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The Science of Creativity

Keith Sawyer, Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations
Armida Ascano
February 9th, 2015

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Keith Sawyer, Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations and creator of the blog Creativity and Innovation, is a man who has more invested in creativity than the most iconic visual artist or the CEO of any Fortune 500 company. A scientific expert on creativity, the academic researcher has authored and edited 14 books -- not to mention his successful blog -- to disseminate his research for a larger audience. What one gets from a conversation from Dr. R. Keith Sawyer is a look into the true engineering of creativity.

1. How do you define innovation and creativity?
I divide creativity and innovation into two definitions. For example, some study the individual and what goes on in the singular mind. That's individual creativity. Though your idea is great, it may be an idea that hundreds have. It may be something that is not original to the world, but is original to you. Most would not consider this to be an innovation, but it is a form of creativity.

The second definition is socio-cultural. This is when an idea is seen by objective observers to be genuinely new in the world; the birth of a social rebel. With this definition, no one person can be creative all themselves because the creativity is determined by a community or a company.

You can get a lot of benefit from research on both areas. In most cases, the former doesn't result in a new business venture, but it helps to understand what's going on in the mind.

2. How do you motivate yourself or others to generate good ideas or creative input?
If you're a creativity researcher, you practice what you preach. My latest book, Zig Zag, gives more practical advice for encouraging creativity. I developed 120 hands-on exercises you can do in 5-10 minutes to enhance creative potential, which I actually do myself sometimes to stay sharp.

One of my favorites is forcing yourself to meet new kinds of people. Most people see the same faces every day -- same friends, same coworkers, same family. However, it's not just about meeting new people. You need to meet people very different from yourself -- cognitively different -- and just interact with them.

The exercise is grounded in a basic psychological finding that really dramatically new ideas are distant combinations of different kinds of thoughts or concepts in one's memory. You're more likely to have those dramatically new ideas with bodies of knowledge very different from yourself.

3. How do you create an innovative culture?
My 2007 book Group Genius explores the implications of organizations and their effect on group creativity, which is either constrained or enhanced by your environment. The book outlines five things organizations should do to ensure they're fostering creativity.

One tip is that really innovative organizations are structured (or unstructured) in a way that allows for new ideas and innovations to emerge from the bottom up. New concepts do not come from the top down. If someone at the senior level has ideas and imposes them on the organization, it will almost never work.

4. What emerging innovations or trends do you predict will have a big impact on the future?
I work in an educational environment and do research on the science of how people learn. It's very exciting research with very big implications. There is lots of time spent on the futurism of learning, and there will be lots of dramatic changes in the delivery of education in the next 10 or 20 years.

Lots of futurists talk about the Internet changing how we learn, but that change won't be driven by technology. It's people who are changing, not just their surroundings. The real story is about understanding the science of how people learn. That's what fuels the future of education.
References: unc.edu