Tim Brown discusses how creativity has an essential role in education

It was good to see a strong focus on education at Davos this year. There seems to be a growing realization that basic issues such as education, health and employment require fundamental reinvention if we are to face the coming challenges of a more volatile interconnected world.

One session at the Annual Meeting that I particularly enjoyed discussed the addition of creative and artistic education to the traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) agenda. John Maeda, Carol Becker, Justine Cassell and Tomas Saraceno made a compelling case for the benefits of cross-fertilization between arts and sciences.

Maeda mentioned that the Rhode Island School of Design (of which he is President) was founded on the idea of the economic benefits of design. A similar case was made for the founding of both the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Artist Tomas Saraceno showed an inspiring example of how science can help art achieve its creative goals and, along the way, create new science, while Carol Becker, Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, talked about how the arts helps develop, what she calls, the “particularity” of the person. The idea of individuality and unique creative contribution would seem to have a role in both the arts and the sciences.

The overall conclusion from the session was that creativity has an essential role to play in education, whether for the purposes of enhancing technical innovation or for creating well-rounded graduates who can truly contribute to society.

This same insight, along with many others, emerged from the first roundtable held by the Global Agenda Council on Design & Innovation in November 2012.

Design and innovation impact every aspect of the world around us. Everything made by humanity has been designed in some way. Sometimes the design is intentional and elegant; many times it is unintentional and far from optimal. The Global Agenda Council on Design & Innovation plans to host a series of conversations about topics on which design and innovation is having, or might have, a significant impact.

The first of these, on the future of education, was held at the World Economic Forum’s New York headquarters in November 2012. The event was moderated by Council Chair, Paola Antonelli. Speakers were Seth Andrews (Founder of Democracy Prep), Toshiko Mori (Harvard Graduate School of Design), Paul Kruchoski(US Department of State) and Tim Brown (IDEO).

You can see the full transcript of the conversation here. For those who prefer their information in a highly distilled form, check out Landon Brown’s wonderful visual graphic of the session.

The overall theme of the conversation was one of enormous potential for improvement in the quality of our education systems, but only if there is a willingness to question assumptions, design for the whole system and sensibly exploit new technology.

Many examples were cited of successful approaches to the redesign of education but, as Seth Andrews argued, there is a lack of commitment to scaling and spreading new solutions. Toshiko Mori suggested that some of our fundamental assumptions about education may be wrong. Our existing industrial metaphor that causes us to focus on qualifications as “product” should be replaced with an agricultural metaphor that emphasizes lifelong learning. Others might suggest that the role of our education system remains to produce graduates with employable skills and that the primary challenge is to figure out what those skills should be. Until there is agreement on the core purpose of education, and its role in society, it seems unlikely that there will be agreement on any particular design strategies.

Education is currently rife with paradoxes and tensions. Seth Andrews argued that quality of education eventually comes down to quality of teaching talent, while Paul Kruchoski suggested that new technologies such as MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) might allow many more students to access high quality educational content.

Design is a perfect lens through which to look at these kinds of tensions. The best creative response might be one that encourages high levels of teaching skills, but simultaneously makes those precious resources available to the maximum number of students through the use of technology and other innovations.

One of the most crucial tensions within education systems globally is that while there an ever greater need for better education to support growth in jobs and economies, the costs of providing this education are becoming unsustainable. This alone will force governments, the private sector and civil society to innovate and to create more radical redesigns for the provision of education in the future.

Author: Tim Brown is Chief Executive Officer of IDEO and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on Design & Innovation.

Image: Visual by Landon Brown, Director of Vision Arc.