Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hanson on Creativity

Robin Hanson wrote an excellent article on creativity for Forbes back in 2006, in response to Richard Florida's best-selling The Rise of the Creative Class. The book argues for a diversitopia, where "Diverse, inclusive communities that welcome unconventional people-gays, immigrants, artists, and free-thinking 'bohemians'-are ideal for nurturing the creativity and innovation that characterize the knowledge economy". Did he mention gays? It seems that "Gays predict not only the concentration of high-tech industry, but also its growth" Fabulous!

His advice is exactly what bureaucratic wonks like to hear, things like "The quality and range of schools is certainly critical for parents of school-age children." Amen. Basically, he argues we should create neighborhoods of loft apartments, good schools (how?), and a tolerance for diversity—catnip for bohemians—and growth will occur. It plays to the naive view of artsy creativity that sells itself. No wonder he reportedly gets $35k per lecture.

Robin throws some well-needed cold water on this line of thinking:
To succeed in academia, my graduate students and I had to learn to be less creative than we were initially inclined to be. Critics complain that schools squelch creativity, but most people are inclined to be more creative on the job than would be truly productive. So schooling is mostly about selecting the smarter and more diligent, and learning to show up day after day to somewhat boring jobs with ambiguous instructions.
What society needs is not more creativity or suggestions for change but better ways to encourage people to focus on important issues, identify the most promising ideas, and tell the right people about them. But our deification of creativity gets in the way.
In truth, we don't need more suggestion boxes or more street mimes to fill people with a spirit of creativity. We instead need to better manage the flood of ideas we already have and to reward managers for actually executing them.

But, what can a public sector middle manager do with that? Ignore.


Michael F. Martin said...

To a great extent, I think these issues derive from a misunderstanding of creativity. Creativity, according to most people and perhaps Mr. Florida as well, relates to originality and individualism.

The better way to think of creativity is as as successful contribution to some field. So Robin has it right about grad school and education, because a big part of getting educated is learning to filter out all the crappy ideas that initially seem so exciting.

On the other hand, sometimes the filters can get out of hand. I think we both agree on that point.

To make culture more creative, I think both the understanding of the creative process by individuals and the filters need to be tweaked.

Anonymous said...

If you stock a community with stodgy, closed mined people than public sector middle managers will find innovations not welcome.

AHWest said...

Immigrants aren't unconventional people. They're just people from a different country. Any concept that implies that gays, immigrants, and artists are one "group" is pretty idiotic. Pretty much it's a group defined as "people disliked by my imagined conservative oppressors".

Anyway, it's this view of "creativity" which creates stuff like modern art, and modern music. Stuff that almost nobody wants to see or hear, but which is supported by the government and a handful of millionaires trying to show how supportive they are of "creative" people.

Anonymous said...

See also the Stalwart, circa 2006 June 23

But What do I Know? said...

Imagine, academics loving people who tell them what they want to hear--and I'm not talking about the Fed confab at Jackson Hole :>)

Nice takedown--creativity is valued in academia (liberal arts section) because what they really want is something different--so they don't think they're just running over the same old ground. I mean, who can sell a book on Milton or Joyce(I mean sell in a non-commercial sense) unless they come up with a new slant. It's sort of like arguments about theology--all basically useless but change can give the illusion of progress.

Meanwhile the power plant and refinery and concrete structure and pipeline which sustain our pleasant way of life do not require any creativity--only attention to detail and maintenance. The microwave on my kitchen counter is more magical and useful than 99% of the academic treatises out there.

I'm not anti-intellectual; I just think a different focus would be better.