söndag 9 oktober 2016

On creative academic environments (seminar)

I am hired and I work at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID) at KTH, but I am also affiliated with - and as of six months physically sit at - a research center called Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC). It's just one floor below my colleagues at MID and I can sneak up in a minute. The move (new location, new colleagues, new types of conversations around the lunch table and at coffee breaks) has been invigorating as it offers me the chance to establish new connections to people as well as the opportunity to have new ideas. At some point during the spring, I must have talked about this at a coffee break and my colleague Cecilia Katzeff turned out to be really interested.

I more specifically talked about a slim book I have read (and re-read, and leafed through several times) during the last 10 years, Gunnar Törnqvist's (2004) ”Kreativitetens geografi” [Geography of creativity]. Me and Cecilia (and others) started wondering if there was something innit that could be applied to our current situation and the fact that CESC had recently moved to new premises seemed like a good reference point from which we could discuss what characterises creative (academic) environments and how we could become a more creative environment. See further the invitation to the seminar we held this past week (below).

There are so many things I could say about this book and about its implications but I will here settle for just a few. First a few words about my relationship to the book.

Tönrqvist's book was published 10 years ago but already 15 years before that I read the incredibly inspiring text (see below) "A world to understand: Technology and the awakening of human possibility". It made a big impression on me and I explicitly referred to and made use of it at my "trial lecture" for the job position I applied for as an assistant professor at KTH 10+ years ago. That text slots neatly into Törnqvist's book that came out in 2004 and that I read in 2005.

I even brought that book with me to the US on my sabbatical 2.5 years ago. I re-read it and (very ambitiously) prepared notes so as to discuss it with my friend Christer Garbis (with whom I did my ph.d. and who has lived in the US, working with usability and UX for Microsoft and Amazon, for more than 10 years). That was an extremely interesting discussion and I meant to write a blog post about the book-and-article combo back then (May 2014). Instead I bought three copies of the book and sent them to three colleagues of mine (Ann, Björn and Elina). And that was it.

I have since also learned that Törnqvist followed up his slim 2004 book with a heftier 2009 book (and there is apparently a new 2014 edition of that book). I have bought that book, I haven't read it yet but might do it sometime next year. The thing is that I Christer's gave me his notes from reading the book (2014) although my own seem to be long gone. Both his notes and book itself are choke-full with interesting notes, comments and angles. I for example notice that we did two quite different readings of the book back in 2014; Christer was focused on analysing the US companies he had worked for while I was reading the book in a much more instrumental way, asking how I could be part of creating a creative environment in an academic setting. We had thus changed roles compared to an earlier (2005) meeting/reading of the book where I analysed and he applied. My question back in 2014 was "how can you create/build/grow/engineer a creative environment on a shoestring budget?" How can you tap in to people's intrinsic motivations rather than more shallow, fickle and expensive extrinsic motivations?

I even have a note about (based on the book) an optimal research organisation with about:
- 3 full professors
- 3-4 assistant/associate professors
- 4 post-docs
- 10 ph.d. students
- 10-15 master's students

That is altogether 30-36 persons of which 20 persons are salaried but where only 6 have permanent positions and the others stay on for between 2-5 years. For reasons of size, "intertia" and fluidity, exposure to new ideas while at the same time being able to, over longer periods of time, "grind" different ideas against each other seemed like a pretty good approximation for creating the conditions for an "optimally" creative environment. The whole endeavour of course also needs a shared focus, a "mission" and a "vision" and I would nowadays also add 1-3 spaces for visiting scholars and also mandate that this organisation has to have a pretty loose relationship to the "ordinary" day-to-day activities of a (possibly) large institution that hosts the "institute" (such as a university). This by the way is more in line with an optimal organisation for research rather than for teaching although the incorporation of a continuous flow of master's students partly straddles that divide. And now that we have hired an assistant professor in Human-Computer Interaction with a specialization in sustainability - Elina Eriksson - this is the academic research organisation I would like to aim for building up together with her over the next 5-10 years.

The seminar itself was a partial success. Due to other functions of the meeting we only had 37 minutes to discuss the topic "creative environments" (see the invitation below). It was also embarrassingly clear that a small minority of the attendees had read the texts despite the fact that only a modest investment in time was needed to plough through them. I therefore extend an offer to whoever reads this: do feel free to invite me for a new seminar that allows me to reuse the invitation below! Still, there were some interesting outcomes of the seminar and I also have a few thoughts of my own as I leaf through my notes.

We did discuss the very interesting question "have you been part of a creative environment?" and the follow-up questions "what characterised, and what are your experiences of that environment?" Answers and the resulting discussion spanned issues of time and space, architecture, diversity, inclusion/exclusion, affluence (room for thoughts vs. pressure to constantly perform/deliver), social aspects (after-work beer at a pub) as well as administrative and organisational aspects. I feel that the work I do right now, writing an article together with no less than five other very talented persons is part of the most creative work I have ever done, despite that not every person has met every other person physically (we live in cities and on different continents and some didn't know each other before this thinking-and-writing project started).

