The Economist Shouts: “Set Innovation Free!”

The cover story of this influential British magazine is “Set Innovation Free!”* The subtitle says what they really mean:

Time to fix the patent system.

In this blog, I’ve argued that the current patent regime retards overall innovation. It’s not aligned with empirical studies of creativity research. Patents are awarded to a single entity, as if that entity is completely responsible for the advance in knowledge. But research shows that all innovations are collaborative and distributed.

Defenders of patents will say: First, the potential reward of a patent provides an incentive to innovate. Why invest all the money in researching a new cancer drug if you don’t get the exclusive rights to market it? Second, in exchange for being granted a patent, you’re required to make your innovation public. This is supposed to help everyone else move forward faster with their own innovations.

The Economist  lead editorial argues that this is completely wrong. It cites evidence that, across industries and countries, stronger patent systems don’t lead to greater innovation. It points out that in most cases, patents never really become public, because patent lawyers have become very effective at writing complicated text that makes it impossible to tell what the real innovation is. Patents are expensive; it takes about $100,000 to go through the process of getting one. And yet, by some measures less than ten percent of these patents are ever used; the rest never make any money. So why spend the money to get patents? It’s subtle, but basically, it’s related to a finding from innovation research: that almost all new products involve tens, hundreds, of new ideas. New products are never  based on a single patent. So for lots of companies, filing a bunch of patents is a defensive strategy–it creates a “patent thicket” that prevents competitors from putting together all of the ideas they need to develop their own successful product. The current state of the technology sector is that all of the big players have their own patent thickets. So before anything new can be sold to the consumer, their lawyers have to get together and negotiate about their mutual patent thickets. (Yes, that’s the word that patent lawyers use–patent thicket. The fact that there’s such a word at all shows how big the problem is!)

The patent system rewards huge companies with deep pockets and lots of expensive lawyers. It blocks startups and entrepreneurs. Maybe there are exceptions? For example, pharmaceutical patents that emerge from university research labs, with a startup that’s funded by the university’s research office? But aren’t universities also big institutions with lots of lawyers? Patents do nothing for the little guy.

Patents are granted for too long. No technology company needs 20 years of protection for their idea. How many of you still own computers from 20 years ago?

Patents are granted for “new” “ideas” that are much too obvious: does Apple really have a patent on “rectangular tablets with rounded corners”? (Apparently, they do.) And yet, U.S. patent law says that to get a patent, your idea has to be non-obvious. I’ve written about problems with the non-obviousness doctrine here, and it’s a big topic of discussion among IP lawyers and scholars.

The Economist  cover story could be straight out of my book Group Genius:

Sharing brings huge benefits to society. Sharing leads to extra innovation. Ideas overlap. Inventions depend on earlier creative advances. There would be no jazz without the blues. Innovation today is less about entirely novel breakthroughs, and more about the clever combination and extension of existing ideas.

The chorus of creativity researchers shouts “Amen!”

*August 8-14, 2015 issue

What Criminals Can Teach Us About Creativity

A few weeks ago, I posed the question “Is Creativity Research Elitist?”. I pointed out that creativity researchers have studied high-class Western European creativity, but they’ve neglected working class creativity–like custom motorcycle mechanics, or small-town preachers writing sermons.

Right on cue, a new book’s just been published making basically the same point. The Misfit Economy argues that criminals can teach us a lot about creativity: pirates, hackers, gangsters, and prisoners. Here’s what their web site says:

What do pirates, terrorists, computer hackers and inner city gangs have in common with Silicon Valley? Innovation. Across the globe, diverse innovators operating in the black and gray economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges. Far from being “deviant entrepreneurs” that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and best practices that we can learn from and apply in our own worlds. The Misfit Economy seeks to unveil and leverage this new well-spring of ingenuity. Join us in exploring the dark side of innovation.

The book describes the creativity of Somali pirates, Amish camel-milkers (?), and moonshine bootleggers. But you won’t find studies of them in the creativity academic journals. I think it’s the same reason we don’t study small-town ministers–they aren’t elite enough. (I’m guilty, too–right now I’m studying fine art painters and elite designers.)

Most creativity researchers have defined creativity as a new product that’s both novel and also valued by society. In the latest issue of the Creativity Research Journal, Robert Weisberg argues that researchers should define creativity without requiring that the product be valued by society.* If creativity researchers take this to heart, then we should start studying working class creativity and criminal creativity. Otherwise, we risk publishing findings and developing theories that only apply to upper-middle class people. Speaking as a psychologist, I think it’s obvious that all these forms of creativity are based in creative mental processes and behaviors. So as a scholarly community, we need to do additional research to confirm that our research claims aren’t limited to educated elites.

