Creativity, Innovation and Divergent Thinking

Innovation in Higher Education

Innovation and creativity are at the heart of the academic experience. We aim to inform, to change, to improve our work, our world, ourselves. And increasingly innovation is seen externally as a driver and justification for higher education and internally as a means of achieving prestige and generating income. Too often, however, innovation is tied to agendas that reinforce purely economic imperatives or short-term, if strategic, deliverables.

Moving outside the Box

Many academics struggle with terms such as innovation, knowledge exchange, and entrepreneurship, in the same way as they struggle with KPIs, mission statements, and blue sky thinking. This is creativity ‘within bounds’, they argue, or worse, forced creativity. Unfortunately, this can lead to a lack of engagement with knowledge exchange activity, particularly where the creative potential of knowledge exchange is perceived as limited or tied to a corporate agenda. How then do we get academics to reconsider and appreciate knowledge exchange and the opportunities it presents for innovation and creative endeavour?

Academic Silos and the Ivory Tower

One of the problems we encounter in Higher Education is a tendency toward convergent thinking. The metaphor of the ‘ivory tower’ all-too-well sums up the separation of academic disciplines into niche silos or ghettos. While the collocation of expertise certainly allows for cross-pollination and a certain amount of creativity, it can also lead to isolation and the generation of specialist echo chambers.

Creativity is often born from challenge, from risk and complexity, from encounters with divergent thought. Our disciplinary structures may unwittingly minimise academics’ exposure to such elements. Stepping outside of our towers, or simply thinking outside of our boxes, can be a difficult and uncomfortable experience, but the benefits are clear. More than convergent thought, divergent thought drives innovation, allows for us to see the world and our work in different ways.

Cognitive Leaps and New Horizons

A great example of the creative potential of divergent thought in knowledge exchange–indeed, in any activity–can be found in Giovanni Corazza’s TEDxRoma talk entitled ‘Creative thinking – how to get out of the box and generate ideas’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEusrD8g-dM). Corazza’s presentation is a great example how divergent thinking can lead to creative solutions and cognitive leaps that might otherwise be unrealised.

Clearly one thing that academics need–and must be afforded–is time and support to develop the confidence to take their ideas to new areas and new levels, and to challenge any limits to their creativity, self-imposed or otherwise. True innovation, as Corazza suggests, lives outside of those boundaries and provides us with real opportunities to enhance Higher Education practice and society in general. Thus, it is time for universities to ┬áinvest in developmental opportunities for staff which may, in turn, open up new opportunities within the HE sector.

Senior Teaching Fellow and Researcher at Strathclyde University, Academic Development Lead for Knowledge Exchange

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