While innovation cannot happen without creativity, creativity doesn’t always lead to innovation. Creativity can be purely personal, an idea, technique or design that is new, expressive or valuable only to the creator. Innovation happens when creativity leads to designs, products, processes or technologies that are used or accepted by society at large.
Creative ideas occur far more frequently than true innovation. For society to thrive and evolve, both are necessary. Key elements of creativity and innovation can be discovered by examining entities that have used them effectively. Individuals, companies, governments and societies who do not nurture creativity and innovation can fall victim to stagnation, eventually becoming outdated or obsolete.
Fostering Tried and Tested Creative and Innovative Solutions
1. Nurturing Creativity
For most people, creative ideas occur outside of the avenues of the normal thought process. Creativity requires a different sense of focus and concentration.
Since creativity occurs first in the mind, a designer may appear to be sitting idly, when in reality, creative juices are flowing. Creative thought often requires an environment that may be unique to the individual designer. Some creative thinkers are most productive in an environment that is free from distraction. Others need noise and activity to spark their imaginations. Not only do individual creative designers need to define the exact environment that will best inspire them, those who employ designers need to do the same.
2. Google’s Innovation Time Off Policy for Designers
Google, the world’s largest search engine company, encourages their designers to spend 20 percent of their time working on projects that are outside their normal job description.
Known as “Innovation Time Off,” the policy allows designers to pursue any project that interests them. In a presentation at Stanford University, Google Vice President Marrisa Mayer reported that over half of all new Google products originated from employees who were on their Innovation Time Off periods, including Gmail, Google News and AdSense.
3. “Call Me Trim Tab” - Buckminster Fuller
Author, inventor, designer and architect, Buckminster Fuller was known for his creative innovations, most famously for the geodesic dome. In a 1972 interview, Fuller compared innovation with the rudder of a ship. More specifically, he focused on the rudder’s trim tab:
“It's a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it's going right by you, that it's left you altogether. But if you're doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.”
Fuller illustrated the effect that a single innovative idea can have on the world, inspiring the generations of designers that followed him to pursue creative endeavors. When Fuller died in 1983, “Call me Trim Tab” was etched on his grave.
4. Transforming Creativity into Innovation
The world is teeming with good ideas, but the percentage of those ideas that are developed into true innovations is comparatively small. True innovators recognize a creative idea’s potential. Successful innovators have a sense of timing as well. They know, either through instinct or research, when they’ve come across “an idea whose time has come.”
Linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, author of the classic study, “Ways with Words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms,” is uniquely qualified to speak authoritatively on how creativity impacts personal development and success.
Heath’s research followed the children of several rural working class families over a period of thirty years. In a recent speech at Stanford University, Heath said that the children who used creativity to ensure success in their adult lives all shared one characteristic: courage. Innovators are not afraid to take risks.
5. Individual Creativity vs. Team Innovation
In the past, artistic and creative minds have thrived in solitude, primarily because solitude offers the greatest control of establishing the environment each individual designer finds most conducive to creativity. Yet, individuals rarely arrive at innovations in a vacuum. Many are built upon the groundwork laid by previous products and processes, as well as by all the existing knowledge in the field.
Individual designers are also beholden to those who fostered an environment for them that was conducive to creative thinking. Successful innovations not only involve individuals with creative ideas, but the institutions that bring the innovations to the market. There’s a reason why so many innovative ideas have come out of the university systems, where collaboration is encouraged and nurtured. Apple innovator Steve Jobs once said:
“My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other's kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That's how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they're done by a team of people.”
6. Missing Creative Opportunities
In 2004, senior management at Nokia, then the world’s leading mobile phone company, received a proposal from the firm’s designers to develop a mobile phone with touch-screen technology. The company decided the innovation wasn’t worth the risk or the cost. Three years later, Apple launched the iPhone, with the same touch-screen technology. By 2010, Nokia’s share of the mobile phone market had dropped to eight percent.
The irony of the Nokia debacle is that management was following long-held, proven policies. Many companies include developing innovative products, processes and technologies as part of their business model. Where did Nokia go wrong? Engineering systems analyst and lecturer Irving Wladawsky-Berger emphasizes that to be successful, innovative design “must capture our imaginations, so we become enthralled by the possibilities and find within ourselves something that lets us achieve the near impossible.”
Some companies seek to foster innovation with brainstorming groups, “open door” policies and other “suggestion box” approaches. Yet too often, the primary goal of these policies is to foster a sense of shared contribution. They may be used more to build employee morale, then as true agents of innovation. Creating environments where designers feel free to do their best work may be more effective.
7. Forward-Looking Innovation
Apple’s designs continue to enjoy success, not because they give the public what it wants now, but what they will want later. Apple innovators imagine the future. Innovative designs, by definition, deliver something new. The best innovations deliver something previously unimaginable.
True innovators not only look at the problems the world presents and seek novel ways to solve them, but look at the hopes, dreams and wishes of the world as well. Creating innovations that capture the imagination, inspire hope, increase opportunities and enhance the quality of life well may be the business model of the future. Companies may refer to this approach as “disruptive innovation,” but those that do not embrace it may fall by the wayside.
8. Global Creativity and Innovation
The internet offers instant collaboration, making it easier than ever to build upon the innovations of others. The global village is developing a sense of commonality and shared interests that is changing the way people look at current approaches to creative design. The trend is for innovators to look outside established institutions for solutions. Both individual and collaborative designers are no longer tied to a single space, but can work anywhere that they can be connected to the internet.
In order to foster the creativity and innovation that is needed to meet the demands and challenges of today’s world, a change in focus is indicated. Creativity and innovation need the right environment in order to thrive, one that gives them time, that allows them to focus and that inspires them. Those institutions that wish to spark creativity, whether they are universities, corporations or governments, must do their part to create environments in which individual designers as well as teams of designers can succeed.
As long as creative minds are free to imagine, innovations will continue to transform the world. What part will technology play in spurring the rate of innovative designs? Will creative designs spring primarily from individual contributions, or will technological community push collaboration to become the standard approach?
Will those that employ designers foster their designs by providing an atmosphere and environment that inspires creative thought? Does an individual designer or engineer still have the potential to become the “trim tab” for his or her generation?