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The new creativity is solving problems together

The new creativity is solving problems together

Many of the highest priority issues require multiple disciplinary inputs due to their complexity and scale - and a contemporary approach to creativity.

Creativity is today's ultimate black box; a Rorschach blot onto which there are projected innumerable meanings. When academic Richard Green reviewed the literature, he found so much variation that he concluded the creativity field was "so attenuated, extenuated, or misunderstood that operationalising of the key concepts is missing or impossible".

He tried to order the field, and constructed a profile of 42 models of creativity which, when combined with variations and typologies, totted up 303 variables.

Some order. The concept of creativity needs to be simplified.

Why not say creativity is problem solving? This allows us to focus on what Erica McWilliam, in The Creative Workforce: How to launch young people into high-flying careers, calls first- and second-generation creativity.

First-generation thinking treats creativity as a mysterious property that is serendipitous, an attribute of a class of exceptional individuals that arises from within. A fragile flower that withers under the harsh environment of normalising classroom surveillance and assessment.

Paul Johnson, in his book Creators: from Chaucer to Walt Disney, says this notion of creativity is a "painful and often terrifying experience to be endured rather than relished and preferable only to not being a creator at all".

But second-generation creativity focuses on optimising the capacity and potential of everyone. It is seen as an observable and necessary component of all social and economic activity and is focused on reworking and remaking rather than creation ex nihilo (out of nothing).

The social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says it is "no longer a luxury for the few, but necessity for all". It is, at least in principle, learnable, teachable and assessable, and its key is the ability to work interdependently to address problems.

This accords with the contemporised perspective on innovation captured in last year's Venturous Australia report, chaired by Terry Cutler. There, innovation is understood as "a virtuous and open-ended cycle of learning and responsiveness to new challenges and possible solutions", and starts with creativity as problem solving.

This account of creativity takes us beyond the "soft skills" approach to what graduates need, which we have seen in the work of the Business Council of Australia and other high-profile advocacy for a better matching of curriculum to career.

Such advocacy has been very important, and soft skills are very important. But now we can see that critical thinking, communication skills, and the ability to work effectively in teams which bring varying knowledge bases to bear, are all to do with the practical business challenges of transdisciplinarity.

The understanding of creativity is being transformed from first- to second-generation - in the words of evolutionary economist Carsten Hermann-Pillath, it is "an irreducible property of a collective, the network".

At the same time, the requirements to work collectively across disciplinary knowledge boundaries are being impressed upon us. The contemporary understanding of creativity is about the network effects of transdisciplinarity.

If we can say that creativity can and should be taught, how can it be taught? As then president of the Council for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, I was zealous in the advocacy of our 2007 research report Collaborating across the sectors.

Based on examination of barriers to transdisciplinarity, especially between the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) and science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) sectors, it recommended: a national summit; the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council and other funding bodies to make collaboration across disciplines and sectors a priority; and the creation of new panels at funding bodies to deal with transdisciplinarity and to recognise the real (usually higher) cost of collaborative work; and the formation of an Australian institute for collaboration.

We drew inspiration for this from the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and other cross-sectoral models.

It is critical to delay hyper-specialisation in upper-school years and lower undergraduate years, not simply by enforcing a broad range of subject choice but by creating prestigious space for problem-based transdisciplinary approaches.

At the postgraduate and research training end, the capacity to bring specialisations together in dynamic transdisciplinary formation is equally critical.

This is not a matter of dissolving disciplinary specificity into a melange of fashionable themes and problems (although at the cutting edge of knowledge we expect to find multiple emergent new disciplines), but a pedagogical and research funding focus encouraging and enabling transdisciplinary teams to work effectively on big issues.

Many, if not most, of the highest priority issues require multiple disciplinary inputs due to their complexity and scale - and a contemporary approach to creativity.

• Stuart Cunningham is director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, Queensland University of Technology.

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