Creative Licence

    Though science and technology earn the limelight, the arts, humanities and social sciences play an essential role in the global economy

    By Omar Mouallem | Illustrations by Raymond Biesinger, '04 BA on April 30, 2012

    Though science and technology earn the limelight, the arts, humanities and social sciences play an essential role in the global economy

    When Todd Babiak, BA ’95, and Shawn Ohler walk into a boardroom, employees aren’t sure what to expect. Are they team builders or consultants? Will Babiak and Ohler ask the employees to catch a colleague’s fall, or are they there to listen to growth strategies? 

    Neither. Babiak and Ohler want to have storytime. 

    “It usually starts off a little quiet for the first while,” says Babiak, a bestselling novelist who launched the consulting company Story Engine last year with Ohler, a former journalist. “We try to show them that, first, a story is really powerful, that everything they remember and admire of their heroes is connected to a story — all the great moments of their careers are story moments. And every company is a story company.” 

    Using their expertise in literature, Babiak and Ohler ask employees to, quite simply, tell a story. “Usually about an hour and a half in, people are loosening their ties and having fun,” says Babiak. “They’re out of that usual business language like ‘stakeholder groups’ and ‘clients’ and ‘synergy’ and ‘ideating.’” He cringes. 

    What, exactly, would organizations like ATB Financial, the Calgary Arts Academy, Port Alberta and the Rural Alberta Development Fund want from these storytellers? Creativity, for the creative economy. 


    Although creativity can’t be measured, its value to the workforce can be. When Forbes polled executives from top-brand companies about creativity last year, more than half said it was critical to create a strong creative culture within their organizations. Nearly the same amount agreed that the business world had already entered an “imagination economy,” while 62 percent of respondents said it’s very important to have creatively inspired leadership. (Curiously, only 39 percent of people in human resources, who do much of the actual hiring, felt the same.) In 2010, IBM surveyed more than 1,500 CEOs and got similar answers: “More than rigour, management discipline, integrity or even vision,” read the report, “[over 60 percent of CEOs polled believe] successfully navigating an increasingly complex world will require creativity.” 

    “‘Creativity’ is making something out of nothing,” says Babiak. “I think it’s very easy to think, ‘How do we make money?’ But it’s very difficult to think, ‘How do we change people’s lives? How do we move people?’” 

    It has been 10 years since popular urban studies theorist Richard Florida made mantras of the terms “creative economy” and “creative class.” His bestselling book The Rise of the Creative Class was never meant to be a corporate manual, though some companies have made it one. However, his observation of a trend in the U.S. workforce — that “creativity-oriented jobs” grew from 10 to 30 percent over the century and “routine-oriented physical jobs” shrunk from 60 percent to 25 percent — helped make The Rise of the Creative Class a household name among the business elite. The former are paid to come up with ideas; the latter to build material goods. Canada is ranked seventh in the world on the Global Creativity Index from the Martin Prosperity Institute, which Florida directs, with its creative class comprising nearly 40 percent of its workforce. 

    The hunger for creativity-oriented companies is so big that the United Kingdom now offers investors a 50 percent tax break for investing in creative startups such as those in the technology, music or film industries, an obvious bet on the future of the new professional class to boost economies. “We are now seeing creativity as the driving force both economically and culturally,” says Florida. “For the first time in human history, the basic logic of our economy dictates that further economic development requires the ongoing development and use of human creative capabilities.” 

    In fact, last year, when Google announced a massive hiring sweep of 6,000 new workers, they wanted about 80 percent of them to be graduates of humanities or liberal arts. What did the biggest Internet company in the world want from them? Their creative abilities, sure, but also interpersonal and critical-thinking skills. In other words, their ability to understand what people want and why they want it. 


    “I’m not sure creative people look at problems completely differently, but we know creative-class jobs often require the highest level of analytic and social skills,” says Florida, who’s also a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and president of consulting company Creative Class Group. 

    “These skills include persuasion, social perceptiveness, the capacity to bring the right people together on a project, the ability to help develop other people and a keen sense of empathy. Essentially, they are the quintessential leadership skills needed to innovate, mobilize resources, build effective organizations and launch new firms.” 

    And this is why Babiak and Ohler are called to help an organization. What Story Engine’s clients are learning, whether they realize it or not, is the power of direct, evocative language, says Babiak. If there’s one commonality he and Ohler have noticed in every boardroom, it’s that they can easily identify the leader — whether by title or social dynamics — because he or she is always the best storyteller. “Whether you’re two or 82, you’re influenced by the same things in life: by story. And natural communicators understand that.” 

    Higher university attendance is one battery in this socioeconomic trend; the second is technology. Author Don Tapscott, ’78 MEd, ’01 LLD (Honorary), described by many as a prophet of the digital age, sees the “net generation” (better known as Gen-Y and Millennials) as the direct benefactors of this revolution, where products don’t necessarily come from someone’s hands or from the ground anymore. Rather, they increasingly come from people’s minds. 

