Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

How can creative thinking be developed in school and the workplace?

Research described in a recent Newsweek cover story, “The Creativity Crisis,” indicates that schools in the United States are heading in the wrong direction by emphasizing rote learning. Analysis of creative capability scores for nearly 300,000 children and adults determined that scores have been moving steadily downward since 1990.

Meanwhile The European Union has been “instituting problem-base learning programs—curricula driven by real world inquiry—for both children and adults,” while “in China there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.”

I had the good fortune to be introduced to problem-based learning (PBL) in 1995 by Dr. John Premi at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. McMaster’s medical school is known internationally for having pioneered the use of PBL in the 1960’s. As well, Dr. Premi and his colleagues developed a groundbreaking PBL program to support continuing education for physicians.

After fifteen years of applying this approach to collaborative inquiry and reflection in the context my life in the field of design, I believe PBL (along with action learning, project-based learning and other inquiry based methods) is far more effective than oxymoronic “teaching creativity.” To my mind, creative thinking is a by-product of wrestling with ambiguity, seeing opportunities within constraints and thinking critically. Needless to say, my own doctor was educated via PBL.

As the Newsweek article points out, the need for ingenuity is too urgent for any country to “just hope for inspiration to strike.” Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman note, “All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.”

Well said.

-Sharon VanderKaay


If all of our politicians understood the nature of innovation as well as councillor Adam Vaughan, there might be a dominant feeling of abundance in our society, instead of a looming sense of scarcity. Yesterday, during his “Adam’s Walks” tour of five parks plus a schoolyard in Toronto’s Seaton Village and the Annex, Adam explained the impressive multiplying effect of changing how we think when planning shared neighborhood spaces. He also revealed some appalling examples of consequences when governments add unnecessary barriers that prevent action on innovative initiatives.

Instead of the old notion that generic urban parks should be bestowed and maintained by remote bureaucrats at their sole discretion, Adam described what happens when community members of all ages become co-creators and partners who are invested in ongoing success. Common concerns – ranging from maintenance, to dogs runs vs. children’s play areas, to safety issues – are best tackled, he says, with “strong, healthy and respectful dialogue.” Out of this dialogue emerge ideas for unconventional uses that benefit the community, as well as new ways to maintain and protect the vibrancy of these spaces. Such ideas have included non-traditional funding models, alternative sources of energy generation, and reimagining the park as a living learning project for nearby schools.         

All of which builds social capital while raising adjacent residential property values. The co-creation approach also turns a potentially hostile and alienating planning process into a healthy opportunity for citizens to draw on local talent. For those who would otherwise oppose the plan outright, being part of the solution provides the best insight into complex factors that affect controversial decisions.   

Adam is not magician who can make all the barriers of city bureaucracy disappear, but he knows a lot about the magic than can happen when knowledgeable people put their heads together instead of simply reacting to a plan.  

About Adam’s Walks
Inspired by Jane’s Walk (named in honour of Jane Jacobs), Toronto Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina councillor Adam Vaughan leads a series of free neighbourhood walking tours. These tours highlight opportunities and challenges for developing our civic spaces. Since inception in 2007, Jane’s Walks have taken place in cities across North America and the program quickly expanding internationally. In 2009 Jane’s Walks were held in 46 cities with a total of 315 walks offered. In 2010, there are 67 participating cities and over 410 tours on offer.

-Sharon VanderKaay

What happens when we place as much emphasis on the quality of our interactions as the quality of our products? And to take this notion a step further, what would we expect an all-time best design experience to look like?

To begin this investigation, let’s ask ourselves what kind of interaction is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a Fountainhead-inspired journey of clashing wills? What’s the alternative for innovators who find themselves struggling to defend their ideas in a seemingly hostile or indifferent world? How might clients and other stakeholders actually enjoy—rather than endure—their roles as responsible contributors to the built environment?

In our way of thinking, the opposite end of the interactive spectrum from clashing agendas is a transformational experience. These experiences enrich the lives of everyone at the planning table; they raise our spirits and expand our horizons. In contrast to traditional interventions that aim for buy in, we’ve seen the benefits of a mutual quest to raise the bar to new heights. This mutual quest banishes the assumption that the designer must carry on a valiant, one-sided campaign to address quality of life design issues.

Wrestling with the impact of a project together with stakeholders instills a sense of joint stewardship. Wise use of project resources and opportunities becomes a shared responsibility with the architect, rather than pursuing “us versus them” interests. Reliance on fancy presentations or charismatic persuaders is less important than knowing how to tap into the innate human desire to do something extraordinary.

By focusing on quality of interactions, designers can be catalysts for breakthroughs—experienced as transformational, aha! moments—in design and planning. These revelations and great leaps forward are built on a shared, expansive definition of each project’s purpose, opportunities and constraints.

Tight, mechanically-inspired processes are woefully self-limiting when compared to designing transformational experiences that appeal to hearts and minds. It should also be noted that this level of engagement goes far beyond faux-facilitation methods that skim the surface of obvious options.

Designers sell themselves short when they describe their fundamental role as problem solvers. For one thing, research by Ronald Lippitt indicates that “listing and solving problems depresses groups.” Also, the term problem solving creates the impression that designers engage primarily in reductive thinking.

Designing shared transformational experiences is where exceptional value is created. The above chart illustrates the shift from transactional to transformational design.

– Sharon VanderKaay

It’s easy to see why so many PPT slide presentations include images of interlocking gears to evoke maximum team efficiency. Gears convey a seductive sense of control; they are reassuringly neat and predictable. These mechanical parts are perfect for representing machine age detachment, and perhaps also suit transactions involving information technology.

But gear metaphors communicate the opposite of what’s required for innovation to occur in a knowledge era. Knowledge—in contrast to information—gains value when humans develop what they know through reflection and interaction. The reality of this process is far from neat, predictable and mechanical. Developing the wealth of knowledge that leads to innovation requires relationships built on trust. Gears do not evoke trust or thoughtful reflection. So let’s not misrepresent living, human activities—such as collaboration—with graphics that glorify interchangeable metal parts.

The above set of slides expands on this notion of contrast between mechanical and natural systems.  

– Sharon VanderKaay

Innovation applies to tangibles, such as new buildings and products, as well as intangibles such as methods of construction and ways of working. Traditionally, tangibles and intangibles have been seen as distinct states. Back in 2005 I gave a presentation at a design conference in Chicago on how design intangibles, for example “creating an uplifting feeling” or “instilling a sense of confidence” become tangible when they translate into hard numbers such as increased  revenue. During that presentation, “Calculating the Value of Design,” I used the term pre-tangible to emphasize the connection between design and business results. Since then I’ve become even more convinced that decision makers need to “see” a stronger relationship between intangibles and tangibles. Here’s the image I used at the conference:

pre-tangibles

Recently I created a set of slides for a business audience that further explain the concept of pre-tangibles.

-Sharon VanderKaay




  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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