There is no substitute for the creativity of warm bodies in a room, says Adam Oxford.
Two decades of the web, and several years’ frenzied pursuit of crowdsourcing and social media haven’t changed one basic fact of human society: when it comes to creative problem solving, we do it best face to face. Pretty much the same rules apply as they did back in the 1950s, when a journo turned ad salesman from the Bronx made ‘brainstorming’ a corporate phenomenon. The term had actually been coined a century earlier, but it was Alex Osborn’s book ‘Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving’ that made it something of a science. A very rough guide to it is this: first embark on a broad, unconstrained search for many possible solutions. Then pick out the best of the bunch.
In today’s data-packed digital world, searching can be a bit of a passive task. Few of us spend our days rooting through undergrowth for nuts or panning for gold. Instead, we sit at our desks, tap in a few keywords and click a button. Thanks to brilliantly programmed software, this can be a very efficient way of accessing a precise slice of information. But when it comes to generating new ideas, we still need actual brains, bouncing off each other, to get the best results.
That’s brains, plural. Interest in the potential of a group to come up with new ideas and solutions has soared recently, both in academia and in the office. “Group creativity”, says Marc Runco, Editor of the Creativity Research Journal, “is vital for innovation and organisational efficacy, and increasingly so.” And there’s a growing consensus that, if you want to crack complex problems once and for all, you have to stop asking the same old questions of the same old people. You have to bring new faces into the room.
But why not have a virtual room? It’s tempting to believe that we can have such creative conversations online. Not so, says Seth Godin, whose bestseller, ‘Tribes’, looks at how inspirational leaders can use social media to marshal swathes of followers.
Contrary to popular belief, he argues, “the internet isn’t fabulous at crowdsourcing solutions. It does a good job of communicating problems. [But] solutions require commitment and persuasion, [which are] hard to create in a digital space.” Commercial pressures, intellectual property laws, academic rivalry and lack of time all get in the way of online brainstorming, Godin argues. There are conferences, forums and journals which aim to share best practice, but for really creative thinking there’s nothing better than putting an eclectic mix of people together in a room.
But knowing just who to invite, and how best to get them sparking off each other, is a skill in itself, says Richard Miller, Head of Sustainability at the Technology Strategy Board. Innovation is the raison d’être of this UK arms-length government agency, set up in 2007 to find new ways to generate wealth sustainably.
“I see the UK as this vast resource of business acumen and skills”, declares Miller. “But to find the best ways forward, we really need key people to be in one place, sharing facilities and working closely in a multidisciplinary way. It’s the only way they are going to break away from current thinking.”
Alongside its web-based Knowledge Transfer Networks, in which people from business and research institutes can share ideas and experience within a specific field – from biosciences to financial services to transport – the Technology Strategy Board is setting up six Technology and Innovation Centres. The aim of these elite institutes is to create a space in which professionals can come together to focus on an area where there is a need to drive commercialisation, such as offshore renewables, or high-value manufacture.
A space for creative collaboration is one thing. Finding time for it is another. Which is why one approach that the Board takes to generate new ideas is to recreate the ‘stranded on a desert island’ scenario: throwing people together in what it calls ‘sandpits’ – “an intensive, interactive and free-thinking environment. The idea is to give them a good amount of time away from their everyday worlds, to immerse themselves in creative problem-solving.”
It sounds fun, but what actually comes out of it? Crucially, each sandpit comes with a pot of public money for further development of the best idea. It takes place over a week – which, the organisation admits, is no small commitment – and so it’s a method that the organisation uses sparingly, to solve a specific problem. One sandpit, tasked with finding a way to engage employees in energy-saving measures, resulted in the £820,000 Building Banter Project, co-funded by the Technology Strategy Board under the User-Centric Design for Energy Efficiency in Buildings programme. The aim of the project is to cut energy use in factories by 10%, mainly by stimulating behaviour change among workers. It uses existing infrastructure, such as CCTV, IT servers, and phone and time management systems to provide visually striking analyses of energy consumption, and encourage staff to find new ways to reduce it.
