We must retro-fit today's workers to create creativity

Hamish McRae: 'There is no magic wand except to realise this must happen now'

A few years ago an economist did a study on the different ways UK and German schoolchildren were taught design. In Germany, the boys were asked to design a piece of woodwork, a chair or a cabinet. They did detailed scale drawings of the project then made the piece to these specifications. They varnished it and brought it home to their parents to admire. The girls, as I recall, made clothes.

A few years ago an economist did a study on the different ways UK and German schoolchildren were taught design. In Germany, the boys were asked to design a piece of woodwork, a chair or a cabinet. They did detailed scale drawings of the project then made the piece to these specifications. They varnished it and brought it home to their parents to admire. The girls, as I recall, made clothes.

In Britain, by contrast, the children were given a blank sheet of paper and crayons, and told to design an airport.

This, said the study, showed why Britain lagged Germany in developing engineering skills. Our education system did not teach the orderly, disciplined approach useful to manufacturing industry. As a result, our products were sloppy in design and production and German manufacturers walked all over us.

At the time, this seemed a reasonable criticism of our education system and, to some extent, it still is. But there was one thing our loose approach to design did teach and that was raw creativity.

Creativity, along with clusters and human capital, has become one of the buzz-words of the New Economy. It is the focus of a new booklet Creativity Works, published next Monday by the "world's most creative" ad agency, BMP DDB.

Aside from the little matter that a most creative ad agency might be able to create a more memorable name for itself, the booklet is a useful celebration of the importance of this human quality. It includes a foreword by Gordon Brown, is publicised by his wife's PR company, Hobsbawm Macaulay and it has a string of articles by such luminaries as Gerry Robinson and Martha Lane Fox explaining what creativity means to them.

The fact that BMP DDB should be addressing the issue in this way and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be prepared to pen an intro to it set me thinking about whether creativity really has become more important, and if so, why?

After all, creativity was always important in commercial activities. It took creativity to envision the railways, to see there was a general commercial use for two technologies that had been used only in mining, the rail track and the steam pumping engine. It took creativity in Henry Ford to spot that you could build cars on a moving production line, an idea he supposedly got when looking at meat carcasses swinging by on the conveyor tracks of the Chicago slaughter houses.

Now it certainly takes creativity to think up commercial applications for the internet or to dream up a chap called Harry Potter. But is that creativity really greater than that displayed by the Stephensons or Henry Ford? Surely not.

There are three powerful reasons to suspect that creativity is more important now than it used to be, if not 150 or 100 years ago, certainly in the last 30 years.

The first is it is easier to copy other people's ideas. The formal way of describing this is to say that technology transfer is much more rapid. Best practice in, say, a manufacturing process, transfers across national boundaries with astonishing speed, pushed by international investment and by instant communications. If good ideas are quickly copied, it is hard to maintain a competitive advantage except by being especially good at thinking up new ones. Thus, globalisation and the information revolution combine to place a bigger premium on creativity.

The second reason is that "soft" skills are harder to copy than "hard" ones. It is much easier to copy the organisation of a car factory, for example, establishing a flexible production line able to produce many different models, than it is to copy the human skills needed to make a Hollywood movie. So Japan is great at making cars but lousy at making films, or at least making films that sell on a world market.

These "soft" skills extend beyond creativity narrowly defined. I would add entrepreneurship as a skill that has become relatively more important during the past 15 to 20 years. But if you define creativity more widely, maybe the ability to start new companies is a pure form of creativity. Being creative is not just being a good writer, artist or film producer.

The third reason why creativity has become more important is that in the rich developed world at least, our basic needs are thoroughly catered for. Most people have homes, clothing, enough to eat and so on. The fastest-growing areas of spending are on what would have, even a generation ago, been thought of as luxuries: foreign travel, entertainment, meals out and so on.

Even necessities like clothes, have most of their added value in the creativity with which they are put together, branded and displayed. The thing that makes one pair of jeans worth more than another is called fashion. The richer we get the more we will pay a bit extra for something that we suppose, rightly or wrongly, is a bit special.

So there are sound economic reasons to believe creativity is more important now. What do you do to foster it? Go back to the contrast between British and German schools. Maybe we stumbled on the right approach. The German education system is failing to produce the skills needed, for Germany is even shorter of IT skills than we are.

But we do still have a skills problem and much of that is down to flaws in our basic education system of 10 or more years ago. Sure, we fostered creativity but at the cost of order. The issue, surely, is how to plug our present skills shortages by retro-fitting workers with the things they missed out on. In particular, it is how to channel creativity into commercially-useful functions.

There is no magic wand except to be aware that this has to happen in the workplace. We cannot wait for a new generation of workers; we have to make the best of what we have. So we need to balance the celebration of creativity encompassed in the BMP DDB booklet with celebration of order. And we need to think of a new name for the ad agency too.

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