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David Naylor, President of the University of Toronto. (Philip Cheung for The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)
David Naylor, President of the University of Toronto. (Philip Cheung for The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)

The Creativity Gap

U of T president counters 'self-taught' innovator genius myth Add to ...

Last week’s federal budget touted innovation as the path out of our current economic stalemate. With pledges of $1.1-billion for research and development as well as another $500-million for venture capital, the federal government put their money on innovation as the key to Canada’s long-term competitiveness.

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But all this focus on innovation seems to overlook a fundamental point: How do we produce the type of creative minds who will fuel innovation?

We put this question to Dr. David Naylor, president of Canada’s largest university, the University of Toronto, and a contributor to a recent report that informed changes to innovation policy announced in the federal budget.

This series was inspired in part by the work and writings of Sir Ken Robinson. He defines creativity as “having original ideas that have value.”

A fine definition, but I’d offer two caveats. Innovation is often incremental – the small steps or connections that make a big difference. You can spin your wheels for a long time chasing originality. I also hope Sir Ken is not defining value solely in terms of immediate marketability or practical application. If that’s the case, we’ll miss out on all kinds of creativity ranging from fundamental discoveries to exciting new art-forms.

Before we can even begin discussing boosting innovation in Canada, we need to address how to foster the type of creative minds who engage in innovation. What is this kind of person like?

There’s no cookie-cutter. Disruptive thinkers see things that others miss – odd data points in science, or a unifying narrative in the humanities. In music or sports, they do things others cannot imagine. In business, they see a huge market everyone else overlooked, or invent a technology that only makes perfect sense once everyone starts using it. Incremental innovators are more synthetic, but no less important. It’s not as glamorous to take small steps or connect the dots, but those mental moves can make a surprisingly large difference.

Does Canada have a creativity problem?

Canadians are no less creative than other people. We’re simply in transition. For decades, we skimmed cream with our discounted dollar, massive natural resources, and easy access to the world’s biggest market. That market also attracted a lot of our most creative and ambitious people. Today, we’re winning the talent wars and learning to compete globally. There’s still lots to do, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

How can Canadian universities encourage creativity during undergraduate study?

A fine university education helps undergraduates think better and more creatively. That’s why it’s so important to expose students to original thinkers. At the University of Toronto, in any given year over 90 per cent of our faculty members who’ve won major research-related awards are teaching undergraduate classes. We want students to learn to test hypotheses, challenge assumptions, analyze and synthesize information, and frame arguments effectively from different viewpoints. By having great minds teach our undergraduates, we help instill these traits in the next generation.

Are people like Steve Jobs or James Dyson “natural inventors” (if there even is such a thing), and how much does education have to do with their successes?

For every “natural inventor” with a limited educational background, there are hundreds of great inventors who finished one or more relevant degrees. Moreover, Jobs and Gates both relied on teams of well-trained scientists and engineers, as well as professional designers. Dyson was more the lone wolf only at first, and his greatest strength wasn’t innate engineering wizardry. It was the courage to buck orthodoxy in the vacuum cleaner industry. We really need to get over this innovation myth of the self-taught solo genius.

Creativity is often associated with the arts. How can educators inspire creativity in sciences as much as in arts and humanities?

Borrow the power of ideas from the social sciences and the primacy of narrative from the humanities. Science students need both, along with a deep respect for the scientific method. Let’s share stories of disruptive innovators who refused to accept “the right answer”, and expose our students to apostates who’ve left the bench to build technology-based companies. Above all, let’s nurture their sense of wonder, because basic research is not only the pipeline of new ideas. It’s the anvil on which great talent is forged for business and social innovation alike.

Critics of universities have argued that the pressing problems of today aren't best solved within the rigidity of disciplines. Is interdisciplinary mobility key to fostering creativity and how can that be achieved in large, bureaucratic institutions like universities?

Great universities world-wide are all venues for radical inter-disciplinary convergence. It’s become essential when most global challenges – from climate change to cyber-security – are so complex. At the University of Toronto countless undergraduates mix and match disciplines in amazing combinations. I could also give literally hundreds of examples to show how our professors cross disciplines in their research and educational offerings. It’s simply how we function. My only caveat is that inter-disciplinarity be seen as a rigorous route to greater understanding, not a trendy end in itself.

Is there too much focus on churning out job-ready graduates? Is this necessarily incompatible with producing the type of creative minds we need?

It’s maddening. We’re asked to produce job-ready graduates with technical expertise and soft skills, who become innovators and “intrapreneurs” at the flick of a switch. Well, you may not always get all that in one person! I think the job of universities is to build what some call T-shaped individuals – a deep column of narrow expertise, capped by substantial breadth. That means more multi-disciplinary and experiential learning, and lots of opportunities for interactive problem-solving inside and outside the classroom. It also means acknowledging a digital reality: facts are cheap and accessible, but people who can generate ideas and think creatively are priceless.

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