Imagination, Creativity, Innovation

Sir Ken Robinson takes on Creativity in interdisciplinary settings (Summit on Science, Entertainment and Education, February 2011):


I’m learning a lot from his talk, also by connecting the following excerpts with my own experiences from working in a so-called ‘creative’ field.


Most people go through the whole of their education and never discover what they’re good at or what their talents are.

And I’ve met all kinds of people who only discovered purpose in their lives and who they really are once they’re recovered from their education.

It’s not true of everybody. Some people do wonderfully well from education. But many don’t. And even the people who you think are being favored by the current education system, I believe, are experiencing a lot of diminishing returns.

When politicians talk about “reshaping education” these days, they almost always talk about the stem disciplines as if, on their own, science and technology, engineering and math will deliver us safely into the future. And they won’t. To me it’s fundamentally important to recognize. I think this preoccupation isn’t even good for science, honestly.

We cannot afford to focus on just one group of disciplines in isolation.  I think it fundamentally misrepresents how creativity and innovation work in all disciplines.

The scientists on the group were absolutely worried that the obsession in most of our education systems, which standardized testing, with the narrowing of the curriculum to a particularly prescriptive set of objectives, which leeching the lifeblood from their own disciplines. And they know, as you know, that creativity is the pulse of science. And if you steal that, then you’ll lose another generation.

If you make science arid, you make another generation lose interest in it.

Science, engineering and technology are essential. They are necessary, but not sufficient to the kind of culture of education we need to develop in the future in that science will benefit by making common courses and synergies with the humanities and with the arts.

There was a study done a while ago of cultural differences in visual perception. It was published in Science Magazine. Essentially they took two groups of people: people from South East Asia, and people from Western European countries, including America. Students then sat them down for several hours and showed them hundreds of pictures, for a few second for each slide, asking “What’s that?” And all they had to do was say what’s that. That was it. They noticed a difference as indeed they expected to, because that’s how science is. You start with hypothesis and then you check it out. It’s not you go blindly into the open and hope you discover something. One of the finding was this: that people from Western European countries, when shown an image like that, said that it’s a tiger, as indeed most of you do. People from South East Asian cultures typically didn’t say that. They more often said something like “It’s a tiger in a jungle”, or “It’s a jungle with a tiger”, or sometimes “It’s a jungle” and they didn’t mention the tiger at all.

Now it’s interesting, isn’t it, because we take that for granted that we can see clearly what that is. And yet some other cultures don’t. And the reason is that in the West we are imbued in a culture of individualism and our eyes are naturally drowned toward what we think as a subject of the picture. Some other cultures look at the broader context. Now I’m not saying that they’re right and we’re wrong, and that’s good and this is bad, but it is different, and it’s important to recognize that there is a difference: that even things that seem too obvious to us may not seem obvious to other people at all. And that’s the great quest of science and of discovery in every field. We begin by challenging what we think is obvious and what we take for granted.

If we lived always with the burden of common sense, we’d still be living in caves, and wouldn’t have progressed. And indeed that’s the case for most of the species.

In one respect we are very different from other creatures. We have imaginations. And imagination is everything. The power of imagination is what distinguishes us from other forms of life on earth.

We mediate our expressions to the world through conceptual structures of ourselves.

Imagination is the phantom head of this process, the ability to bring to mind the things that aren’t present to our senses, to conjure up conceptions of alternative possibilities, to step outside our own frame of seeing and to enter somebody else’s consciousness through empathetic connection, to revisit the past or to anticipate the future.

Creativity is a step on from that. People could imagine all day long and not do anything. But you’d never call somebody “creative” for not doing anything. To be creative you have to do something. It’s a very material and practical process.

I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value.

These are misconceptions about Creativity:

  1. That only special people are creative. This is not true. If you’re a human being you are born with immense natural creative capacities. The trick is to develop them.
  2. It’s about special things. It is not. People always think it’s about the Art. It’s not. The Art is desperately important, but not because they’re creative, but also because they’re creative. But Science is creative, Physics and Chemistry and Mathematics are extraordinary manifestations of the creative capacities of human mind.
  3. There’s nothing you can do about it. You’re creative enough and that’s the end of it. Actually there’s a huge amount of what you can do to teach people to be more creative.

Innovation is a step on. I think of that as putting good ideas into practice. To be creative you have to apply yourself to things. There’s a myth that being creative is about freedom. It isn’t. It is much about constraints, it’s about discipline, and application. You cannot be creative as a scientist if you don’t understand the disciplines that you’re working within.

Creativity is essentially about making new connections. It’s therefore something that really thrives wonderfully well in interdisciplinary settings. And that’s why we need a broad-based education in which science is central, co-equal with the arts, where the creative impulse is cross-fertilizing the disciplines in creating new sense of possibility.

And I think that’s where the true dynamic of the future lies. And if we can get that right, we can find the best interests, best creative judgments of those who work in entertainment, those who work in the media, those who work as scientists and I hope the arts, too.  I think that’s the creative future we all want to live in.


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  1. Pingback: How to change education from the ground up | o2 Indonesia

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