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Save Us, Creativity!

Save Us, Creativity!

Recently the World Economic Forum came out with their Annual Report of Global Competiveness. Apparently, Switzerland and Singapore are now officially the valedictorian and salutatorian of the global class, while the US is the kid with a lot of potential if only he would apply himself. It would be easy enough to dismiss such news if we knew that things were going to improve sometime soon, but the reality is even more distressing. Recent international tests for math and science have put the capabilities of our American youth somewhere behind Iceland and Slovakia. Oh sure, our culture and can-do attitude count for something – just not calculus or inorganic chemistry. So recently, our politicians, executives and educators have discovered creativity and its magical abilities to transform all that is ordinary and boring into the extraordinary and innovative. Yes, creativity will save us…or will it?

The findings of the State of Create Global Benchmark Study conducted by research firm StrategyOne suggest that in industrialized countries such as Germany, Japan and the United States, there is an increasing “creativity gap,” where ¾ of the 5,000 respondents believe the drive for productivity has pushed out the time and resources required to be creative. These respondents also see creativity as the key to producing better and new products, services and solutions.  In essence, the study suggests that the very things that made these countries into prosperous innovation juggernauts is being subverted by the continuous downward pressures to get more out of less, as opposed to more out of ingenuity.

The alarm that we are trading our creativity for productivity has been sounded for years now. In 2005, stalwart industry and academic leaders like IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano and former Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough co-chaired a Council for Competitiveness National Innovation Initiative Report that identified talent, investment, and infrastructure as the key components to economic prosperity in America. While politically contentious issues like the role of government and intellectual property rights were explored, it was developing creativity as a sustainable core competency that topped the list.

Earlier this year a related report, The Competiveness and Innovative Capacity of the United States, was released by the Department of Commerce. Though the Department put an optimistic face on our situation, many of the underlying trends are consistent with the Council for Competitiveness report and warrant concern, particularly the lack of creativity related subject matter and presumably pedagogy in the primary and secondary education curricula. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, points out in her book, Envisioning A 21st Century Science and Engineering Workforce for the United States, that creativity skills, along with scientific capabilities, are essential to advancing our technology leadership. This has implications in all areas of endeavor from medicine to national security. Similarly, Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson recently testified to the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee that there are seventeen specific factors that America must improve upon if it is to regain its competitiveness. While many of the factors were similar to the aforementioned studies, Dr. Ferguson focused on the paramount role of education and culture: a national sense of destiny and commensurate work ethic.

Of course America isn’t the only player trying to harness its creativity to win the international innovation game. The stakes are high and may well include our standard of living. Just for contrast let’s take a look at an emerging superpower. The People’s Republic of China has a population of approximately one and a half billion people, of which only about a third of them are of school age (33% of 1.5B = 495M). Of these school age children only those who have completed their primary education, ending in grade twelve, are eligible to apply for admission to university (8.3% or 1/12th of 495M = 41M). From this small group only about one in ten will score at the high end of compulsory standardized admissions tests to gain entrance into one of the top schools in China or anywhere in the world (10% of 41M =4.1M). Let’s assume that even these most conservative calculations are off by half (50% of 4.1M = 2M). Now let’s assume that the top 100 universities in the world are being particularly generous this year and admitting 5,000 freshmen a piece (Harvard and MIT are saying “in your dreams” right about now). China alone has enough highly qualified students to fill every freshman chair in top 100 universities in North and South America, Europe and Asia. Add India, Turkey and Indonesia and the other up and coming players and the numbers become ridiculous.

The point is that creativity alone will not be enough to overcome these odds and guarantee our competitiveness as a nation. For every creative entrepreneur America will produce, these emerging countries will produce ten or more. Sure, we may get the occasional Steve Jobs, the Mozart of product design and marketing, but let’s be somewhat realistic about how many of them we currently have on the bench. Also, let’s refrain from political arguments. It should be clear enough by now that nations of all ideologies have the ability to innovate. Just take a look at everything from patents to defense spending. Of course, the integrated world economy has made this type of nationalistic and even cultural distinction problematic. From an operational and economic point of view, we are them and they are us. More so, closing the doors to our best institutions will only drive the best and the brightest somewhere else. The history of American innovation is the history of American immigration.

We have known for over a decade that this day would come. America has shorted creativity and now our innovation and competitiveness have fallen off the pace. Failing to invest in our national growth engine is like keeping Junior out of school for the Second and Third grade and expecting him to do well in the Fourth. Our communities have cut arts education—music, writing, painting, dancing, theatre and the like. Where are our children supposed to learn how to be competently creative, not just expressive? At home? From parents who are not musicians or artists? Whatever we are doing at home to bridge the creativity gap, according to these reports, is really not working out.

Only now are creativity and design methods being taught in our colleges of engineering, medicine and business. Apple, the world’s most valuable corporation, is essentially a product and service design company. It turns out that creativity does indeed pay—who knew?  When I started teaching my Managing Creativity course to MBAs at Michigan in the late 1980s—decades after Michael Ray’s groundbreaking course at Stanford—there were serious concerns that it would distract students from more important pursuits like cost accounting or pricing an option. The irony is that low level analytical tasks are now either off-shored or performed by inexpensive software applications. Creativity has moved from a distraction to the main event. Sir Ken Robinson provides some worthwhile ideas on how to bring creativity into our schools in his book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.

We have waited too long and cut too much to believe that ordinary creativity will be enough to move us once again to the front of the competitive class. Reinstating our old creative ways is not enough. We now need to be creative about being creative. The cavalry isn’t coming. No one will save us. So I guess we have to save ourselves. Maybe that is the American Way. Saddle up. We paint at sunrise.

Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about Jeff visit

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