Creativity is the engine of progress in modern society—and our best bulwark against automation

Creativity is the engine of progress in our modern society.

A controversial statement, to be sure, and one that would certainly be made by a designer. Yet I find that the definition of creativity is generally too narrow and restrictive. In the popular imagination, a creative is more likely to be Don Draper in his corner office than Marie Curie in a research laboratory–even if both individuals used lateral, unorthodox thinking over the course of their everyday duties.

Let’s discuss the processes of creativity, how it can be applied to a wide range of fields, and how creativity can help both society and individuals move forward in an age of instability and automation.

The processes of creativity

There are plenty of misconceptions about creativity, probably because it’s so difficult to understand and define. In light of an absence of knowledge, we resort to tried-and-true archetypes: left-brain analysts vs right-brain dreamers, or weird artists in moth-eaten clothes, waiting for inspiration to strike.

It’s time to throw those tropes out with the bathwater, for a slew of advances in neuroscience have finally laid bare the processes behind this mysterious phenomenon. To paraphrase a recent report in Scientific American (a summary of these exciting discoveries), creativity isn’t limited to a single area (or side) of the brain. Instead, creativity is best described as the intersection of conscious and unconscious cognitive processes, as well as emotions.

Let’s unpack that a bit. Scientists understand that different parts of the brain handle different tasks. Wernicke’s area, for instance, is located roughly in the lower left area of the brain, and handles all aspects of language, from speech comprehension to speaking (take note, all ye wordsmiths!) Another area, the Dorsal Attention/Visuospatial Network, deals with spatial awareness; if you’ve ever played Tetris with your luggage or built any three-dimensional object, than you’ve used on this brain region.

But brain regions aren’t all that matter. To return to the article, networks (regions of the brain working in tandem) are also key. At the risk of oversimplification, there are three neural networks. The executive attention network recalls existing memory, uses it to solve problems, and generally, focuses our attention on specific tasks. The imagination network handles social relationships, and imagines different phenomena, from the thoughts of others to possible solutions. Lastly, the salience network oversees all activity, switching between networks and governing mental processes for the most effective response to the task at hand.

Here’s the important part: creative expression, or flow (the state of being immersed in your work) stems from several key factors, specifically positive emotions and unstructured, free improvisation. In one cleverly-designed study, jazz musicians were shown a photo of a happy, sad, or neutral person and then asked to improvise music while in an fMRI scanner (which maps brain activity). The result was that positive expressions were related to deeper creative flow.

Creativity beyond the arts

Here’s the thing: creativity, if mastered from long practice, can be applied to a number of fields that lie outside the arts. Let’s look at two examples: math and healthcare.

Healthcare (at least in the United States) has something of a bad rap: costs are astronomical, insurance is mediocre, and overall, the industry is a punching bag for politicians and residents of all persuasions.

Yet in some areas, healthcare has hit on some unique, promising approaches. Take design thinking–a philosophy originally pioneered by computer designers and web developers. Under design thinking, doctors engage in backwards-planning, thinking of processes from the perspective of the patient: what logistical hurdles would a disabled patient face in her trek to the hospital? How could we rearrange systems and physical locations for a seamless, optimal experience?

This planning is then followed by prototyping, as well as feedback and refining ideas. It’s made a significant, positive mark on the healthcare sector. One Canadian doctor writes about a number of solutions inspired by design thinking. These range from simple (trauma leads wear orange vests to delineate the chain of command in chaotic situations) to high-tech (using digital tools to map doctor-nurse interactions in order to refine workflows and reduce waiting times).

Throughout the process, empathy, a key feature of design thinking, also enters into the equation. To properly apply design thinking, doctors and designers can’t simply “think” about the patient perspective and assume. Instead, just like mobile UX designers trying to figure out the proper flow for their apps, healthcare providers would do thorough, in-depth research on patient encounters, needs, and desires. Otherwise, without empathy, applying design thinking to healthcare becomes less an effort in revolutionizing the discipline, and more a hypothetical exercise rife with self-promotion.

But this is only one instance—and examples can be found in more mundane, everyday instances. Take the study of math, which stimulates lateral thinking, a highly essential skill not only for schools, but also in difficult life situations. Believe it or not, generating unorthodox solutions to brain twisters or working with a range of varied shapes and geometries can help students build the unfettered, creative problem solving skills necessary to thrive in the future. One leading mathematician, Edward de Bono emphasized that lateral thinking was built by a freewheeling approach, generating as many alternatives to a problem as possible, thinking wildly, and making more creative leaps.

Why creativity matters

These abilities will also be highly valuable, given that most employers believe that lateral thinking and problem solving are far more important than technical skills and academic knowledge. As I’ve written before, creativity may be the best (perhaps only) bulwark against automation—an unsettling prospect given how much of our society relies on rote, repetitive work.

Put simply, that means humans must focus on tasks that can’t easily be solved by Google or its deep learning algorithms (at least not for the foreseeable future). Instead, as philosophy professor Charlotte Blease writes, the multi-faceted, interdisciplinary use of creativity will be crucial: for instance, addressing mass unemployment wrought by automation will require unorthodox applications of philosophy, economics, design, and politics. This could include augmented intelligences designed to complement (not replace) humans, or even ditching the full-employment, work-based model of our society, instead allowing individuals to build purpose through other means.

Now, no one is advocating for everyone to become artists, musicians, or enter other archetypically creative professions. Instead, the key is to extrapolate: expand the opportunity for creativity to countless jobs and sectors, ensuring lots of high-level work that algorithms can’t easily assume–yet. This push can adopt a number of measures, such as constructive confrontation (though not in the mold of Uber), wherein designers, programmers, marketers, salespeople cross-pollinate, clash (respectfully), and from this intersection, bring forth new, dynamic ideas. Alternatively, practicing ingenuity may be crucial: take 3M’s culture of innovation, driven largely by their commitment to giving employees time to experiment; from this was born the Post-It or Cubitron II, which performs more like a cutting tool than a traditional sandpaper.

This also has benefits for companies, as well: mental flexibility translates to adaptability, an important attribute in an unstable marketplace where huge multinationals (remember Kodak Eastman?) are toppled seemingly overnight. Moreover, infusing the workplace with creativity may well be critical to keeping our work-based society functional–staving off the possibility of a dystopian, automated future.

Ultimately, the future hinges on our collective creativity, as well as how we apply it. Though advances in neuroscience have clarified some of the processes behind this phenomenon, much remains mysterious. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether we can apply creativity on a wide scale–breaking out of the design studio and into the world at large.

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