Can a Developing Nation Be Creative?

Nicholas Negroponte asks the above question in one of the articles from the latest issue of ITID [abstract] [full source]. From what I gather, he posits that for developing nations to be successful, they require “.. discipline, team playing, and efficiencies that come from standardized,controlled, preplanned, and highly regulated environments” but that same discipline and highly regulated environment discourages creativity.

“By contrast, a creative society values and expects different social qualities, almost all of them in the service of imagination. Originality, resourcefulness, and inventiveness are central to the personality of creative people. They can be very contrarian. Expression and individualism are also high on the list. A creative culture welcomes and even encourages a healthy questioning of authority, especially when it is authority for authority‚Äôs sake. Complexity and contradiction provide the rich soil for growing new ideas. Quality of life comes from design and invention, and the arts play a central role.”

I found this interesting because I think that this formula is exactly the opposite of what you see in the lifecycle of a corporation, a much smaller organism than a country, but a culture nonetheless. A startup is full of creative people with new ideas, inventions, etc. If the startup lives long enough, new management is likely brought in, rules are created, the free soda goes away and you have to report to your desk at 8am or else you get written up (like you’re in 3rd grade all over again). Nicholas postulates that this is the exact situation facing students in their first years of school:

“By contrast, all the behavioral characteristics needed to jump-start and accelerate economic development seem to be the opposite, and those lead to a very uncreative environment. This is often most manifest in primary education, where the typical emphasis on drill and practice makes kids fearful to ask questions, frightened to make mistakes, and afraid to be different.”

The situation described in the quote above is eerily similar to the environment I work in: people are punished for making mistakes, afraid to be different and don’t question authority.

This then begs the question: can an established organization be creative? Jason Kottke recently posted a link to a speech that Paul Depodesta (at the time assistant general manager to the A’s, now the general manager of the Dodgers) gave at a CSFB conference (in a weird turn of events, CSFB removed the speech from the web, Jason has archived it here). In the speech he talks about his experience working in the Cleveland Indians:

“Going back to my time with the Indians, we were enormously successful during this time. The stadium was sold out every night, we were going to the playoffs every year, we were making more money than any other team in the game, but I could see that our process was really starting to slip. Before I had arrived with the Indians they had a phenomenal process. They had done a great job of scouting players, developing players, they were very innovative in the way they signed players to multi-year contracts, but ultimately we got away from that.

All of our success to some degree actually began to stifle our innovative spirit, and we started slipping from the upper left column of the deserved success.

He goes on to mention that because the Indians were successful at the time, there was no impetus for change, no reason to be creative:

Seemingly, at least on the surface, there really was no crisis in Cleveland. We really were just trying to hang on, rather than continue to push forward.

In short, he had to go to a team (the Oakland A’s) that was losing, both games and money, in order to ask his questions. Can established organizations be creative? Maybe failure, not catastrophic failure, but failure nonetheless, is a prerequisite for creativity.

4 thoughts on “Can a Developing Nation Be Creative?”

  1. Aaron, thanks for posting the link to the Negroponte article. My wife and I lived in Singapore in 2002 when it was publicly grappling with the creativity question. To an outsider, it looked like Singapore was attempting to impose creativity top-down instead of allowing it to bubble up from the bottom.

    Here’s an example: there’s a neighborhood near Holland Road where a lot of affluent foreigners live. Singapore wanted to make the area more “bohemian,” like Greenwich Village in NYC, so the government came up with the idea of importing jugglers.

    A lot of the traits required to bootstrap a society into higher living standards are antithetical to creativity.

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