21st Century Creativity
Catalysing 21st Century Creativity: Only Connect
Andy Homden thinks that the work of Professor Chris Toumazou at Imperial College sheds light on what schools should be doing to unlock long term student creativity in an age of intense professional specialisation.
It is generally true to say that over the last two hundred years, and especially in the last fifty, professional and academic life has become increasingly specialised. What is worth knowing is worth knowing in depth. Renaissance person – the talented all-rounder, whose understanding easily crosses academic boundaries, is very much an endangered species and as a result we retreat into our own dens of understanding and discuss matters with people who are not only like-minded but who have sufficient specialist knowledge to conduct a satisfying conversation. These dens are the “silos” of modern management speak.
Most professional gatherings and organisations by definition bring together people from similar backgrounds and together their members tread well-trodden paths. However in the age of 21st century specialisation, one of the possible pre-conditions for catalysing creativity may be to bring together different kinds of people and make sure that they listen to each other properly.
If this is the case, what might a high-powered 21st Century centre of creative excellence look like? Perhaps a bit like the Institute of Bio-medical engineering at Imperial College, London, founded by Professor Chris Toumazou. Toumazou has to be one of the most creative thinkers in modern science. European Inventor of the Year in 2014 and awarded a Regius professorship in 2013, his work in the field of low powered analogue microchip technology is starting a revolution in the treatment of a range of illnesses which is about to have a profound impact on the demand for hospital beds. Toumazou is not a clinician, however; he is an electrical engineer.
There have always been gifted individuals with amazing powers of insight. Toumazou himself says that an idea often comes to him before the problem that it solves, and he describes much of his important creative thinking as intuitive. This might, perhaps, be what we expect of a “creative thinker”. What makes him different, however, is that he senses that creative solutions arising from profound insight come not from the meeting of like minds, but from the meeting of unlike minds. He knew that his own thinking was already crossing boundaries when he set up the Institute with the encouragement of Sir Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial, in 2004. For his kind of approach to bear fruit he had to work with people who really knew the geography on the other side of the frontiers he was crossing. Toumazou insisted that the Institute was staffed with researchers from totally different academic backgrounds – electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, physiologists and medical clinicians. They were all to be creative equals, which was especially liberating for the engineers who tend to be regarded as technicians in traditional medical faculties. Once they all got used to the fact that they had to listen to each other and collaborate, the result has been a staggering output of creativity which has produced a range of diagnostic and prosthetic devices which are both life-saving and life-changing.
Those familiar with IB principles will see where I am heading with this. In the 21st Century world of intense academic and professional specialisation, the qualities of effective collaboration and cross curricular inquiry would seem to present the best, if not the only model for the development of a 21st Century creative mind-set. As they move through school it has never been more important for students to develop the practice of using their peripheral vision and to cultivate the habit of looking for connections to the world on the other side of their own boundaries. If, by the time young people leave high school they are always on the lookout for opportunities to make connections between what they know, and what completely different people know, their creative potential is, I would suggest, immeasurably enhanced.
For a succinct and very entertaining insight into the thinking of Chris Toumazou, hear him speaking with Professor Jim Al-Khalili in the BBC Radio 4 series, The Life Scientific. A short introduction and all the necessary links can be found in ITM in our resource section. Just click on the Radio 4 image.
Andy Homden is the founder of Consilium Education.