Creating Environments for a Creative Economy

Nobel prize winners can teach us a thing or two about creating effective learning environments that support the creative economy.

Inspiring children to learn science at the Science Centre, University of Lund, Sweden: 15 000 primary to secondary school children visit every year to learn about science from university students

A Swedish researcher, Ola Thufvesson, has analysed the biographies of 486 Nobel Laureates to understand what their backgrounds can tell us about how they came to be such creative and innovative thinkers, and what the link may be with the physical environment.

Thufvesson argues that talented creative individuals are products of not only their social environment, but of different environments including the educational environment and indeed the physical environment. He also argues that among the factors that promote creativity, and that are found in most creative environments, are diversity of competence, good communication, venues for interaction, and a favourable social climate. However, he says that real innovation occurs when different fields of competence interact, and very often these are unplanned interactions. With accidental interactions being crucial for the creative process.

So what is special about a Nobel Laureate?

From their young childhood, they were encouraged to develop curiosity and were brought up in a culture of discussion in the home. They had strong and inspiring teachers at school.

As they moved into university they were in an environment that had strong a focus on wellbeing but also competition, they were encouraged to learn from colleagues. Being physically in the office or university daily was crucial because of the role of physical interaction. Such environments would not be too large, and provided places where people from different disciplines can meet. By the time they receive their award, the Nobel Laureate would have worked in 4.6 universities and would have had 7.4 Nobel laureate colleagues. So perhaps then, not all of us are going to make it.

Setting aside the desire to create an economy full of Nobel Prize winners, we do need to provide environments that will enable the growth of the creative economy itself. This research does provide some clues as to some of the traits of the physical environment that can support creativity – the bedrock of the latest evolution in economic direction – the creative economy.

In short, the message is: create places where people can meet. Was it ever thus? This is no surprise, indeed if you look back through history, those points in villages, towns and cities where people congregate or meet accidentally have always been the fulcrum of creativity and knowledge exchange.

The point here though, is that in institutions like universities or research centres activities tend to be departmentalised and compartmentalised. Thufvsson’s research suggests that for true creativity, it is important to mix them up so that people from different disciplines are forced to meet rather than be confined to a private domain that reduces their chances of benefitting from the diversity that many universities can offer. In this way the building is being used as an organisational management tool. Indeed such principles extend beyond just the building to the neighbourhood and city and indeed are just as applicable in schools too, as well as the workplace.

Endnote: Ola Thufvesson is a researcher at the Lund University, Sweden, and gave a presentation “The Relationship between the Physical Environment and Nobel Prize Winners“, at the seminar “Successful Environments or Environments that Produce Success“,  Lund University, 20 Jan 2012, organised by Akademiska Hus

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