Sharpening up creativity – Jonah Lehrer's new book

Jonah Lehrer calls himself a translator  – of ideas for people who will turn them into actions. His latest book illustrates how it is that different creativity skills are needed and at different stages of creativity processes; and he discusses contexts and their cultures that foster or obstruct those processes.

    Lehrer’s latest book, just published “Imagine: How Creativity Works” emphasises the different contexts in which different stages of the creative process work. Great ideas, he suggests come not to groups but to individuals – it might come when you are travelling, napping or listening to a string quartet – indeed almost anywhere other than the modern office environment, which encourages specialisation and stress. Relaxation, curiosity, divergent interests and determination are what make creativity more likely: staring at a computer screen under pressure of deadline is the enemy of inspiration.

         Research tells us (unequivocally) that individuals generate more and better ideas than do groups – because ideas often come after a period of incubation, often unexpectedly, as Lehrer points out; they are capricious: they can jump out at you, hide, go as quickly as they came, dominate your thinking, grow productively, and spawn others.  Artists, scientists, designers, and advertising executives would all endorse this, and so does the Nobel Prize Committee.

Transforming ideas into great work is a different story. Stephen Cave, reviewing this book in the Financial Times, chooses WH Auden’s labours as an example: acute, undisturbed concentration for long periods of time are what is needed for transforming a good idea into a great work. It may indeed be helpful just now to remind ourselves of the role of individuals in creativity, but group work is becoming ever more prevalent – even in the earliest stage, so it seems worth asking why. It took more than inspired individuals in NASA to get a man to the moon and back.

Some institutions, Lehrer suggests, foster both kinds of creativity; and groups engage in tough-minded critique of ongoing work combined with time that has been set aside for exploratory work. But they do more than that: groups have the potential for more diverse thinking, the ability to build on each others ideas – trying out embodiments together, and most importantly the capability for bringing ideas into use, of getting value out of them, of seeing projects through to implementation, because groups contain a wide variety of skills and experience etc, and they can draw upon other organisational strengths. In practice, of course groups can be inappropriately composed and melded together, or poorly facilitated; people often block one another’s thoughts and contributions; and groups can be easily stuck or led awry (by a seductive line of thought). But they have a lot to contribute.

Some say: start by working alone; some say brainstorm together; some say use an expert facilitator; some say be sure to use experienced players; others say only use a group when you are stuck in a rut or the solution is proving elusive.



An Open Innovation Learning Network – for SMEs and others

An Open Innovation networking programme for SMEs, run by an experienced

local Chamber of Commerce in Belgium – might be a model that would work

here in the UK. Groups are carefully matched in terms of sector, specialism and

maturity of organization.

       I have just returned from a two-day workshop in Belgium about mentoring small groups of senior managers in SMEs, who meet together regularly to draw on each other’s experience – a striking example of collaborative enterprise. Set up by a passionate individual in East Flanders Chamber of Commerce, it has been running for twenty years and has now been seeded in at least fifteen different countries (in Egypt it was sponsored by Unilever, and in South Africa by Standard Bank.)

‘Plato’, an ‘Open Innovation Network’, is a programme whose primary aim is to help SMEs in the self-development of managerial competencies. Groups of about fifteen managers and three mentors (who are from larger companies) are carefully matched (especially in terms of sector, specialism, and maturity of organisation) so that they will have knowledge and experience that will contribute to each other’s problems or opportunities; and they hold regular meetings one evening a month over two years.

When they first come together, the participants identify their objectives and needs, both in the moment, and medium and longer term, and their first challenge is to work out how best those needs can be met, essentially from among the members of the group, and to set the ground rules; and they will agree some agendas for the first few meetings (together with plans for how each item will be treated), and importantly the location – often each other’s places of business. The mentors may steer the learning process, but they also contribute their own experience to the learning, and they draw their own particular learnings from the process.

Participants get immediate access to valuable personal experience about their biggest issues; they are able to hone their understanding through discussions then and there; they get emotional support; they get introductions to possible customers and partners who may be just what they need; and they gain friends to do business with. And the mentors find their understandings about initiative and of getting things done sharpened, their skills in leading groups enhanced, and their horizons expanded.And the ‘Plato Academy’ runs annual events for participants to come together and likewise for mentors to come together – to celebrate and to share experience.