    In a natural-resource-rich region like Alberta, betting on thinkers to shift the economy might sound unbelievable, but it’s not. 

    Cross-Disciplinary Creativity 

    At the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) — a partnership between the U of A and the National Research Council that is perhaps the crystal ball of Canada’s medical, biological and technological industries — interdisciplinary scientists braid together their knowledge to conduct research that could find answers to many problems: energy scarcity, diseases, even the complex field of nanotechnology itself. But something was missing amongst the chemists, physicists and biologists: an artist. 

    Enter the Scholar in Residence Program, launched in 2011 at NINT. The first scholar in residence, U of A associate professor Heather Graves from the departments of writing and English and film studies, was tasked with researching and reporting on the differences in the scientists’ rhetoric. 

    If they are to communicate with one another something that can’t be seen with the eyes, and sometimes, not even with data, understanding each other is key, says George Pavlich, U of A associate vice-president of research. “For nanoscience people, that’s particularly useful for understanding the rhetoric involved in writing and making an argument, which may be different from the way you do it in chemistry.” 

    Pavlich, whose background is in sociology and law, says the skills from an arts and humanities education open unique windows to understanding the world, but we have to mobilize its virtues — critical thinking, human understanding and creativity — to reach their full potential. 

    “The greatest challenge of our time is to find ways to tap into every human’s creativity. ... [It will require industry and university partnerships] to prepare our workforce for the creative jobs of tomorrow.”

    “The greatest challenge of our time,” says Florida, “is to find ways to tap into every human’s creativity.” He says in order to accomplish this, educators can’t just spark students’ imaginations, they must also make sure students take their natural skills down the right paths. “This will require a new way of thinking about education; we will have to experiment with new partnerships, models and environments. It will require stronger partnerships between industry and universities to develop programs to prepare our workforce for the creative jobs of tomorrow.” 

    Pavlich also says creativity is not exclusive to certain parts of academia. In fact, it exists across the entire academy. “I think creativity exists across the board. It takes different forms. What we have to understand is that in the social sciences and the humanities, creativity is harnessed in various ways and is used in different methodological and theoretical approaches.” 

    Shawna Pandya, BSc ’06, is a breathing example of creativity’s amorphousness. The 27-year-old medical student has a scholarly background in neurosciences and space sciences, a business background in information technology and an artistic background in singing and piano. No wonder she looks to Da Vinci for inspiration. 

    She spent her 2009 summer vacation in NASA’s Research Park campus in Silicon Valley, where she was one of 40 students selected from a pool of 1,600 for the inaugural graduate studies program at Singularity University. Co-founded by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil and space scientist Peter Diamandis, the program splits students — whose backgrounds might include law, medicine, computer science or business — into groups to think of a product that would positively impact the lives of one billion people. Pandya’s group decided that challenge was too small. “What if we could positively impact seven billion, instead? What problems do we face that are relevant to everyone?” 

    The answer was disaster response. 


    “The way we do it now, we can actually be doing much, much better. It’s very generic,” says Pandya. When there’s a bomb threat, gas leak or wildfire encroaching on human safety, authorities can put a message out through traditional media and hope all in danger receive it. The smartphone, however, is more pervasive and increasingly more common. By 2015, Pandya estimates, there will be one in every second pair of hands. “We have an exogenous brain,” she says. “[A smartphone is] like having a brain you can hold in your hands.” 

    So her study group invented CiviGuard, a public-safety software application that sends your smartphone automatic notifications when there’s a crisis near you or your loved ones, then gives you a map to safety. CiviGuard can even recognize when a safety zone fills up and will reroute your evacuation accordingly. Not only that, but its built-in toolbox educates users on disaster awareness. 

    Three years later, her class exercise is a startup company that’s getting noticed. Entrepreneur magazine included CiviGuard in its annual 100 Brilliant Companies list. Pandya, the chief marketing officer, works on it from Edmonton, while other members of the team spread its name in their parts of the world, including the U.S., Europe and Asia. 

    Pandya wants to see this kind of unbound collaboration happening at the U of A, and has served as guest lecturer in Dr. Kim Solez’s graduate class Technology and the Future of Medicine, which is open to students of all faculties. “The best innovations come from crossing boundaries among disciplines,” Pandya says. “It comes down to the fact that you have curious people no matter what department you’re in, whether it’s engineering, arts or literature. Curiosity is a fundamental trait.” 

    Shifting the Creative Paradigm 

    In many ways, this type of interdisciplinary work is a return to the University’s roots. When its first president, Henry Marshall Tory, ’28 LLD (Honorary), and Alberta’s first premier, Alexander Rutherford, ’08 LLD (Honorary), established the institution, they borrowed a German academic philosophy that the arts and sciences were codependent. Hence, the original Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where modern languages, physics, English, history, classics and mathematics collided like electrons around a nucleus and blended like paint on a palette. 

