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The Creativity Gap

Only radical thinking will solve environmental problems Add to ...

Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of the non-profit Architecture for Humanity, had just finished presenting at a design conference in Vancouver. Design, specifically architecture, can be a powerful tool when tackling some of the world’s most daunting problems, he had argued. “It was a very inspirational presentation,” remembers architect Darryl Condon, who was in attendance that day in April, 2010.

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Then, during the question-and-answer session, a conference-goer rose. “That’s all fine,” Mr. Condon remembers him saying, “but I’m from India and with our emerging middle class, we expect as many as 500-million new automobiles in the system in the next 30 years.”

An awkward silence fell over the room.

For Mr. Condon, who describes himself as an optimist, the moment was revelatory. Through his work designing LEED-certified community centres, recreation facilities and libraries, the Vancouver architect is constantly producing novel solutions for sustainable building design − yet, all of sudden, his contribution seemed a lot less significant. “It was staggering to be confronted with the scale of problems others are dealing with,” he says. “You realize the luxury of the challenges we’re dealing with.”

Mr. Condon did some research. The World Bank estimates that a more conservative 200-million new cars will be on the road in India by 2040, meaning that a new car enters the system every five seconds. In contrast, Mr. Condon considered his recent LEED Gold project, four years in the making, which saves an impressive 450 tons of carbon dioxide annually. Every eight minutes, that accomplishment is cancelled out by the CO2 output of new cars in India. “In the time I’ve been speaking to you, four years of efforts at reducing greenhouse emissions from one project have been offset,” he says.

This realization is the kind of disruptive revelation that can change the way people think about their entire field. For Mr. Condon, the disruption didn't discourage him but instead provoked increased motivation to find creative solutions. “We’re proud of our work, and there’s a lot to celebrate,” Mr. Condon says. “But we really need to challenge our assumptions to make sure we’re actually having the greatest impact.”

Too often, our society approaches its formidable environmental challenges by focusing on technological innovation, according to Patrick Condon (no relation to Darryl), an urban design professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities. “When we think about how to reduce greenhouse gases, the strategy is often to figure out some kind of technology to deal with that. We decide that the solution is X meters of solar panels. These types of additive, green-gizmo fixes often don’t deal with the fundamental entropy of our systems.”

“Trinket architecture” is Darryl Condon’s term for buildings designed in this manner. “The solution isn’t adding fancy technologies to buildings that are fundamentally unsustainable.” He agrees that there are lots of valuable ideas for sustainable technologies; however, he believes we need to find ways to implement them broadly. “The trophy buildings that we build in central areas of cities like Vancouver are really meaningful in terms of learning new [sustainable]ways to do things, but until we find a way to transform what 99 per cent of the built fabric is in North America [the suburbs] we aren’t really dealing with the issues.”

Many sustainability experts agree that if Canada suffers a creativity gap, it's not evidenced by a deficiency of good ideas, the kind of ideas that result from intense focus on a narrowly-defined problem. Instead they point to a lack of the type of creativity that leads to rethinking whole systems, producing large-scale solutions and implementing valuable ideas. Because the nature of climate change is global, government leadership is essential. Yet, governments are hesitant to act for fear of damaging their economic competitiveness.

Patrick Condon suggests that this is a central reason to foster critical, creative thought and re-examine the fundamentals of our society, such as how we quantify success. “According to our mechanism for economic analysis, increased gasoline sales, car wrecks, and ambulances all show up on the GDP. Those things are seen as good,” he explains. “But what are we innovating for? Presumably to increase access to the good things in life − financial security, a good home, enough leisure to enjoy your family. Isn't human happiness for our citizens without encumbering others' happiness the end, not inventing the next widget and controlling the global marketplace?”

Yet reinventing systems as deeply ingrained as the GDP requires radical thinking. A key element is understanding how challenges are broadly connected, rather than attempting to solve problems solely through expertise. For instance, transportation experts may become so focused on how to engineer a new bridge, they lose sight of how it affects housing or water issues. “There is this need to think in cross-disciplinary ways, to depend more on your intuitive powers, the part of the brain that allows for integrative thought and holistic concept generation, which may not have a linear genesis,” says Patrick Condon.

Tamara Vrooman, CEO of Canadian credit union Vancity, also believes that underlying systems like the GDP need to be reassessed. She thinks the banking sector can take a lead role in creating new ways of approaching our economy. “The way we allocate capital today is the single biggest influence on the kind of society, economy and planet we create tomorrow,” says Ms. Vrooman, who is also B.C.'s former Deputy Minister of Finance. “If we decide that a small local entrepreneur who embraces principals of sustainability deserves credit, that has a different impact long-term.”

Thinking differently about concepts like liability and credit is a form of creativity, argues Ms. Vrooman. Vancity considers sustainability strategies and results in assessing whether to invest in a company. “Businesses that take a look at those issues have a better performance record over time.” She expects that in future other banks will adopt Vancity's view. “Credit unions have a long history of creativity. For example, the first ATM was created by a credit union in Saskatchewan for farmers who couldn't access a branch.”

Despite the decreasing likelihood of environmental regulation both in Canada and the United States to address climate change, business innovation hasn't slowed when it comes to sustainability reporting mechanisms and initiatives, according to a new report by Ernst and Young called “Six Growing Trends in Corporate Sustainability.”

Interestingly, the report found that employees are key drivers of this innovation. “Leading organizations in sustainability are cultivating an environment for creativity among their employees or even looking externally through social media forums for ideas,” says Benjamin Miller, senior manager of climate change and sustainability. “Companies are crowd-sourcing ideas from employees and customers for ways processes could be better, or more environmental packaging, or ideas for eco products.”

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