*My own definition of individual creativity, unlike most of my colleagues, doesn’t include “value,” and for some of the same reasons that Weisberg uses (see my book Explaining Creativity).

Creativity Research at University of Plymouth, UK

On the third stop of my European tour, I was invited to give a talk to the CogNovo research group at the University of Plymouth. I was impressed to find one of the top research groups in the world, studying creativity with an interdisciplinary approach.

CogNovo brings together over 40 participating scholars and artists to study creativity and innovation. The group includes cognitive neuroscientists, developmental psychologists, and practicing artists, dancers, and musicians. In addition, they have EU funding for 25 doctoral students, who have moved here from all over the world to study creativity. The University of Plymouth is a great place for this interdisciplinary work, because it has a medical school, an art school, and a strong psychology unit. It was cool that during a break, I got to visit the final degree exhibits of the Media Arts and Design, and the Photography programs, in the building next door to CogNovo.

The EU funding is part of the Creative Europe initiative, with a budget of 1.46 BILLION Euros through 2020 (yes, that’s “billion” with a “b” and not an “m”!). As a creativity researcher in the United States, I’m envious. We don’t have anything like that kind of support for creativity research, even though our political, business, and corporate leadership all agree that creativity is the driver of our future global competitiveness, and that our culture and creative industries are one of our biggest international successes.

The Improvisation of Teaching

I just spent three wonderful days at the conference “The Art and Science of Improvisation in Teaching.” My visit to the University of Stord, Norway, was sponsored by a project funded by the Norwegian Research Council, “Improvisation in Teacher Education.” I was honored to be invited to give the keynote talk, because the project was inspired by my 2011 book Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. Creative Teaching

I published this book to argue that good teaching is always creative and improvisational. That it’s impossible to “script” teachers. That if policy makers try to overly control teaching, then students won’t learn much. I’m a learning scientist, so I grounded my argument in scientific studies, and in well-proven recommendations for effective teaching.

What’s really exciting about the book is that it shows how we can prepare teachers for this kind of teaching. Each chapter is written by a different teacher educator, who is using improvisation in their teacher education classes. These chapters are important because it’s really hard to teach students to learn in a creative way. You need a high level of professional expertise and improvisational ability. What makes it even harder is that teacher improvisations are always guided by structures that are important to effective teaching–curricular sequences, research-grounded learning trajectories, and government-mandated learning outcomes and assessments.

The Norwegian research project is driven by music educators, who are studying new ways to teach improvisational music performance. Then, they’re going to use this research to enhance teacher education in all subjects. It’s a brilliant group of scholars, and I look forward to the results of their research.

Rodeo Clowns

You’ll be more creative if you learn about more stuff.

And especially, if you learn about randomly different kinds of stuff.

That’s why I’m writing about rodeo clowns: because I’m guessing you don’t know anything about them. And research shows that if you learn just a tiny bit about rodeo clowns (or anything else that you know nothing about) it can enhance your creativity.

I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal about rodeo clown Justin Rumford, and it was fascinating. I’ve never gone to a rodeo, and I probably never will. But it was fascinating to learn what a “barrel man” is. Be honest, don’t you want to know? And trust me, you really want to know Mr. Rumford’s rodeo nickname. Click on the link to read the article. The first person to put Mr. Rumford’s rodeo nickname in a comment gets a shout out! And, please suggest your own randomly different stuff we should learn about, just a tiny bit.

To learn more about how creativity research can help you be more creative, check out my creativity advice book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. Learning about rodeo clowns is a technique I call “Be a Dilettante” and it’s on page 69.

A New Trend: Educating Entrepreneurs

A Chronicle of Higher Education story reports on a nationwide trend I’ve been studying myself: the increasing proliferation of entrepreneurship classes for college undergraduates (April 20, 2015, “Now everyone’s an entrepreneur.”). Lots of students love the classes, because they combine fun and creative activities with hands-on internships and links to interesting job opportunities. They also send a message of empowerment that’s popular with today’s students: “You can make a difference, you can change the world.” As the Chronicle article puts it, “entrepreneurship offers the creativity and independence that traditional careers seem to lack.”

