C. Jama Adams | The creativity challenge: Part One
Jaheim is a 30-something-year-old man who lives with his wife, LaShonda, off Maxfield Road in a house with a large yard. While both of them are literate, they did not attain passes in CXC English or mathematics. They had a small hardware business in a shop that was burnt down and it is not clear how they currently generate an income. The yard has an abundance of fruit trees and vegetable patches that they have cultivated. They currently have no direct water supply, as there was an unpaid bill by the previous tenant and the water supply was cut off, a decision they are currently trying to have reversed.
Jaheim hustles at low-value work but aspires to be a designer of robots. On his cell phone, he was able to show me sites that he visits in his goal to design a walking robot. He is hampered by bandwidth problems and does not have easy access to low-cost Internet services, a large monitor or tutoring in robotics. He has a friend with a similar interest, who also has access difficulties.This is a very common problem in underserved communities; there is an abundance of talent alongside a lack of low-cost and easily accessible infrastructure to transform that talent into marketable skills that can, in turn, raise productivity at the individual, community and national levels.
It is challenging to define creativity, as it speaks to a wide range of characteristics. Some are self-states such as curiosity, an attraction to novelty or being comfortable playing with ideas or solving problems. So, for example, let us say that you were charged with addressing the problem of inappropriate behaviour by teenagers at the Half-Way Tree Transportation Centre, what would be your process? What would you do differently? Or if you were asked to address the recent upsurge in crime, what would you do? Would you throw up your hand in despair and ask for divine intervention? Would you suggest reintroducing hanging? What would be original or innovative in your ideas? These are not problems that computers can solve on their own, as they involve human behaviour which is often not rational, and is often infused with strong emotions. So they require thinking processes that are not limited to the rules of logic and rationality.
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Another feature of creativity speaks to skill sets such as an ability to perceive new relationships or to act against the norm. So Picasso, the famous artist was able to look at the seat and handle bars of a bicycle and use them to construct the head of a bull, was able to see a relationship that most of us missed. I have a student who routinely buys expensive jeans that are torn, and have plenty eyeholes. Clearly, that clothing designer is acting against the established way of thinking of what is fashionable. Think of the vocal style of early dancehall artistes such as Shabba, who embraced a Patois-based style of articulation that made us rethink what was 'nice singing' and thus created a new, quickly admired and much-imitated genre of musical expression.
So the challenge we face is twofold: How do we tutor the imagination to transform inherent talent into skills? We also need to think carefully as to the systems and processes we have to put in place to ensure a supply of skilled individuals who can generate innovative ideas, processes or products. Talent is not an issue as at least two per cent of any given large population has individuals who are very talented in some area or the other. Clearly a Shaggy or a Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce are products of a combination of extraordinary talent, enlightened tutoring and persistence.
Around 94 per cent of the population is quite capable of being very creative, even if we do not gain international recognition. So in thinking about Jamaica being more productive, the issue is not talent but, instead, the creations of systems to turn talent into skills.
In our increasingly globalised marketplace, we face both a challenge and an opportunity with regards to creativity. The challenge is the increased presence of thinking machines that carry out routine tasks at increasingly lower costs. This results in the elimination of jobs that do not require much creative input. This is happening across all industries, including law (increasingly discerning search engines), medicine (robot surgeons and diagnosticians) aviation (computer pilots), automated checkout machines and driverless cars. The process where evolution appears to favour the smart over the strong has been going on for millions of years but now seems to be happening faster than ever.
The opportunity is that those who are creative will not lack interesting work and will enjoy high status and good pay. So in the continuation of this article, we will address the systemic aspects of creativity. Given that the talent is there, how do we build systems that can transform it into skill?
- C. Jama Adams, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with publications and extensive experience in the areas of child and family psychology, at-risk youth and organisation psychology. He is also an associate professor and chairperson in the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice-City University of New York.