The second story: I was on my way back from a conference in Utah (where, yes, one of my colleagues really did get propositioned to become someone's third wife...) two days ago. A friend, a provost at a southern university, had given me a ride to the airport and said, as we were walking shoelessly through security, "We need to sit down sometime so I can pick your brain about innovation." I gave her my increasingly standard line about innovation not being a verb (see this blog 6/19 and 6/28, 2008). "Well, then, what IS the verb?" she asked. I thought for a few seconds and said, "re-imagining constraints."
A couple of years ago, I heard the architect Stephen Kieran differentiate between innovation and invention. "Invention is cheap. Novelty is a dime a dozen, but real innovations are hard-won. They have to perform, and they have to change the baseline for what comes after." Too much of what we think of as "creativity" is merely churn, something that's different in order to be different. That's a fine marketing technique in an overcrowded product field, but has nothing to do with the merit of the ideas or the craft of their execution.
So here's a series of questions I'd put forward in any condition to imagine how much "creativity" is a good thing.
- Can you describe, in exacting detail, the human aspirations and relationships that should be enhanced by your work? And are your answers broadly held or idiosyncratic?
- Is there a "status quo" or a contextually accepted condition that reaches those ends? It's pretty rare that the answer to this is no. If you're building the first offices on the moon, there aren't any other moon offices to copy, but there's a long history of what information-based work life entails. If you're building the first vacation house on a particular lake, there's still a vast array of "vacation house" that acts as precedent. And that status quo goes beyond building types — if you want your school to be a place of deep collegial thought, look at monasteries and good taverns instead of schools.
- Is that status quo pretty good? If so, leave it alone and do the best possible iteration of it that you can, respectful of both history and local circumstances.
- If the status quo needs significant improvement, then which exact parts need to be improved, and what evidence do you bring to make that case? Let's take the suburban house as a simple example. It uses far too many materials, expends far too much energy, and causes far too much driving. Those are all pretty empirical questions, and the basis of those concerns is a contemporary awareness that energy is not infinite and that consuming energy changes our atmosphere, neither of which were common knowledge or belief in 1953. But to propose a new form or a new arrangement of rooms presumes that the current form or arrangement "doesn't work," which is a far more subtle and positioned argument requiring difficult evidence. And that evidence is rarely forthcoming.