College leaders and supporters love it, too, because it provides an important rationale for the modern university: It’s a source of economic growth, a way to commercialize innovations that create value for the region and the country. This is the argument made by Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in their book Engines of Innovation. And in fact, way back in 2009, Carolina was one of the first universities to embed innovation and entrepreneurship throughout all academic units, not just in the school of business–for example, by creating its entrepreneurship minor, and a “special assistant to the Chancellor” position in innovation and entrepreneurship, held since 2009 by Judith Cone, formerly of the Kauffman Foundation.

Beth McMurtrie, the author of the Chronicle article, writes with a mild underlying tone of skepticism. When it’s not done well, such programs can seem like “a superficial blend of buzz words and rosy promises.” They quote one professor saying, sensibly, that “it’s unrealistic to imagine that one or two classes will help a student become more entrepreneurial.”  They anonymously quote “some professors” worrying that “focusing on entrepreneurship gives students an exaggerated sense of their own power”.

I read this article closely, because here at Carolina I’m charged with creating entrepreneurship programs in our School of Education. I think this article does a good job of pointing out the potential strengths and also the potential ways that such programs can go wrong. I think we’re doing it right here in the School of Education. First of all, our programs will be graduate degrees for adults–for example, a master’s degree for experience professionals, who have some expertise and possibly, some valuable successes and failures already completed. My classes will focus on the science of creativity and innovation, on how to manage effective collaboration, how to foster innovative organizational designs and cultures–and how these come together to foster successful innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ll also be requiring a hands-on internship with a local innovative educational organization.

Because I study improvisational creativity, I love that “one lecturer likened teaching entrepreneurship to improvisational jazz” :)

How To Fly a Horse: Another Book on Creativity

I really enjoyed a new book on creativity, How To Fly a Horse, by Kevin Ashton. He echoes what I’ve been saying for the last ten years:

  • The flash of insight is a myth;
  • Instead, creativity emerges from many small sparks, that occur over time.
  • Creativity comes from hard work over a sustained period of time so that these successive small sparks lead to successful innovation.
  • All of this is great news, because it means that everyone has the potential to be creative–because it’s not about geniuses being blessed with divine inspiration, it’s about putting in the time and the work.

I have a minor quibble with Ashton’s subtitle, “The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery” because Ashton’s main reveal is not a secret any more. It’s conventional wisdom. For example, two recent books by Steven Johnson (2010) and Walter Isaacson (2014) make the same point, and tell many of the same stories. A lot of what appears in Ashton’s book is in my 2007 book Group Genius or my 2012 book Explaining Creativity. (His title, about flying a horse, refers to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903; I start the first page of Group Genius with this story.) But still, Ashton is a great scholarly detective. His book is the only place I’ve seen, other than my 2012 book, the debunking of the myths about Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, about Mozart composing musical pieces in whole cloth, about Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in an opium daze, about Kekule coming up with the benzene ring structure in a dream…actually, maybe Ashton just read my 2012 debunking blog post here (or Ashton could have gotten the real stories from my 2012 Explaining Creativity, which he cites in his references but otherwise doesn’t mention).

This is a well written book, and in addition to the familiar creativity stories and research, I learned some things I didn’t know, like this factoid: You know how we use a light bulb over someone’s head to show they’re having a sudden flash of insight? That image was first used in a 1919 animated film short with Felix the Cat.

I like the book, but if you’re not a creativity nerd like me, and you’re looking for one book to enlighten you about creativity, this isn’t the best book to read to increase your creativity. One weakness is that it’s a series of stories without any guiding structure, without an easy to remember set of practical advice, and without take-home messages. There’s one single message (which I agree with) and it’s that creativity isn’t a genius flash of insight; it’s a series of small sparks that emerge from hard work. But that’s not really new any more.

Here’s what I wrote in my 2007 book Group Genius:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth. Innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7) Creativity is based in everyday thought. There’s no magical moment of insight, no mysterious subconscious incubation working. (p. 97)

I love that Ashton calls the creative process a “maze” with many steps (p. 64); in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity I developed a very similar visual metaphor, the zig zag:

Creativity does not descend like a bolt of lightning that lights up the world in a single, brilliant flash. It comes in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes. Zigs and zags. (p. 2)

I wish Ashton had channeled his talent for storytelling with more structure, and had organized his historical material into themes. That would have helped him provide practical advice for the reader. But if you’re a creativity nerd, you need to read this book. There’s a lot of familiar material here (Karl Duncker, the Wright Brothers, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, brainstorming research, Gregor Mendel, Louis Terman, Teresa Amabile…) but a lot of intriguing new stories, as well.