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Tuesday, 24 July 2012 20:25

Dr David Cropley - My Activities and Interest in Creativity

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I became involved in creativity research by accident. As a young lecturer in an engineering department, I was given the task of helping to develop a new, first-year course that, among other things, focused on engineering creativity and innovation. My first reaction was to seek some input from a real creativity researcher, and I was fortunate that my father, Professor Arthur Cropley, happened to fit that category. I was vaguely aware that he had been active in this field since before I was born, so I felt that he would be in a good position to steer me in the right direction. To cut a long story short, and with 15 years of hindsight, it proved to be a fruitful collaboration.

As I learned about the field of creativity, with its roots in psychology, it became clear to me that engineering and technology were intimately concerned with many of the same issues. If creativity is the engine-room of innovation, and innovation is the driver of modern economies, then it made sense that developing, among engineers, the ability to be creative was a vital element of tackling the broad range of technological problems in a modern society.

However, while psychologists seemed to be, from my perspective, primarily concerned with creativity and the person, I saw a need also to focus on products. What makes a ‘product’, whether a simple artefact, a complex system, an industrial process or even a service, creative? Why is a creative product better, and more desirable, than one which is not creative?

From an engineering perspective, function is king. If a product does not do what the customer wants it to do, then it will fail in the marketplace. It seemed to me, therefore, that any marriage of creativity and engineering must recognise at least two elements as pre-requisites. From the point of view of creativity, novelty is a key component. It seems axiomatic that if something is not new, original and surprising – in other words novel – then it is hard to speak of it as creative. From the point of view of engineering, irrespective of how novel something is, if it does not fulfil its functional purpose then it may be nothing more than an expensive curiosity. This led me to think of creativity in functional terms. From an engineering perspective, creativity must encompass both relevance and effectiveness, and novelty, as a minimum.

There were, of course, existing models of creativity that draw attention to these factors. My contribution, I hope, has been to apply them in an engineering context. Functional creativity is the result.

As I collaborated with Arthur and we refined our ideas of functional creativity, we also recognised a need to develop a more detailed and differentiated model of the creativity of ‘products’ that could be used by engineers to proactively build-in creativity to their products. A dilemma seemed to be that it is relatively easy to recognise and judge creativity after the fact, but harder to build it into a product from the outset. If the creativity of products is defined by effectiveness (does it do what it is supposed to do?), novelty (is it new, original and surprising?), elegance (is it complete and fully worked-out?) and genesis (does it open up new perspectives, solve new problems?), how can we teach engineers to build these qualities into a product?

Our recent work on this path, in collaboration with Professor James Kaufman of California State University, has been to apply a more detailed and differentiated scale to products. The Creative Solution Diagnosis Scale (CSDS) started with 30 items across the four factors listed above, and has since been refined to approximately 20 items that our research is suggesting can reliably measure the creativity of artefacts. An important feature of the CSDS suggested by our research is that the scale can be used with a minimum of training, by domain experts and non-experts, to make judgements of creativity that can differentiate between effectiveness, novelty, elegance and genesis. A particular benefit of this scale may be that it makes it possible to explain to engineers not only how creative a product is, but also what, in particular, makes it creative. This is an area of on-going research.

At the same time as we were developing our ideas on functional creativity, I also saw an interesting application of the concept of functional creativity to the serious domain of terrorism. The attacks of September 11, 2001 exhibited, in my view, all the hallmarks of creativity. If one viewed the attacks as a kind of perverted ‘product’ (in this case addressing a terrorist ‘need’), then it seemed to be possible to analyse the attacks for their creativity, using the same four factors – effectiveness, novelty, elegance and genesis – that we apply to more conventional products. This was more than a curiosity. My feeling was that there was something valuable to be learned for the counter-terrorism community by developing a better understanding of how terrorists might, even inadvertently, use creativity to their advantage.

This line of thinking has led both to a collaboration with Professor James Kaufman, and also, most recently, to an edited book , The Dark Side of Creativity, that has drawn together chapters from more than 20 authors, including such leading creativity researchers as Robert Sternberg, Dean Simonton and Mark Runco.

A key message of this book is that the same benefits that creativity offers society in general – new ideas, new solutions to intractable problems, new markets – are also available to those who would use them for malevolent purposes. A first step in controlling this dark side of creativity has been to recognise that it exists and to explore its dimensions more fully.

A third tier to my interests in creativity that has developed through my collaboration with Arthur Cropley has been to look at the bigger picture of how creativity drives a process of innovation. This is especially important in an engineering and technological context, where few products are created simply for their own sake. Most products, processes, systems and services arise as solutions to an underlying need or problem. Climate change provides excellent examples. The need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels drives innovation in areas such as renewable energy. Before a wind generator or a solar cell can become a commercial product, it starts life as an idea. Creativity drives the development of these ideas, but innovation turns the ideas into viable products. Both individuals and organisations play a role in this process. Therefore, to understand and improve innovation, we need to understand the processes by which ideas are generated and exploited, the people who generate the ideas, the organisational climate (or press) that can foster or inhibit the generation and exploitation, and the things themselves (the products) that are created.

Our recent research is looking, in particular, at how the constellation of characteristics of the person, process, product and press varies across the innovation process. What facilitates innovation in one stage does not necessarily facilitate it during a different stage, and we are keen to understand how the ideal conditions can be monitored so that the innovation process can be made as effective as possible.

The field of creativity, while not unique in this respect, is certainly one that offers a broad range of opportunities for interdisciplinary research. My own experience of combining engineering and technology with psychology has opened up exciting perspectives, and the field of creativity is one in which I see unlimited possibilities. Human development provides a common thread and I look forward to the insights that this journal will bring to creativity research.

David is a member of the Editorial Board of Creativity & Human Development.

Dr David Cropley

David Cropley is Associate Professor of Engineering Innovation, and Deputy Director of the Defence and Systems Institute, at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. David joined the university in 1990 after serving in the United Kingdom's Royal Navy for four years. David's interests in creativity include creativity in an engineering and technological context, the measurement of creativity, the factors that influence creativity and innovation in organisations, and the dark side of creativity.

David is co-author of Fostering Creativity: a diagnostic approach for higher education and organisations (with Arthur Cropley), and is co-editor of The Dark Side of Creativity (with Arthur Cropley, James Kaufman and Mark Runco). He is a keen rower, both indoor and outdoor, and in August of 2010 set a world record for a tandem, indoor 24-hour row, with his team-mate Jon Larkin. He also plays the harmonica.

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