I recently read an article looking at the topic of malevolent creativity and it prompted me to, well, get creative. The article summarized some of the research on the use of creativity for evil and explored the reasons why someone might use creativity for malevolent purposes with an eye to seeing how we might prevent such things from happening.
I sighed and then decided to write something — hopefully without any malevolent intent. The author even acknowledges the following:
Creativity isn’t automatically a good thing. As a concept, creativity has no alignment, and in fact, it is just as easy to be creative in a destructive, cruel way as it is to be creative in a beautiful and benevolent way. Malevolent creativity is very much a reality.
Creativity is less a thing than it is part of the human experience. We are all creative. Wondering why someone might use creativity for evil is like asking why people do bad things? Philosophically this might be interesting, but practically it has little value. Why would a human being not use something that is part of who they are in their efforts (positively or malevolently)?
The more we hold creativity up as a special ‘thing’, the more we will lose its power to transform.
Every person is creative. Not all of us create the same way, to the same extent, or generate the same kind of products from our thoughts, actions, and craft, but we all have this ability to create. The more we hold up creativity as some quality, skill, or attribute as a separate thing from us the more likely we are to alienate those who don’t see themselves as fitting this ‘creative’ mould.
This reminds me of the popular TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson on whether schools kill creativity. In that talk, he demonstrates how young children see themselves as creative and older children do not — even though the same criteria and opportunity for creativity are applied to both age groups.
I’ve seen this firsthand in my work as an educator having worked with small children, middle schoolers, high schoolers, and university students of many ages. Small kids see themselves as being able to draw, dance, sing, or build things and don’t question their ability to create. That changes as time goes on as Robinson points out.
I decided to test this for myself when I had the chance. A couple of years ago I was teaching visual thinking, design and innovation skills to a group 20 elementary school kids if they knew how to draw, all of them put their hand up. Just a few weeks later I was giving a lecture to a group of 52 public health graduate students on the same topic and posed the question to the class (“Who can draw?”). The number who put up their hand? One.
I gave them an exercise where they had to work together to visualize some scenarios using pen and paper and no guidance on how to represent their ideas, simply a request to illustrate their thinking in whatever method they wanted. After 45 minutes I asked the class again if they could draw and every one of them put up their hand.
I didn’t teach them to draw; they were reminded that they could draw.
Remembering our creativity
When we mythologize creativity or treat it like some special ‘thing’ we remove ourselves from the solution space to many problems. Drawing is a simple way to visualize creativity, which is why I do it. The risk in this approach is that people will falsely equate art and design with creativity and I make sure to dispell this in my teaching. Creativity might involve seeing a problem differently and posing suggestions, it might be using your hands, your mind, working with others, challenging assumptions, or even just standing still when everyone else is moving.
As our world becomes more interconnected and complex because of how we travel, socially organize, influence the climate, and communicate, the need to generate new ideas and solutions is imperative to our ability to adapt and survive. Innovation — the creation of new value with intent — is anchored to creativity. We need to innovate to survive.
The only way we will innovate and adapt at the speed we need to in order to meet the challenges posed by this complex world is to increase and enhance our creativity — for all of us. We can’t afford to have ‘innovators’ and ‘non-innovators’; we need it to be all of us. Maybe the innovation is in the design, the sourcing of materials, the construction of the product/service/policy, or it’s implementation, evaluation, or management. Somewhere in all of this is room for creativity.
Some of the real malevolence in creativity is putting boxes around it and pretending that it’s a thing that some have and some don’t. It’s time to be creative about how we think and embrace creativity.