Exploring analogies: living abroad, maths and Sherlock Holmes

Through the Looking Glass
Through the Looking Glass

Recently, with much delight, I’ve been watching BBC’s Sherlock television series (2010) that brought us a contemporary view of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s universe. Having grown up with my eyes glued to the original books and Jeremy Brett portraying the famous detective (1984) – I was initially quite suspicious of the modern interpretation. Old trick, one would say, to re-wrap the family heirloom, cherished on the shelf for ages, into a shiny new paper – and call it innovation. In this case, it worked, at least for me. I was impressed and amused. All the well-known features, so dear to my heart, were translated and empowered in a parallel world of 21st-century London with taste, elegance and surprise vignettes. Mobile phones and Internet technologies instead of letters, nicotine patches instead of a pipe, blogging instead of writing for newspapers… just to illustrate.

Then I thought more about the smart use of analogy and my relationship with this creativity technique.

I realized that I was unknowingly exposed to it from a very early age. Namely, maths was always my favorite subject in school because I almost never needed to learn anything by heart (I guess that’s why I later went on to study it at university). For most of my childhood, I spent Saturdays in classes for gifted children, solving mathematical puzzles, and I loved it. All I had to do is to recognize categories of problems and apply a trick-of-the-trade I learned fighting similar quests. The battle was never the same, but I could win it if I recognized the enemy’s disguise, by reflecting on my previous fighting history.

Another factor that I believe contributed greatly to my love of analogy is the experience of living abroad. I come from Serbia, but have spent a certain amount of time living in Austria, Germany, Italy and now, England. My experience tells me that when one moves abroad, as an isolated entity, one has to intensely search for analogical items to fulfil this universe that is new and unknown. Trains: Zeleznice Srbije – OBB – DeutscheBahn – Trenitalia – National Railways. Television: RTS – ORF – ZDF – RAI – BBC. Sounds uneventful, but it is actually a challenge to simultaneously find equivalents of grocery items, favourite cafes, home, transport… and everything else that has been making the previous world. Now imagine doing that in a country whose language you don’t speak. That’s the advanced level of the game.

I would say that when one is once used to do mappings all the time, it is easier to switch domains and even go out and invent parallel worlds, in case of a creative need. I read somewhere, “logic will get you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere”.

The fun part is when all the equivalents are found, and you start to discover in that parallel world categories of things and interactions that are completely unknown to you, but yet relevant. The ones that lack a mapping, and bring the glitter in. “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards“, says Lewis Carroll in ‘Through the Looking-Glass’.

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Play It Again, Sam

Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam (1972) is one of my favourite films. Have you seen it? Only recently I realized its story features an insightful creativity technique application that relates to my current PhD research at the Centre.

By day, he is Woody Allen. But when night falls and the moon rises, Humphrey Bogart strikes again. Bogart’s Casablanca persona is appropriated as the fantasy mentor for Allen’s troubled character in the film, named Allan; throughout the plot, Allan is encouraged to take advice extracted from a familiar, but distant parallel world to solve his issues with dames in real life. Looking from the semiotics point of view, as Umberto Eco notes: Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. […] When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.

I will be relying on that power of stereotypes to evoke emotions in order to create a good game. My PhD work, supported by MIRROR project and supervised by Prof Neil Maiden (School of Informatics) and Prof Julienne Meyer (School for Health Sciences), aims to inform relationships between creativity and games, with application in dementia care domain.

Last month, thanks to Registered Nursing Home Association (RNHA), I took part in an induction for carers in Ipswich. During the role-play exercises, I noticed that carer should at some point act as a sort of detective, understanding residents’ actions and emotions, in the context of its causes and implications. Namely, reasoning in such a deductive way aims to help carer predict and resolve challenging behaviours occurring daily in a care home for people with dementia, which is a fast-paced, flexible and non-deterministic environment due to the nature of the residents’ condition. This approach empowers person-centred care, which is a priority for good carer practice. Furthermore, reconstructing events requires managing information from both personal and other people’s reflections, and therefore supports reflective learning, which has been the main topic of the MIRROR project. Parallel world is being chosen to correspond with its mechanisms to the original challenge.