Thrown into the sandpit were Moixa Energy, a clean tech company that designs smart monitoring systems, four universities, two engineering companies, including Arup, a design agency, and some less usual suspects, too. “Our choices turned out to be lucky ones this time round”, Miller says. “One participant was a professor of dance, who thought about how people move around and interact with spaces in a very different way to the engineers.”
“It’s an extremely interesting process”, says Chris Wright, Co-founder of Moixa Energy, which is now leading the Building Banter Project. “We were put with people who you wouldn’t normally have worked with, and have ended up with a new job.”
The sandpit itself takes place within the confines of a hotel over the course of a week – because that’s how long it takes to break down delegates’ preconceived ideas about a problem, says Miller. A team of speakers and facilitators structures the days in creative sessions around a theme, which in this case was energy efficiency. The aim is to have collaborative pitches worthy of public funding ready by the last day. For Wright, it was the structure, location and timescale that made it such an intense experience.
“On the last night you’re up until four writing the project brief, calculating a budget, arguing about the money and who’s going to lead the team. And then at 11 o’clock on the Friday, you pitch, and you find out an hour later whether or not you’ve got the money.”
The Technology Strategy Board isn’t alone in getting a diverse group of people sparking off each other in a room. Other events in the space range from Rewired State’s ‘hack days’ [see ‘Getting creative with data'], which bring computer whizzes together to find novel uses for publicly available data, to ‘unconferences’ – where the content is generated by the participants, rather than by the event organisers.
These include ones run by US non-profit CityCamp, which assemble local government staff and officials together with independent experts to share perspectives and insights about the cities in which they live – and find ways to improve them. Just as for the sandpits, CityCamps start off with space to get creative juices flowing, and then the delegates are organised into groups to make concrete plans and pitch for funding. The first CityCamp was at the University of Illinois Chicago Innovation Center, in January 2010. Since then, they’ve popped up all over the US, from San Francisco to Raleigh, North Carolina.
CityCamp Raleigh offered a $5,000 prize – generated by a host of sponsors, including IBM, Microsoft and Raleigh Economic Development – for the best idea. The money went to a team called ‘Open It Up’ that found a way to make publicly available data on schools – from report cards to teachers’ salaries – easily accessible to members of the community. The team included a software architect, a journalist for Raleigh Public Record, and a systems engineer.
The really great thing about this format, adds Miller, is that you don’t just go away with the one prize: the winning solution. “All that time spent talking and sharing is bound to generate an immeasurable sum of new ideas and ways of working.” And unusual connections can bring novel solutions. One roundtable organised by the London-based Dialogue Project took on the problem of pain management. Organiser Karl James invited a dominatrix to talk with both doctors and critically ill patients. As a result, at least one doctor now uses a ‘safe word’ to help patients find the threshold of movement in damaged limbs. This is a pre-agreed phrase which the person being stimulated through pain can use to stop the proceedings.
“The rarest thing now is the deeper, slower tempo conversation which is pithy and rigorous”
James is just as careful about terminology when it comes to describing his own work. He rejects Osborn’s ever-popular notion of ‘brainstorming’: “It’s the ‘storming’ bit that worries me. The rarest thing now is the deeper, slower tempo conversation which is pithy and rigorous.”
Whether they welcome the storm or not, the importance of real engagement is something that all ‘professional connectors’ seem to agree on. Creative thinking doesn’t just happen because people are in a room. It’s a complex bit of chemistry, demanding enough focus and direction, as well as the best creative juices and a nice lab. But when all this comes together, the result may be just what you hoped for: new approaches to old issues that really merit that criminally overused word – ‘solutions’.
Adam Oxford is a freelance writer specialising in technology and efficiency.
Photo: John Foxx/Thinkstock