    But over the next half-century, a split occurred and further divided academia into segmented faculties. Today, the public debate persists over the value of such courses as gender and religious studies, world history, contemporary music and just about anything coming out of an arts faculty that seemingly doesn’t have a direct career path. 

    So what are “creative” courses of study worth? “I deeply resent giving that value an answer,” says Beverly Lemire, professor of history, Henry Marshall Tory Chair and founding director of the U of A’s Material Culture Institute, based in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences and the Faculty of Arts. “Teaching people to think more creatively is a deeper and more profound value than I can qualify.” 

    “What was studiously defaulted as ‘arts’ is enjoying a new paradigm. The artists aren’t the entertainers, they’re actually the innovators.”

    She continues, “Creativity is something that’s been recognized in various circles, including corporate circles, for a long time. And the capacity to present yourself, and information, coherently, in a polished and well-organized fashion, is a skill that only comes with practice, and that’s what students get with an arts degree.” 

    The reason for this divided attitude, hypothesizes music alumna Haley Simons, ’85 BA, ’00 PhD, is because the prosperous post-war world saw universities as job creators, not citizen creators. 

    Simons is president of CreativeAlberta, a non-profit organization in Edmonton that’s based on a U.S. model from the Lincoln Center Institute for Arts in Education. One of CreativeAlberta’s intents is to influence the public education system and promote cross-disciplinary work to help make the province renowned for its creative and innovative output in education, commerce and culture. The more Simons dedicates herself to the cause, the more cross-disciplinary work she sees coming out of the U of A. “We’ve come full circle in about a century. That’s not bad.” 

    It’s a far cry from her days as a student, she says. “I started on this campus in 1981 and I’ve never seen the inside of most buildings,” she says. “All through my bachelor’s degree and my doctorate, I didn’t have to step out of the Fine Arts Building very much at all.” At least it was easy to get between classes, she jokes. 

    Up until this point, Simons says she could sum up her life story in 20 words: “From the time I was three years old, I was trained to be a pianist. And I became a pianist.” But the more she performed on world stages, the angrier she got with how the arts were viewed: as a thrill, and the artists as pure entertainers. “Imagination is not unicorns and rainbows. It’s not fiddlers; it’s not jugglers; it’s so much bigger. What was studiously defaulted as ‘arts’ is enjoying a new paradigm. The artists aren’t the entertainers, they’re actually the innovators.” 

    But while the U of A looks to inspire creative collaboration at the post-secondary level, one of CreativeAlberta’s key goals is to nurture it in early childhood education. Simons wants to see a measurement tool that goes beyond math and language arts skills, to quantify creativity with a model similar to one used in Massachusetts public schools. Further, she believes a sustainable society has four pillars: cultural vitality, environmental responsibility, social equity and economic health. “There’s an opportunity to talk about the role of creativity as vital in all of these areas,” she says, adding “and education is not only one of them, but is, in fact, the point at which it starts.” 


    This way, Simons says, creativity is not something “trained and ingrained” just in the artists of the world, but in the entire global workforce. “I don’t believe in this arts-versus-sciences attitude — I don’t believe it exists. There’s a huge overlap and a huge collaborative potential.” 

    Babiak agrees and asks: “Should we continue removing and constricting arts, liberal arts and fine arts from our economies? Or should we start experimenting with injecting that into these very important disciplines like science, technology and engineering?” He adds, “We have to be oriented around an ideas economy. Everyone in the world wants that. Everyone wants the same thing, and they’re all fighting for that.” 

    Lemire says friction is the best way to ignite those ideas, and throughout history and today, urban centres have been the best places for friction. “You have the literal friction of the streets, where you’re rubbing against each other and you see so many things and you hear so many things,” she says. “Universities have always been city equivalents, even if they’re in cities that aren’t very large.” 

    For many undergraduates who come from communities across Canada and the world, as well as for those from Edmonton, the U of A is their first taste of this collision of concepts, of personalities, of philosophies. In his book Who’s Your City?, Florida says the most important decision people make is not what they study but where they live after their studies — where they’ll take their ideas next. 

    Increasingly, it’s Edmonton and Calgary, which a 2011 Statistics Canada survey listed as the nation’s fastest-growing cities, yes, but also malleable metros receptive to new ideas, some successful, most not. 

    “Change something, whatever it is. If you want to do something weird, if you want to fail, fail here,” says Babiak. “You’re never going to change New York, Vancouver and Toronto, [but] you can actually make something in Edmonton. There’s a real appetite for it. I think graduating [from university] in Edmonton at this moment would be a thrilling thing.”