Creativity needs digital to know its place

This may be heresy, but digital does not make everything better. Unleashing corporate creativity depends on using digital tools where they truly add value.

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Is digital a boon for creative thinking — or does it hamper it? As the old saying goes, when you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. The last decade has proved that to be true with digitalisation. We tend to assume that everything will be better if we make it digital in some way.

Now, sometimes that is clearly true. I don’t miss the days of packing my suitcase full of reading material for a two-week holiday, when now I can just chuck a Kindle in there and call it job done. (I do miss holidays, though, and long for their post-pandemic return.) Yet, I also value the experience of curling up in a chair with a book or magazine, free of the constant distraction of digital devices.

To take another example, yesterday, my daughter attended a comics-making workshop on Zoom. Yet, the artist teaching the session insisted that the children worked on paper, not on screens, if they possibly could. He couldn’t hold the session without technology, but he kept it firmly in its appropriate place. The artist is no digital refusenik: he colours all his work in Photoshop. But he found the initial creative process of sketching worked better for him on paper.

The inappropriate digitalisation of creativity

Not everything should be digitalised at every stage of the process. Yet, we still believe that, inevitably, everything that can be digitalised, will be digitalised. How do we discern the difference? How do we make sure we don’t make creativity the victim of a march to the digital future?

Has our focus on digital created a bar to true creativity? No. It’s a question that’s barely worth asking: the unleashing of artistic creativity through digital platforms is undeniable. It’s trivial to see that the solutions to many problems are analogue rather than digital.

A rather better question is: What is the appropriate role for technology to play in creativity and, in particular, to creative problem-solving? And that’s more challenging to unpick.

Day-dreaming to productivity

At one level, technology can be a bar to creativity. It’s reasonably well-established that day-dreaming — unstructured, unstimulated time when we let our mind wander — is a critical element in creativity. The problem is that phones all-too-easily deprive us of that. It’s far too easy for us when we have nothing immediately to stimulate us, to just switch on the phone.

This prevents us from reaching a state of waking rest, which is critical for accessing part of our brains. This state triggers “a neural network that engages when our brain is at wakeful rest, as in meditation, rather than actively focused on the outside world”.

If you’re stuck, or stressed, or struggling with a problem, heading to a green space and letting your attention wander can be an intensely constructive thing to do. It’s often more productive than hitting up a search engine for a solution.

Making space to daydream goes against the current culture of productivity and hustle, but also is provably good for creativity. But that doesn’t mean that the phone is inherently the enemy of creative thought.

Keeping technology in its place

Dara Dotz has talked of the example of using creativity in disaster zones, including the inspired ability of rescue teams to use car mats to build inflatable “lifting balloons” to raise rubble and free trapped victims. This saved lives when the expensive lifting equipment needed normally was not practically available.

However, phones did play a role in this non-digital approach. By capturing mobile phone shots of whatever was commonly around, the team, back at base, could figure out what they had to work with, and create a solution with a MacGyver touch.

This is technology harnessed into a supportive role, helping facilitate a deeply analogue solution to a problem.

A framework for corporate creativity

To understand the role of technology in business creativity, it’s worth understanding how companies manage to be truly creative. Back in 2003, Jozée Lapierre and Vincent-Pierre Giroux published a paper exploring Creativity and Work Environment in a High-Tech Context.

The paper sets up an interesting research-based framework for preserving creativity in a technology-driven company. There are six critical dimensions for facilitating creativity:

  • work atmosphere
  • vertical collaboration
  • autonomy/freedom
  • respect
  • alignment
  • lateral collaboration.

Now, technology can be useful to facilitate some of those. Clearly, vertical communication up and down silos can be managed with both email and collaboration tools. But how many companies are using tech to help manage lateral collaboration well?

The creativity in collaboration and communication

The ability for anyone within the company to see what other teams are working on, and find both inspiration and points of synergy is vital. This is a hard problem that has flummoxed many organisations: siloed culture is pervasive and hard to escape.

But we stand at an inflection point in our work styles. The rise of hybrid companies in the post-pandemic era will necessitate the creation of better communications systems that facilitate both vertical and horizontal collaboration. But they will also allow people to physically come into contact with non-siloed colleagues when they do come into the office.

Creativity often emerges when two distinct fields crash into one another and new ideas emerge from different perspectives. Famously, the UK’s Great Ormond Street hospital used expertise from Formula 1 racing to improve outcomes in the handover from surgery to intensive care. Team-based offices do not let that happen often. Flexible, touch-down spaces do.

A digital platform for corporate creativity

One of the great promises of the Web 2.0 era 15 years ago was the creation of knowledge management and sharing systems within the company firewall: an intranet on steroids. But how many companies did that vision come true for? Do you have a seamless digital environment for knowledge sharing and collaboration, or an unholy Frankenstein’s monster of email, Slack, and maybe even Sharepoint?

Building a better set of internet digital process could well be a critical competitive edge for a company that wants to truly harness the creativity built into its workforce. Can you build a structure that allows people time to step away from the constant demands of productivity culture, to allow creative solutions to emerge? Equally, can you facilitate the kind of horizontal and vertical communication that provides the fertile ground for such solutions to emerge?

Digital is undoubtedly a key player in this process, but like any good employee, it should understand its strengths and weaknesses.


What’s Next

We’ll discuss these questions on the What’s NEXT show on May 20 with designer and innovative humanitarian Dara DotzSign up hereAs she puts it:

“We aren’t going to be able to throw tech at every problem as efficiently or effectively as we would like — as time moves on, there are more disasters, more people and less resources. Instead of focusing on the next blockchain or AI, perhaps the things we really need to focus on are the things that make us human.”


Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash