The Emergence of Creativity: Matt Ridley’s New Book

You’ve got to read the excerpt from Matt Ridley’s new book in today’s Wall Street Journal. Just released this week, his book is called The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. I have a lot of respect for his previous books, so I’m delighted to learn that his new book makes the same points as my 2007 book Group Genius.

Here are the key features of innovation, described in both of our books:

  • The stories we hear about genius inventors, like Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, are always myths. Ridley and I both describe the real history of the light bulb, which involves lots of people way before Edison. (Group Genius, pages 110, 196)
  • “Innovation emerges from the bottom up,” I write in Group Genius  (page 16). I show that innovation emerges from self-organizing systems, and this is Ridley’s main point, too.
  • Ridley writes that innovation is “incremental” rather than “revolutionary.” That’s why I called one of my chapters “Small Sparks”: to emphasize that innovation doesn’t come from a big flash of insight. “Successful creators know how to keep their sparks coming in a process that unfolds over time” (Group Genius, page 97).
  • Ridley describes the historical research on multiple discovery, as I do on pages 192-193, with this example: “In the 1920s, numerous teams invented television in parallel.”
  • Ridley argues that patent protection is too broad and is based on the mythical view of the lone inventor. I make the same point on pages 176-224, especially pages 221-225: “Current policy favors linear, centralized innovation and blocks the natural rhythm of innovation”.
  • Ridley demolishes the idea that innovation comes from a linear process; this is the most important point of Group Genius  (for example, pages 158-159, “Beyond Linear Innovation”)

Ridley’s WSJ  excerpt is filled with great stories of real innovations. I come to the same conclusions, with some of the same historical examples, and also by drawing on the science of creativity. Inspired by my studies of jazz and improv theater, I think of creativity as improvisation. Group Genius argues that the most creative improvisations are non-linear, emergent, unpredictable, and inefficient. Ridley has a bit more to say about the political and economic implications of this new, more realistic, understanding of innovation (for example, he concludes that government doesn’t need to fund scientific research). I have a bit more to say about how you can use this research to become more successfully creative, both on your own and in teams. It’s cool that Ridley and I come to the same conclusions from really different directions. If you like Group Genius, you really should check out The Evolution of Everything. (I’ll post a review after I’ve read the whole book.)



NEON The Videogame

Here’s the podcast interview I did with the show “Game is a 4 letter word”. In Episode 8, I tell how I accidentally ended up designing Atari videogames in the early 1980s. (Jump ahead to the ten minute mark for my segment of the episode.) The company that hired me, General Computer Corporation, is most famous for creating Ms. Pacman. But most people don’t know that GCC created almost all of Atari’s home cartridge adaptations of the most popular arcade games.

It was my first job after college. I was set loose and told to create and design an original arcade game. I kind of took the job for granted at the time…but looking back, WOW! How awesome is that? In the podcast interview, I describe the creative process that resulted in my game NEON–a game that came really close to going into production. And, I tell the sad story of how the creative process wound its way down to a failed dead end.

After the NEON project ended, my next job was to design the Atari 7800 cartridge adaptation of Food Fight. But, that’s a story for another day…

Big Company Innovation Labs Won’t Work

Creativity research* has shown that all companies benefit from very similar innovation strategies, whether they’re technology companies or not. We mostly hear about software and Internet-based startups these days; and most incubator spaces (sometimes called “innovation labs”) are filled with smartphone apps and web developers.

Other industries are setting up innovation labs, and they almost always get built in San Francisco’s Bay Area. There’s nothing new here: back in the 1970s, Xerox, the copier company based in Rochester New York, decided to open its innovation lab in Palo Alto. Today’s Wall Street Journal lists a few of the companies who’ve created spaces in the Bay Area: Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, Walgreens, Sears, Visa.

I predict these efforts won’t work very well. We already know why, from the legendary failure of Xerox PARC. Back in the 1970s, developers at Xerox PARC invented the first windows-and-mouse computer, the first laser printer, and the first network to link computers (the Ethernet). It was called Smalltalk, and it was at decades ahead of its time. Both Microsoft and Apple based their windows operating systems on what came out of Xerox PARC. But the executives back in Rochester thought they were a bunch of crazy hippies and they said “Hey, we’re a copier company, why are you guys wasting your time on this stuff?” The book Fumbling the Future pretty much says the same thing that I say in my book Group Genius, and today’s Wall Street Journal identifies the key problem: if you create a separate R&D group, to keep the innovative people from being constrained by the traditional company culture, you also isolate the rest of the company from innovation. The labs are just too far removed; different organizational cultures develop; the innovation group just can’t communicate with the rest of the company.

Nordstrom, one of the earliest companies to build an innovation lab (in 2010) found this out. They’ve now shrunk their lab dramatically, and instead have spread innovators throughout the company. Another example: Amazon’s Silicon Valley innovation center failed to meet expectations.

I explain why in Group Genius: For successful innovation, you have to spread a culture of creativity throughout the organization. Creating a separate innovation lab doesn’t work.  It’s just a trendy name for what used to be called the R&D group. We learned that didn’t work back in the 1970s and 1980s. Calling it an “innovation lab” doesn’t make any difference in the underlying dynamics of innovation.


*Sawyer, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.

Inventing a Language

Here’s a topic that’s ripe for creativity research: constructed languages, or “conlang” for short.

This week I read two articles about conlangs. The first was a book review in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, of David Peterson’s new book The Art of Language Invention. The second was a book chapter, “Constructed Languages,” by Douglas Ball, in a book that I also have a chapter in: The Routledge Handbook of Language and Creativity.

The oldest conlang that you’ve heard of is probably Esperanto–created in 1887 by Polish physician L. L. Zamenhof to promote international peace through mutual understanding. It’s known as an “international auxiliary language” or auxlang. (Esperanto was preceded by Volapuk, created in 1879 by a German priest, Johann Schleyer.)

Most conlangs have been created as part of a work of fiction. The oldest are those created by J. R. R. Tolkien, included Sindarin, the language of the Elves in his imaginary world. Probably the most famous today is Klingon, from Star Trek— widely known because of the hit TV comedy Big Bang Theory, where the geeky lead characters demonstrate their geek cred by speaking Klingon. (I heard Klingon spoken when I was a student at MIT decades ago; yes, it’s really geeky!) Peterson’s book also describes Dothraki, created for Game of Thrones, which Peterson himself extended from a version originally created by novelist George Martin. Princess Leia spoke a conlang with Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. Peterson created an elvish language for the movie Thor  and also worked on the Syfy channel’s Defiance  (creating Castithan, Irathient, and Indojisnen).  Avatar  used the conlang Na’vi (created by Professor Paul Frommer); The Land of the Lost  used Pakuni, created by linguist Victoria Fromkin; and Dark Skies  used Thhtmaa, created by linguist Matt Pearson.

Peterson’s book focuses on the languages he created for movies, but Douglas Ball’s book chapter says a lot more about historical and social background. Ball discusses “engineered languages” or engelang, like Loglan, created in the 1950s by James Cooke Brown to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis–that different languages result in different thought patterns. (Other engelangs include Lojban and Laadan.) Other conlangs are designed to have aesthetic qualities, and these are known as “artistic languages” or artlangs.

Ball goes way, way, back, to the first recorded conlang, Lingua Ignota, created in the 12th century by Hildegard von Bingen. In the 17th century, conlangs were downright trendy–it seems every famous scholar had one, including Descartes and Leibniz.

My favorite conlang is Solresol, which is based in the idea that music is the universal language. The basic syllables of the language are the seven pitches of the Western diatonic scale (referred to by their French names, since this was created in 1827 by Frenchman Jean-Francois Sudre). Here’s an example:

dore mifala disofare re dosiresi. (Which means 1SG desire beer and pastry–> I want some beer and a pastry.)

Ball’s chapter describes the online conlang community, including the Conlang Mailing List and the Conlang Relay (an insider game for conlangers). Then, he gets to the interesting linguistic and creativity stuff: How do these languages get created? What options do creators have? Which languages are successful, and why? How do you create a lexicon and syntax? And then, a really big question:

Is conlanging an art?

His answer:

Even if conlanging is to be considered an art, it seems as though it must be regarded as a niche creative endeavor, since its consumption is not straightforward.

These books just scratch the surface of a fascinating creative activity. Conlanging would be a great research topic for creativity researchers to pursue.

To learn more:

Douglas Ball, “Constructed languages.” In The Routledge handbook of language and creativity, 2015, edited by Rodney H. Jones.

Henry Hitchings, review of Peterson: “Mastering Dothraki”. WSJ, October 3-4, 2015, p. C6

David J. Peterson, The art of language invention. Penguin.

The Origin of “Creativity”

In a fascinating new book chapter*, Dr. Camilla Nelson documents the history of the concept of creativity. Prior to the mid-19th century and the Darwinian revolution, the words “creative” and “creativity” were not used at all (see her Google Ngram on page 173), and “creation” was associated with the divine. Darwin showed that nature could be creative, without appealing to a divine creator. But still, for decades after Darwin, “creative power” in humans continued to be associated with a spiritual force (e.g., various forms of vitalism, such as Bergson’s elan vital).  In the same Ngram, you can see that the word “creativity” was not used at all until long after 1900, with a rapid growth in the 1950s forward.

So, what happened in the 1950s? Here’s Nelson’s answer:

Arthur Bestor published Educational Wastelands in 1953, and MGM released Blackboard Jungle in 1955 to a major public outcry. Newspapers carried interviews with critics under headlines such as ‘Mass Produced Mediocrity” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 1956). Then, the Russians launched Sputnik, and the education crisis spilled onto the front page. Education promoted conformity and “group think”, argued critics such as Hyman Rickover (1959). In contrast, he envisioned “a future dependent on creative brains” that required a qualitatively different kind of education that was capable of producing “creative people, sworn enemies of routine and the status quo”, in opposition to totalitarian Russia. The United States needed to support the kind of “freedom essential to the creative worker.” [Rickover is better known as the man who directed the development of the nuclear submarine.]

Bibliographic surveys indicate that there were as many studies of creativity published between 1950 and 1965 as there had been in the previous 200 years. Much of this work was funded by military and defense concerns.

Basically, she argues that today’s concept of “creativity” was created by the Cold War, and the need in the United States to contrast democracy with totalitarianism. She argues that this is why creativity researchers define “creativity” in heavily Western and individualistic ways.

The language in this quotation should sound familiar, because it’s the same argument we’re hearing right now: Today’s schools aren’t preparing students for the 21st century creative economy. Have we really made no progress in education, in the 60 years between 1955 and 2015?

*Camilla Nelson, 2015, “Discourses of creativity”. In The Routledge Handbook of Language and Creativity. Warning: it’s written in an extremely academic style!