Creativity and innovation and the physical environment

We are almost half way through our Leading Creative Design module and are working in groups to explore a very real problem for the university, namely student usage (or non-usage) of non-teaching space for study and socialising.  It’s an interesting task.  Using  the principles of Design Thinking, we have started to generate some novel and useful ideas.

For me, the whole task has led me to think much more deeply about the impact of the physical environment on the creativity of individuals and groups.  We all have our favourite spaces for thinking and doing.  Sometimes we find it useful to be alone with our thoughts and technology for quiet contemplation.  At other times, we need spaces where we can vocalise our thoughts and explore ideas through social interaction.  To coin an old phrase from a BT advert (which will show my age!) ‘it’s good to talk’.  However, it seems that so much of our communication is done purely through technology these days.  I imagine that there are people out there that go for days without talking to anyone!

This leads me to think about the way society seems to be going in relation to social media.  Friends and colleagues will know that for some time, I have been questioning whether the propensity of our young people to ‘live’ on their mobile devices and social networking sites, is creating a timebomb in terms of social skills.  In recent months, I have become increasingly aware of a general lack of eye-contact as I have been walking around in public.  As part of our Creative Writing module, we looked at creating alternative worlds and creating spoof websites for them.  It struck me that a site offering courses in eye contact and how to start conversations, walking tours of major cities looking upwards at the buildings, plus links to physiotherapists for help with neck pain from constantly looking down, might strike a chord.  The site could be advertised on pavements rather than on traditional billboards because customers would never see them!

Where am I leading with this?  I suppose I question the effectiveness of subsituting face-to-face interaction with technology for  creativity and innovation.  I believe in group interaction, in person, at least for part of the process.  I recall a doctor saying once that he couldn’t imagine carrying out online consultations as body language and tone of voice were so important in diagnosing a problem.  I agree with this.  During our recent Psychology of Creativity module, we explored emotional intelligence and observed verbal and physical behaviour in human interaction.  Sometimes, people don’t need to say anything to convey a message.  A smirk or frown can say so much.  You just don’t get this with email, texting and tweeting.  How many times have you typed an email and the recipient has read it in a different tone of voice from the one in which you wrote it, with tricky consequences?

A recent commentary in Innovation Management magazine seems to sum up my point of view

With so many people working from home and setting up home-based businesses, we are in danger of isolating ourselves from the rest of society.  What are we missing out on? 

Coming back to our Leading Creative Design task, I would like to facilitate an environment that fosters human interaction, creativity and innovation.  Let’s make Facebook physical!


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Currently studying on the new Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership (MICL) at City University London. Co-Founder and Operating Partner at Per Diem innovation and creativity consultancy. BA Hons Drama and English; Dipl Arts Administration. Trained Synectics facilitator of creativity. 20 plus years in marketing communications, performance improvement and business coaching and arts and corporate sector.

3 thoughts on “Creativity and innovation and the physical environment”

  1. Hi Alison. This is a really interesting piece – thank you. I agree that technology and social media is not a replacement for face-to-face communication, but do believe that they can act as an important support tool to facilitate collaborative working. I work with creative organisations, businesses and freelancers to help them collaborate more effectively, supported by the use of online tools. I often see the energy first hand when you get a group of creative people in a room together to get ideas going. However, I’m an advocate of using collaboration tools to enhance and continue those conversations outside of physical environments. Particularly between individuals and organisations that don’t work together in the same space on a day-to-day basis – team members can stay up-to-date and in contact, and keep ideas flowing in a more flexible manner – opening up possibilities for who they can collaborate and work with, and therefore the potential for innovation. Saying that, there are tools, such as online conferencing/skype where groups can have that face-to-face interaction. Are you looking at the difference between text- versus voice-based communication or online versus physical?

    Thanks again for the piece and the link. Interesting reading.

  2. Thank you for this insightful paper, Ms. Duffy. As an independent consultant for creative meet, work, play, space design and marketing, I have been involved in a real time case study of the effects of creative environment on corporate groups over the past seven years. With the proper elements included into a creative design plan, the positive results I’ve witnessed are undeniable and usually enthusiastically vocalized. Corporate teams who leave their unremarkable environments (a majority of the time) to come away and “be creative and innovative” in a playful space become ecstatic at the marked difference of the flow of ideas. The spike in creativity from ideas brought forth when the surroundings feed into a feel of freedom and play makes the return on investing in “creative space” work when corporations invest in creative design to stimulate creativity and innovation.

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