(My own ‘Networking Groups’ (action-learning) are likewise highly valued: participants gain in different terms – maturity, confidence and breadth of outlook (and they are often then ready for promotion); but groups of this kind are difficult to recruit to – perhaps because the benefits are difficult to foresee and unspecific in kind.)

It is a finely tuned programme, with some skilful touches; its benefits have been confirmed by a research study by Deloittes; it is evidently valued, transcends boundaries, and continues to be viable (with government funding or sponsorship) – everyone, mentors included, pays a significant but comparatively modest sum to participate (but in Belgium, a 50% rebate is available from the government.)

 This sort of approach and the Plato model seem likely to be adaptable for start-ups and spin-outs alike; and potentially useful in incubators, angel groups, science parks, venture capital funded companies and all sorts of organisations; and could be a useful medium for the work Nesta is doing to provide skills and tools for people with ideas.  (

iShed at Watershed, Bristol, constructs ever more magical spells

I see the work of Watershed in Bristol as a beacon – always pushing the leading edge of creativity in the arts – and seeking to capture the learnings from which others can benefit. Among Watershed’s new work is an AHRC enabled project in which multi-disciplinary groups have opportunities to play creatively (in action-learning style) in order to explore how culture-related concepts might be expressed in innovative formats and platforms.

     Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio – an open area where early-stage ventures of similar (and purposefully different) ilk develop together – has now expanded from 30 to 42 places and moved into the Watershed complex – its effective parent; and some of them have grown up into near-investable businesses. New companies have become involved as sponsors of Watershed’s work, including, not least, Dyson – through its Chief Innovation officer.

iShed (Watershed’s subsidiary which manages the Studio) is also partnering on a £4.8 mn project – REACT, one of four UK Creative Economy Hubs funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to act as parent to seven Sandbox ‘themes’ over the ensuing four years. Each such ‘theme’ involves six teams of people who work together over a 3-month period to develop ideas for innovations and to bring them into effect.

            Each team is peopled by one academic (five universities are involved: Cardiff, Bath, Exeter and the two at Bristol) and the leader of an SME with his/her team – a total of up to ten people. Their task is to explore (in this case) issues of heritage, as expressed through such things as Apps, augmented reality, physical displays, new audiences and community groups.

The form of their activities is based on an earlier format of iShed’s – inspired by schemes like Seedcamp and Melt – where iShed’s role consists of weekly informal visits from its Producers, to discuss recent progress and the next objectives (in action-learning style); and monthly gatherings, each of one or two days, where subjects relevant to early-stage venturers are addressed by experts, consultants etc, subjects such as routes-to-market, IP, organisational structures, and (interestingly) storytelling. Each of these themes is supported by a group of eight mentors (largely from London,) who are introduced with some ceremony and are then available for whatever they can offer. The participants are expected to tweet or blog regularly about their experience; and these learnings are editorialised and published by iShed. Watershed publicises their work-in-progress and produces a final film which it showcases shortly after the end of the three-months period at an event where the projects are presented to organisations that may be interested in their furtherance (eg Hewlett-Packard, BBC, Ogilvy et al.)

Nor is iShed short of other new work. It will also be running Sandboxes of this kind in different media; it has recently run a week-long residency for the British Council, called the ‘Playable City’, at which six UK artists were paired with six artists from SE.Asia; and expects to run at least two more in the near future, probably outside the UK; it is running events in different locations with the Crafts Council, designed to help craftspeople to learn from each other’s experience in making use of new technologies; and  it is also running a project in Portugal about open-ness and open cities.

These additional activities have entailed iShed scaling up it own role – taking on new staff, dealing with new fields (eg academia), and handling a wider range of commercial and non-commercial projects; turning to other sources of funding such as Trusts and Foundations; and both becoming more commercial and more experimental; as well as adopting a higher civic leadership profile.

iShed has had remarkable success in terms of new (and different) projects at a time when the Arts, academia and public bodies, as proponents, have all been under severe financial pressure. While iShed carries out evaluations of its own performance, it is concerned that its values and its assessments differ in kind (eg about what is value and how is it created in the arts) from the ‘KPIs’ espoused by the Arts Council, such as audiences and financial viability.

