Mother of Invention

In a recent WEB survey of creativity research trends (1990-2015), a curious pattern emerged: By 1990, studies on the impact of collaboration peaked leaving a new generation of investigators to examine questions around the process of creative idea generation and the creative personality.  Looking across 1400 documents using a strategy of common keyword search, five themes of research preoccupation emerged: performance, innovation, personality, divergent thinking and creative process. Considering that studies of divergent thinking have long dominated creativity research interests since Guilford and Torrance first identified the metics, there is no surprise in finding divergent thinking still in the mix.  Nor should we underestimate the impetus to dissect creativity as a process.  Rather in today’s climate of robust technological ventures, making sense of the creative process may just maximize its effects across all technologically disrupted industry landscapes — business, entertainment, health and education duly noted.

But what of the peaking creativity research interest in collaboration?  Have we thoroughly dissected the mechanics of collaboration?  Or has research been lacking in enough kernels of insight to warrant research dollars? Keeping track of news on the growth of automation, machine learning and robots as the new labor force, perhaps questions of creative collaboration are now simply relegated to probing the human-machine interface.

However you cut the proverbial creativity research pie, the social and biological dynamics of collaboration are such that despite trends in creativity research interest, we as a human society are showing new signs of increased collaboration, especially as we grow into cowork and postwork artisan/gig cultures.* In either scenario, the creative sharing of ideas, skills, and space will operate as the mother of invention of our human-machine futures. 

By this I mean, as a network of spatial design, technological and knowledge industry professionals, RotoLab team members imagine a near future where cowork spaces are the spaces for the postwork generation forming as a result of automation replacing the human head and hand.  Consider the trends:  Young entrepreneurs gather daily in Hubs and in assorted varieties of cowork spaces around the globe to start up businesses and engage in acts of ‘knowledge trading.’  Retired factory workers along with citizen scientists and teenage pop technologists, already active in defining the work values and rituals of postwork communities, are meeting in recuperated brick and mortar artisan foundries and mobile maker trucks and buses.  Even Libraries, now servicing the career needs of local city residents, enter the collaborative arena offering literacy and job hunting skills for the yet to be employed.  What first appears as a revival of a romantic Arts and Crafts movement, is, in fact, the shaping of a new age of invention, bearing the marks of technological growth and creative collaboration.

Creative collaboration in concert with artificial intelligence, in other words, will define the platform, the algorithms and the tools for 21st century human-machine survival. Taking lessons from social-cognitive and biological neuroscience insights, we find two prevailing theories of human survival featuring creative collaboration as a dynamic agent of primate behavior:

  1. Collaboration makes for a bigger brain: As UCLA prof Matt Lieberman* sees it, our need for “sociality”  is a good predictor of brain size, goading us on to innovate by cooperatively engaging in problem-solving.  (Here problem-solving is a stand in word for creative thinking.) Weighing evolutionary anthropology together with evolutionary neuroscience, Lieberman reminds us that living in large groups (150 average) is correlated with the growth of the neocortex as is individual innovation and social learning. 
  2. Collaboration makes for good biomimicry: Today the study of human neurobiology is afforded a booster upgrade by computational imaging studies, pointing the way to a connectome theory of the human brain.* Neural networks connect to other neural networks.  Cells connect to other cells.  While nascent as far as neuroscience discovery goes, connectome theory is resonant with current systemic understanding of cellular dynamics found throughout human biology: Heart, Liver, Pancreas – at the cellular level, our vital organs all are made of cells that efficiently collaborate with other cells to establish and maintain that most precious code of life, homeostasis. A recent opportunity to work with our World Building partner Experimental reaffirmed and stretched our thinking around creative collaboration operating at micro and macro levels of generative human and artificial life systems.

With so much at stake in assuring creative collaboration keeps the human in the equation of the human-machine interface and cowork / postwork futures, let’s remember our neurobiological capacity as grounds for reattributing weight to human enterprise.  As for betting on the growth of our neural real estate, if creativity and neuroscience research teach us anything, we are bound to grow bigger brains from design thinking and problem-solving with machines in, on and around our bodies as well as by our side.

*Sources cited:

Matt Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Crown Publishers 2013.

Sebastian Seung, Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012.

Derek Thompson, A World Without Work, Atlantic Magazine, July / August 2015.

Rich Williams, Mark Runco and Eric Berlow, Mapping the Themes, Impact, and Cohesion of Creativity Research over the Last 25 Years, Creativity Research Journal: Vol 28, No 4, 2017.


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