Some other aspects I think I interesting (each could easily merit a blog post of its own) are:
- the difference between creativity in an academic (research) setting vs artistic endeavours and artistic settings (writing, music, literature etc.)
- the tension between hierarchies and more egalitarian networked work groups and structures
- the tension between small groups ("Small is beautiful") and larger groups and organisations (that tends towards hierarchal relationships)
- the full-on conflict between bureaucracy and creativity/renewal
- the different between creativity/renewal and "normal science" which could include being very diligent, cranking out successful (but not very creative) cookie-cutter articles
- the tension between stability and fluidity
- the connection between money (access to resources, economic might) and creativity
- the importance of informal meeting places (so-called "third places")
- the connection between creativity and variety and diversity but also of it tittering on the edge of chaos (which is not always that nice).
- the connection between creativity as something that (nowadays) flares up for shorter durations vs the attempts of big tech companies (Google, Spotify etc.) to mandate and institutionalise creativity by making the workplace into a space not just for work but also for play
- I am amused by the fact that most of the work in the so-called creative industries (film, computer games etc.) can be supremely uncreative with "the next big thing" being but a variation of the previous big thing, but where large teams with wildly varying and complementary abilities are assembled (and costs money from day 1 - making them extremely amenable to thrusts of (hierarchal) project leadership.

If not already clear, "creative environments" are not necessarily the same thing as productive environments. Or, they probably are productive, but not all productive (or socially inclusive and nice) environments are creative. Törnqvist's questions have much more to do with the creation of genuinely new ideas and schools of thought. It could be that genuinely new ideas come from pressure-cooker environments that drives people to the utmost or beyond (I here think of Tracy Kidder's classic (1981) book "Soul of a new machine"). We had a small discussion at the seminar about inclusiveness and power in relation to creative environments and I'm adamant (although we did not have time to develop or discuss this) that we should not glorify "creative" environments. If you don't measure up, or if you are unpopular or work on something that that no one else is interested it, it might be a terrible environment to be in. You would want the environment you work in to be nice, but that might be partly or fully orthogonal to the most important characteristics discussed here. It could for example be that the ultimate creative environment is also the ultimate "honeypot" that eats you up and spits you out...

Although ultimate creative environments can have lavish access to resources (think of laboratories that produce Nobel-prize-winners), I do think that there is still something to learn from this book since every environment could become more creative than what it is. Very few environments will produce Nobel prize winners, but every environment could surely do more than what they currently do!

Last but not least, I am interested in the opportunity to trawl for "creativity on the cheap" or "creativity on a shoestring budget" in "the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure, in inferiority” (Turner, 1969, p.128). So what is the relationship between creativity and skunkworks projects? Or between creativity and the ability to take a sabbatical? Or between creativity and an ongoing seminar series, a recurring conference, the Swedish "Almedalen week" event or the existence of a temporary (decade-long but no longer!) research center? Where can, and where does creativity happen? Where do genuinely new (schools of) thought come from? What is the role of people who are "magnets" and who have the gift of being able to make others believe in their ideas and in their visions (I met one such person this past weekend - Stephen)?

These were a few of my own thoughts that rolled over me as I sat down to write this blog post. These ideas come from a book that I have read several times and that has made its mark on my thinking. I can easily tie this blog back to the previous blog post about books I've read "recently" (at the end of 2015) about the exact opposite of creative environments; about rules, bureaucracy, stupidity and technology, about obeying instead of thinking for yourself and about all of us slowly but inevitably(?) segueing into an Administration society (with many many unpleasant overtones).

Title: Creative academic environments and implications for CESC 
Presenters: Daniel Pargman & Cecilia Katzeff​.
Date and time: Oct 5:th between 12:30 - 13:30 (bring lunch if you wish to)
Place: At CESC, Lindstedtsvägen 3, fifth floor, room 1537  ​

Swedish retired professor of economic geography, Gunnar Törnqvist, wrote a delightful 90-pages short book, ”Kreativitetens geografi” [Geography of creativity] in 2004 where he asks two key questions:
- Where can we find examples of creative (academic, artistic, literary) environments?
- What characterises such environments?

The answer to the first question is for example:
- Athens 500-400 B.C. (Pericles, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes etc.), 
- Bowdoin College’s class of 1825 (a future US president, the greatest novelist of a generation and various other luminaries)
- Renaissance Florens (Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael etc. under the patronage of Medici)
- Vienna at the turn of the century (Freud, Klimt, Schiele, Mahler, Loos, Zweig, Wittgenstein etc.)
- Manchester at the birth of industrialism (Arkwright, Newcomen, Spinning Jenny, ”Cottonopolis”, steam railways)
- Paris between the wars (Picasso, Dali, Hemingway, Yeats, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gershwin, dadaism, surrealism).
- Cambridge, Stanford and other top universities that harbour (recurring) Nobel-prize winning research environments.
- ”Movements” and ”schools” in arts, architecture, music, literature, technology and science that are anchored in specific geographic environments

A popular culture depiction of a creative environment is to be found in the 1989 movie ”Dead poets' society” (starring Robin Williams).

We present Törnqvist’s book and add two more questions for us to discuss at the CESC lunch seminar:
- How can academic environments become more creative?
- CESC moved to new premises earlier this year. How can CESC become a more creative environment? 

Readings: Please prepare for the seminar by reading two short chapters (see attached files below):
- Törnqvist, G. (2004). "Den institutionella miljön" & "Kreativitetens villkor". From ”Kreativitetens geografi”, SNS Förlag.

For non-Swedish speakers (and everyone else who is interested), please instead read:
- Leebaert, D., & Dickinson, T. (1991). A world to understand: technology and the awakening of human possibility. In Technology 2001 (pp. 293-321). MIT Press.

Very welcome!

Daniel Pargman & Cecilia Katzeff

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