Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Creativity in academia

I recently read this very interesting article that is a followup to the author's original book "Hackers," a look into the subculture of the computer geeks who laid the foundation for today's computer-based society. Two of the common qualities of these influential tech giants is their obsessive drive for quality and their playful creativity. Indeed, many modern companies, such as Google, go to great lengths to foster creativity in their employees by giving them freedom and resources to work on side projects and time to think about new products. The idea, I think, is to keep employees' minds fresh and slightly unfocused so that inspiration strikes more often to the company's benefit.

A similar and equally interesting article came out recently on Talking Philosophy's blog in which the author, Benjamin S. Nelson, discusses the creative process itself in relation to a man, John Kanzius, who invented a radio frequency generator to both attack cancer cells and split water molecules (awesome!). Philosophers, starting with Poincare, have broken the creative process into four successive steps: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. I will take these steps to be self-evident in their meaning, but I only wish to note that I believe that creative environments strive to improve the preparation and incubation steps so that illumination happens more often and with better results.

This being said, I wonder now why such environments are not fostered in academia. Graduate students are frequently overburdened with many menial tasks such as grading papers and acting as teaching assistants, attending class, writing portions of grant reports, attending frequent group meetings, and staying up-to-date on the relevant literature. Add to this exercise, chores, and hope for a meaningful social life and one can quickly see that this lifestyle does not support creative solutions to research problems. In no way are these other tasks without benefits, but if the resources of the mind are constantly employed for a menagerie of many simple duties, then what room is there to allow ideas to incubate in their minds?

I think academia could really benefit from adopting some of the creative strategies that many companies now use to better the quality of their products. What do you think?

Note: In college there was a video that was often shown in our engineering business classes from some evening tabloid (Dateline or something similar) which followed a company's process for developing a new and improved shopping cart. I can't remember the name of the show or the company, but it is highly relevant here. Does anyone know what I'm talking about?

 Update: Found part of the video: The company's name is IDEO and focus on innovative designs. Their take on the creative process is very characteristic of the stance that some new companies are taking.