Paolo Bianchi and Gabrielle Schmid are both lecturers and creative coaches at the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK. They teach CAS Creationship, a program that is not aimed at artists but at people who want to pursue an innovative project with the help of creative methods. In this interview they look into the question of how creativity can be promoted.
Creativity is an enticing but vague term. What do you understand by it?
Paolo Bianchi: I understand creativity as a resource, as a human capacity that can be activated and promoted. In our educational program we work with the concept of applied lateral thinking. This term implies that creativity is an act and not a thing. Applied lateral thinking is thinking around corners that can transform routines.
Gabrielle Schmid: Creativity is connected with an attitude. As creativity coaches we see our mission in preparing the ground for the students so that they can develop the attitude of creativity.
Some educators are convinced that learning per se is a creative process. What do you think about this?
PB: The dialogue between teachers and learners can be more or less creative. Where the focus is on appropriation processes, for example when teaching accounting or Excel, there may not be many creative moments. I would only speak of creativity when a process of transformation takes place.
How can such transformations be set in motion?
GS: The important thing is to provide a vessel or room for experiments. If a group uses this space as a free space for experiments and discoveries without specific objectives, creative processes are set in motion. Everyone brings their own rucksack full of knowledge and experience and starts searching with the help of creative methods without knowing exactly where the journey will end. It is a kind of treasure hunt, focusing on self-exploration and dealing with your own personal development. Creativity methods are only effective if one succeeds in turning oneself into a practical human being who constantly rises to the challenges.
What does this mean for your role as a coach and facilitator?
GS: Applied lateral thinking needs spaces for opportunities, for a kind of learning that relies on action and experience. As facilitators, we try to convey the basic attitude that there are always several ways to grasp things and solve problems. Heinz von Förster once formulated the principle: “Always act in such a way that the number of choices increases”. This is a good motto for the promotion of and demand for creativity.
How do you manage to convey applied lateral thinking as an attitude?
PB: First of all, it takes time, i.e. the willingness to embark on a journey lasting several months, to take detours, to get lost sometimes. Lateral thinking comes about through a process of trying out and experimenting, through trial and error, and also through the presence of coincidence. The impossible also plays a role as this shows what is possible in the first place.
Creativity is often also understood as an inspiration that comes to you when you relax in your hammock. But you speak of lateral thinking. What kind of thinking is that?
PB: It is a crossover thinking between disciplines that lives from paradoxes. Opposites are the real royal road to creativity. And vice versa: The way someone deals with contradictions is an indication of the extent to which his or her creativity profile is shaped. Studies show that tolerance for the “as well as” and flexibility in dealing with contradictions are elementary characteristics of creative personalities. The contrast is the basis for creative being and doing.
There is nothing wrong with hammocks, by the way, but they should perhaps be made of barbed wire. Lateral thinking requires a certain resistance to expectations and habits.
In the educational context and in the economy, there is a growing number of people who consider creativity to be an important key competence of the future. Is creativity really becoming more important or is interest in it just a passing trend?
PB: Creativity actually seems to be gaining in importance. In the World Economic Forum WEF’s current ranking of the most important competencies, creativity is at the top of the list alongside critical thinking and problem-solving skills. So far, business and education have cultivated a certain one-sidedness, rational thinking has been promoted much more than emotional, artistic or playful approaches to knowledge and action. However, the problems are becoming more and more complex, and the realization is gradually gaining ground that without creativity rational thinking is not able to solve these problems.
So yes, creativity is actually gaining in importance, which is not just a fashionable phenomenon, but stands for an existential basic need.
GS: Brain research confirms this assessment. Creativity is a fundamental resource that we need to survive. Darwin was convinced that it is not the strongest that will survive, but the most creative, the most diverse, the most agile that can adapt.
So is creativity turning from a luxury commodity into a basic skill that everyone should have?
PB: The megatrend is moving in that direction, yes. But creativity should not be declared the general norm. That would contradict the essence of creativity, which is based on curiosity, openness to new experiences, independence, stubbornness and flexibility.
At our TRANSIT events, scenarios for the future of adult education were outlined. Three scenarios were created on the topic of creativity: Slow learning as learning without predefined learning goals and certificates; the creation of spaces of opportunity in which experiments are encouraged and new things can be tried out; learning formats that would be developed jointly by teachers and learners in a collaborative way. In your opinion, are these ideas suitable for promoting creativity in adult education?
GS: I think that these approaches are useful. Spaces of opportunity that allow experimentation and encourage independent thinking help to support creativity. Collaborative approaches also seem promising to me, but I think that the input of knowledge by experts should be part of such processes.
PB: I find the scenarios of the TRANIST event exciting, but I see a problem in them: The scenarios turn away from something existing towards something new, something undefined. So there is the danger of setting new trends and following them until you suddenly realise: Oops, that might not be a good replacement for the previous model after all. And suddenly you find yourself in a conventional setting and the beautiful scenario was just a short-lived trend.
Instead of just turning away from the old and towards the new, it would be advisable to work with counter-concepts and opposites. I would try to set an alchemical process in motion that would allow the traditional and the progressive, with all their contradictions, to clash. In our program we look for the complementation of opposites, so that what is incompatible can be found in a union. An anxiety seminar is contrasted with the creation of a self-confidence profile with the goal of gaining an holistic view.
How would this look in concrete terms in relation to the scenarios?
PB: With the collaborative formats scenario, for example, we would say: we integrate the participatory aspect into the teaching by opening up a playground for collaborative experimentation. We lay out a carpet on which the new can emerge. The collaborative setting would thus be complementary to the traditional setting. We use complementarity as a creative principle, trying to put together different and diverse things.
GS: If you understand creativity as a game with paradoxical opposites, you always work with a “as well as”, the most important thing being what happens between the poles. It’s not about choosing A, B or C, but about a variety of changing combinations between A, B and C. This is where the leap from a previous level of thinking to a new one takes place. This is the actual flash of inspiration.
In other words: By keeping the old spaces and relating them to the new, a field of action for creative development is created. Creativity is often equated with divergent thinking. However, both convergent and divergent thinking are needed; what is important is their interaction, in short: the free play of opposites.
Paolo Bianchi (Hrsg.): Ressource Kreativität. Anstiftungen zum Querdenken, erschienen als Band 250 von «Kunstforum International», Köln 2017.
Gerald Hüther: Was wir sind und was wir sein könnten. Ein neurobiologischer Mutmacher, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt a.M. 2011.
Hans Ulrich Reck: Kritik der Kreativität, Herbert von Halem Verlag, Köln 2019.
Doris Rothauer: Kreativität. Der Schlüssel für eine neue Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Facultas Verlag, Wien 2016.