Despite the importance of creativity to human flourishing, our understanding of it is still nascent, even though the universality of the creative process suggests the possibility that the conditions fostering the highest levels of creativity may be understandable through the use of the scientific method. Our team aims to fill this void by investigating from a quantitative, systematic perspective the set of conditions, from the individual to the environmental, that foster creativity of the highest level. Our interest in creativity is not something new. Indeed, the research of our interdisciplinary colleagues at NICO has in common its focus on complex and emergent systems—systems whose behavior as a whole is more than the sum of the behaviors of its parts. Creativity clearly falls within this area.
Indeed, scholars increasingly recognize that creativity needs to be understood as an emergent phenomenon resulting from interactions among individuals. We know that creativity is typically spurred when diverse ideas are united or when proven innovations in one domain are introduced into a new domain, inspiring fresh thinking and solutions to old problems. These structural preconditions of creativity also suggest that creativity is not, as it has often been characterized, “the brazen insight of loners.” Rather, creativity is the consequence of complex networks of strongly interacting individuals. Sociologist Randall Collins argues that only three highly creative individuals—first-century Taoist meta-physicist Wang Chung, fourteenth-century Zen spiritualist Bassui Tokusho, and fourteenth-century Arabic philosopher Ibn Khaldun—appear to fit the loner model. In great detail he shows that many others, including Freud, Picasso, Watson, Crick, Beethoven, and Hegel, were embedded in networks comprising other artists, scientists, philosophers, and researchers who shared ideas. In science, these networks of social and professional contacts link researchers across institutions and generate new ideas. Sociologists of science Derek de Solla Price and Robert K. Merton have called these networks “invisible colleges.”
Our own research has examined how widespread teams have become in all branches of science and patenting, how this change is affecting the quality of research, and whether loners compete well in the new team-based scientific world. Our findings show that the shift to teams is universal across all areas of science; that teams on average produce more highly cited papers and patents and that the gap is increasing annually. Creativity is increasingly a product of teams and networks. An additional challenge is the changing nature of the requirements for innovations. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press dramatically increased the accessibility of our accumulated knowledge to the educated minority, enabling the creative crossover of knowledge from one domain to another. However, in recent years the cumulative knowledge in the world’s data repositories has grown exponentially. Less than two centuries ago, Goethe could be conversant in essentially all areas of intellectual pursuit, from poetry to law, from botany to physics. Less than a century ago, remarkable physicists such as Feynman or Landau could have a deep understanding of all areas of physics research.
Those days are gone. Today no single person can be conversant with the whole of even a single field, say all of physics research or all of cancer research. At the same time, we are facing some of the most significant challenges we have faced as a species, including global climate change, population growth beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity, global depletion of natural resources, and worldwide epidemics. Creativity and innovation are now more needed than ever.