The peculiar case of (non) creativity

Creativity is one of the buzzwords everyone seems to be after – individuals, businesses, education institutions and even states. Some seem to succeed better than others. But is that really the case? What are our views on what is creative and what is not?

(This blog entry was first published at Leidenanthropologyblog.nl)

What is creativity?

At the SPT2013 conference in Portugal this summer I had a chance to listen to a presentation on how certain work procedures either stifle or foster creativity and technological innovation in companies. The authors defined creativity in a way that is common in psychology and organisation management studies – work is considered creative when its original, novel as well as useful. Similarly, in line with such scholarship, creativity was also linked to technological innovation and therefore creative output was measured in terms of  publications, intellectual property rights, sales and exports.

There are two points that I find striking about such a definition and understanding of creativity. First of all, defining creativity as novel as well as useful immediately raises questions about power and authority. Novel for whom? Useful for whom and what? Who is in the position to define something as novel or useful? And after all, why should creativity be useful, or to be more precise, ‘useful’ in what sense? To illustrate what I mean, I would like to discuss two cases I have come across during my research on the ability of certain groups to create.

Power play in defining what and who is creative or not

Power in defining what is creative and what is not seems to be distributed along larger lines of power inequalities in the world – not only in relation to what really is considered to be creativity, but also who are ‘the creatives’ and who has the capacity to create. A case in point are discussions on creativity I have come across in a young technology business space in Southeast Asia.

I have witnessed discussions on how Asians, Singaporeans, Chinese, etc. are ‘not creative enough’ over and over again, with variety of reasons being given as to why they are not as creative as other nations (isn’t it peculiar that creativity seems to be a capacity distributed according to national borders?). Usually political and education systems, narrow-mindedness, risk avoidance, and a culture of conformism are highlighted as the reasons why certain nations are less creative than others. Such discussions are often stirred by comments from influential people based in Silicon Valley.

Singapore’s Apple

For example, in 2011 Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, commented in a BBC interview that in “structured societies such as Singapore … all the creative elements seem to disappear”. Wozniak’s announcement that Apple could not have been started in Singapore caused great turmoil in the discussions between  technology entrepreneurs in Singapore, who felt that their aspirations to a creative future were challenged by such a statement. While some agreed and incorporated Wozniak’s comments (see this or this, or this, others disagreed. For others this was an opportunity to start a campaign WEare.sg to showcase the “ordinary Singaporeans who are doing extraordinary things” and challenge the stereotypical view of Singaporeans as a country of managers with no or little agency. As the founder of weare.Sg explained “Once we get to a hundred [profiles], we’ll send this site to Mr. Wozniak, saying: Dear Mr. Wozniak: here they are. Kthxbye.”*

Creative West and non-creative East

More recently a similarly dismissive comment on the creative qualities of Chinese entrepreneurs was made by Steve Blank, an American entrepreneur, professor and author of one of the cornerstone writings for technology businesses “The four steps to epiphany”. This spring he visited China for a week, and captured his impressions in five blog posts. In the last post he comments that people he met often asked him questions he didn’t know how to answer, such as “How do you know how to be creative? What do we have to do to be creative?” or “You Americans just seem to know how to do things even if you’ve never done them – can you show us how to do that?”.

Instead of being startled at the fact that Americans are viewed as the epitome of creative individuals, he accepts such designations, and comments that the Chinese inability to be creative must be a result of “rote educational system” and the Chinese political environment. In this way, both Steve Blank and Steve Wozniak echo a well-established Western narrative about the links between political freedom, economic output and creativity, which considers the ability to ‘create’ a nearly exclusive Western property.

So again – what is creativity?

These two cases merely indicate just how contested and problematic is the notion of creativity, and how authority and power play a role in defining who is able to create or be creative. While many have incorporated the hegemonic notions of what and who is to be considered ‘creative’, it was great to see how in the case of Singapore these understandings were challenged and resisted, potentially making way for recognising alternative understandings of what creativity could mean for Singapore. Similar processes are taking place in China and are described in  wonderful detail by Dr. Silvia Lindtner in her dissertation “Cultivating Creative China: Making and Remaking Cities, Citizens, Work and Innovation”.

The understandings of what is novel, useful, and therefore also creative are, after all, socially, culturally, historically and, most of all, contextually dependent. Whereas in a world geared towards knowledge economy creativity has become the most important resource to be mined and thus is implicitly defined in a manner that stresses economic potential, I believe that there is room for a more inclusive understanding of creativity. An understanding of creativity that acknowledges the creative potential and success of various groups defined in their own terms – whether it is the half a milliard Chinese internet users who chose to use the services they find novel and useful, or the Chinese or Singaporean entrepreneurs who grow their businesses in response to the peculiar circumstances they find themselves operating in.

Kthxbye (internet slang): used to express (in a facetiously polite way) a  dismissive or abrupt end of a conversation, statement, etc.

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