whilst I was relaxing and allowing my brain to do what it does best!
Eventually, my mind concluded that what resonated so much was an eventual realisation that, having completed a recent research project, that I am within the research box, having to engage, critique and interact to be able to ‘succeed’. But whose success criterion am I working with, and how does working within the research agenda encourage creativity? When writing an academic paper, one needs to back up and argue against theories with previous research discussions — not truly allowing a freedom of opinions by the author, unless it can be backed up by references — one is restricted by narrow success criteria to be able to ‘pass’ and obtain reward. There is little space for creativity, or creative thinking.
Fundamentally, our definitions of what creativity looks like will be different to different people, based on their experiences, influences and viewpoint of their world. Some people need space, freedom and tools to be able to express or explore their creativity. For me, simply watching the world go by when travelling on a train or a plane is when I find myself most creative, but for others, it is sparks of input from other sources, or other people, that helps them to think beyond the usual confines.
In the business and education worlds, many people are encouraged to ‘think outside the box’, but as much as this cliché makes many people groan and roll their eyes — possibly justifiably — there are far too many restrictions placed on systems, curriculum and processes to really allow this. A truly creative person works without restriction, and for a truly creative thinking process to take place, then restrictions must not exist.
Although collaboration is one way to spark ideas and progress, for some people this is as restricting, as (dare I say!) research suggests it is impossible to think “out of the box” when you’re stuck inside a box with a bunch of other people. Group-thinking, compromise and personal dynamics are all at play when collaboration is used, often resulting in mediocrity. You can see that I am struggling to break from the ‘research box’, but I need to use it to demonstrate my argument so that it can be taken seriously. In their research, Long & Averill (2003) concluded that being around other people keeps creative people from thinking new thoughts.
As many school subject curriculum are clearly defined and structured, there is little opportunity for teachers or pupils to think creatively. Narrowly defined curriculum definitions demand that a certain area of knowledge is mastered to achieve top exam grades, which many schools encourage their pupils to achieve. By doing this, along with ‘working collaboratively’, we are slowly, but surely, crushing any creativity in individuals, who have a lot more to offer in life than the narrow perspectives they are being guided into. In terms of creative thinking, and creativity, we need people to build creative solutions, technologies and infrastructure to help answer many of the challenges we have created for ourselves, otherwise, the future looks bleak.
We need creative people to thrive in society. We need people to creatively think outside of the box to solve pressing global problems and resolve complex issues that ‘thinking within the box’ has not been able to cure. Some of the most fulfilled and successful people in history have been creative in their thinking, and with their design, and to continue in the future, space, time and reward needs to be given to creative people — it’s difficult and maybe even impossible to “think out of the box” when you’re literally inside a box. So, this is a call to allow creativity to thrive in individuals. Allow creative thinking space, time and resource to prosper, and possibly find sustainable solutions to many of the challenges our world now faces.