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Sara Diamond is president of Ontario College of Art and Design University. (Tom Sandler Photography)
Sara Diamond is president of Ontario College of Art and Design University. (Tom Sandler Photography)

The Creativity Gap

We need artists to solve the challenges of this century Add to ...

Here’s a snapshot of our fast-paced, interconnected world:

An abundance of data assembled at breakneck speeds; the redistribution of wealth; the online world integrating our physical experiences and human processes; 24/7 mobility and connectivity; a declining social safety net; the repositioning of global power; fragile ecologies replacing infinite resources; a need for co-operation to counter competitiveness; previously passive individuals and experiences becoming participatory…

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We can be anxious or hopeful. These are grand challenges in complex times.

Why don’t we set the imaginative muscle of artists, designers and arts-inspired thinkers against the great challenges of our century?

Artists are designers who thrive on calculated risks and curiosity. Our emerging generation of talent brings a commitment to intersecting areas of knowledge: 1) design thinking; 2) creative practice; 3) critical and scientific inquiry; 4) technological fluency; and 5) entrepreneurialism.

These are multi-dimensional, creative individuals, capable of acting in their own right, and also facilitating across cultures, communities of interest and disciplines. They are nimble, self-motivated learners. Their learning is in the classroom, the studio, the workplace online and mobile; it is cross-cultural and international. They are self-reflective and manage evaluation – peer and expert. They are economic realists, yet entrepreneurial. They hold strong values, yet are playful.

What do they bring to the creativity gap?

“Design thinking” combines systems analysis with design methodologies and strategic foresight. For example, OCAD University’s sLab (Strategic Foresight and Innovation Lab) has refined an approach to design thinking that allows the structured investigation of possible futures through primary and secondary research that results in the recognition of future signals, identifying trends and drivers of change.

Participants develop scenarios through which they sketch credible alternate futures. They design strategies to address these possibilities, giving businesses and public entities more agility, flexibility and creativity.

Artists and designers solve problems through the constant movement between analyzing, sensing and making – an imaginative process that is sometimes described as intuition. As classic innovators, they may build upon existing practices; they may break down a form or product and reconfigure it into a new thing altogether; they may investigate new technologies and materials. They sketch, they build models and prototypes. Ideas are powerful when made tangible.

Art is unsettling – it engages with sensory experience, emotion, motivation, playfulness, the rational and irrational, the uncomfortable, uncanny and awesome. Art is rigorously self-reflexive and critiques contemporary society. China’s courageous contemporary artist, dissident Ai Weiwei, who was jailed for his criticism of the authorities, exemplifies this power.

Design is an interdisciplinary force that is able to analyze inventions and match human capacities and needs, in all their variability and complexity, with technologies. The imagination of designers and artists is transformative. Millions of consumers reward companies such as Apple or Umbra that place design at the centre of their enterprise.

Design is also a force for accessibility and removing barriers. Ontario’s Inclusive Design Institute, led by OCAD University, brings together an international community of open-source developers, designers, researchers, and people with disabilities to ensure that emerging information technology and practices are designed to include the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and so on.

The ability to think critically and to apply and understand different methodologies is fundamental to the ability to ask questions, act and make ethical decisions. The 21st century needs curatorial skills to navigate and interpret the overwhelming gush of information.

Artists and designers are now not only expert users of technology, but they increasingly engage with science – as inventors in their own right and as partners in devising the practical applications of scientific discoveries in fields ranging from engineering to medicine.

Art and design imagination is needed at the coal seam – where infinitely precise scientific instruments, digitization of analogue material, and the explosion of digital storage capacity, processing power and the Internet have produced massive quantities of Big Data (such as volumes of text, financial figures, genomic, or cosmological data). The limits of human sensory perception mean that data cannot be understood without translation; which requires not only computational know-how but also the interpretive and representational strengths of art and design.

Business knowledge and entrepreneurial strategy are the final skills – providing the means to catalyze imagination into innovation, which is the next generation of products, jobs, or services. One of OCAD University’s young Industrial Design graduates, Jessica Ching, is winning awards as she takes HerSwab to market – a simple device that allows women to self-collect a viable sample for HPV (the virus that causes cervical cancer) and other sexually transmitted infections testing, which has the potential to increase screening rates.

Innovation – the ability to move inventions to actual markets – must take into account speed of information, adoption and change, new forms of industry; collaborative creation; economic impact, policy adoption, social change, and community transformation. In each of these, imagination matters.

Sara Diamond is president of Ontario College of Art and Design University

Editor's note: This is a corrected version of the story, with an updated description of the HerSwab product.

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