Ideas found their shape during my last week’s visit to Imaginary, a game development company from Milan, another partner of ours in the MIRROR project. Using direct analogy as implicit creativity support, we are about to create a parallel-world game environment to support carers in discovering their inner detective skills. To spice up things in addition with some tricks of the trade, there will be explicit creativity support injected as well. These are just the initial clues I am giving you – keep in touch to find out more.

After you try my game, I hope you’d wish to play it again. Until, as time goes by

Bogart: That was great. You’ve, uh, you’ve really developed yourself a little style.
Allan: Yeah, I do have a certain amount of style, don’t I?
Bogart: Well, I guess you won’t be needing me any more. There’s nothing I can tell you now that you don’t already know.
Allan: I guess that’s so. I guess the secret’s not being you, it’s being me. True, you’re – you’re not too tall and kind of ugly, but – what the hell, I’m short enough and ugly enough to succeed on my own.
Bogart: Hmmph. Here’s looking at you, kid.

Anatomy of a Creativity Technique

Image by Simon James - Menage a Moi

Why are Jokes Funny?

I’ve always been fascinated by why some jokes are funny, and others are not. Great jokes are deceptively simple. They are often just one or two sentences long. And yet, a simple joke can have multiple layers of humour and truth.

Whilst most of us are able to tell a joke to elicit a reaction, we find it more difficult to explain why the joke works. Comedy writer Jan McInnis thinks that a good joke involves a set-up with the subject and facts, and a punch line that highlights the irony, twists the joke in another direction, or gives an outrageous result (http://www.absolutewrite.com/specialty_writing/anatomy_of_joke.htm).

But this description does not necessarily explain why some jokes work better than others, why some are regarded as classics, while others are forgotten immediately. We seem happy to tell jokes and laugh at them, but not to dissect them and understand their inner workings.

I think that it is similar with creativity techniques. Some work well, others do not. Great creativity techniques are also deceptively simple. They often involve just one or two steps, and yet can unleash considerable creative power. And whilst I know how to make it happen, I do not always understand how or why it happens. And I’m not alone in this.

This gap in our knowledge bothers me. I think that we could deliver creativity support more effectively if we understood how different techniques work. So what to do?

My proposal is to investigate the inner workings of different creativity techniques – theoretically, logically and empirically. I am sure what we learn about the anatomies of creativity techniques will be fascinating.

Who wants to join us in this creativity dissection?

Creativity on a Shoestring

Ever wondered how to do more for less? Most of us have. Indeed, in the current economic climate, you cannot just throw resources at problems. Smarter is the new smart. And many commentators have argued that creativity is key to being smarter.

However, these same commentators often ignore that creativity is not free. Indeed, many reported creative processes and techniques themselves consume resources – resources that organizations just don’t have. This poses a challenge – how to be creative with less. We need creativity on a shoestring.

I’ve been working with City graduate Bianca Hollis of BBC worldwide to design and evaluate creativity on a shoestring. Bianca is a user experience designer developing digital products such as web sites and software apps. Like many working in digital media, she uses agile methods to design these products. Agile methods encourage the iterative development of working software, often in two-week cycles. This leaves little time for creative thinking – who really wants to think divergently when the next software release is expected in 10 working days?

So our challenge was to fit creativity techniques into agile in creativity workshops that rarely last more than 45 minutes in agile projects at BBC Worldwide. We gave stakeholders techniques such as hall of fame, constraint removal and back to the future to generate ideas for new BBC products. Moreover, I think that we succeeded. The workshops generated lots of ideas that were rated significantly more novel than existing ideas in the project backlog.

We were sufficiently excited by these successes to take the shoestring creativity techniques on the road. This week we ran a tutorial at OOP2012 in Munich, teaching quick creativity techniques to agile software developers. The techniques were a success. People’s reactions revealed that we’ve hit a nerve. Creativity on a shoestring is needed more than ever.

So let’s be smart. Create more from less.