The Wilson Report – on University collaboration

The Wilson Report – on University Collaboration gets down to the specifics: better contacts between universities and business – that could help turn ideas into practical benefits. But strong leadership is needed to bring them about.

I was recently at a meeting of the R&D Society, where Tim Wilson, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, author of just published report on University Collaboration, spoke from the hip.

University outreach has recently suffered a triple whammy. The cut-backs have decimated some University Technology Transfer Offices; funding for start-up and spin-outs has become very short; and LTN, a link between university technology departments and industry, has been forced to close.

So it was a ripe moment for the Wilson Report (, which focused attention on contacts – at the many different levels: individuals (internships, exchanges, KTPs and universities as sources of staff), projects and programmes (consultancy and other services), and longer-term relationships (Industry Research Collaborations and the likes of Rolls Royce’s University Technology Partnerships).

Closeness is of course the key (in the way that the kitchen is the key meeting place in incubators), but this is not so easy to achieve: when researchers are within easy reach of their industrial counterparts, interactions are natural. Some Science Parks (eg Daresbury) have managed these interactions very successfully, but they take careful, persistent and subtle oiling (see

  The VC of Cambridge rather sniffily pointed out that interns are not for Cambridge; there is no more space for industry in Cambridge; and any-way many [of Cambridge’s] links are these days overseas with international companies.

   Many university departments do indeed hold events at which they present their latest work, but presentations for various reasons often fail to attract the interest that their work warrants. Hopefully other KTNs will follow the lead of the Electronics KTN in setting up meetings of local universities to showcase their work to interested parties, ( NorthEast.aspx). Wilson simply commented that the KTNs needed ‘looking at’ –  as intermediaries. They have attracted a lot of members to join them, and have plans for developing internet contacts. (It might also help if industry’s University Liaison Officers worked more collaboratively.)

What Wilson does not touch upon is how universities are reacting to the calls for greater ‘impact’. The Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is currently preoccupying most academics, is felt to be the biggest single driver of behaviour/culture change (for good and ill) with its new 20% ‘impact’ component. (See:

Two other small green shoots can be seen: a pioneering programme called Upbeat at Salford University was about how individual academics in universities could better reach out to potential users of their research work and actively help to turn it into valuable innovations on the ground. The process was then honed in use by 25 universities across Europe. This work has now been taken forward on a wider scale: ten European universities are now linked in a programme (the ‘Pascal’ Programme ( whose objective is getting universities to engage with regional networks to improve regional competitiveness and quality of life. The recent report ( calls for strong leadership – in a culture where academic output is paramount. Neither of these initiatives has yet gained much traction.

        Another green shoot is The Queen’s Anniversary Awards for Higher and further Education (, first set up in 1994 – for ‘outstanding achievement in innovation, initiative, originality and benefits for the nation’. Among this year’s winners: UCL’s Institute of Ophthal-mology was awarded a prize for its work on ‘furthering understanding of the eye and visual systems and its related disorders and diseases’; and UEA for its ‘ground-breaking and innovative programmes in creative writing with wide international impact’. There were several other winners whose focus was on applied research into key environmental issues, and Queens’ University Belfast for its Comprehensive Cancer Centre, which has helped improve survival rates among patients in Northern Ireland.

The previous year there were 21 awards, but last November only 18; and they received rather less publicity. It would be a fair bet that these departments are driven by leaders who have a strong vision of the needs their work can address and of the benefits it can bring.

         The Frauenhofer model is frequently quoted as one to which we should aspire. Research clusters and hubs based on outstanding and local expertise are the places that need support; but there are examples of where the government has spread its support too thin and too wide, (eg in Nanotechnology) leading to ineffectively small and isolated units.

         It is going to take strong leadership more than mere encouragement to effect closer relationships between universities and business. (Nesta’s 2009 report (‘The Connected University’) provided a number of case studies of successful collaborations.