“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
“When learning is purposeful, creativity blossoms. When creativity blossoms, thinking emanates. When thinking emanates, knowledge is fully lit. When knowledge is fully lit, economy flourishes.”
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
I have a brilliant friend (many of those actually) who has dedicated her life’s work to advocating for the human rights of some of the most marginalized populations in the world to be upheld. She is both passionate about and dedicated to her work and that comes through in how she talks about it. Last week she told me that she’s working on a new project: writing a novel. In the decade I’ve known her I’ve never heard her sound so excited. It’s like a fire is lit within her and she glows from the inside out. I have no doubt that the novel will be phenomenal. And I also have no doubt that unleashing her creativity is helping her in every aspect of her life, including but not limited to, her day job.
Every one of us is creative. To be human is to be a creator. And yet many of us don’t create much in our day to day lives or, indeed, even consider ourselves creative. Yet, to create a world in which every human has the resources and tools they need to thrive, not just survive, in the midst of global challenges like climate change will require some rebel ideas, something I wrote about in a previous blog. On the road to achieving that North Star we will need to mobilize trillions to address loss and damage. That will require us to stretch our imaginations of what’s possible. We will be better equipped to do so if we nurture our own creativity by exploring the things that light our souls on fire. If we ourselves as artists. Inspired by my friend’s novel in progress, I thought I would write a blog about what I’ve learned so far based on my own experience of exploring my own creativity.
Figure out what inspires you and find a way to do more of it
In January our team had a meeting to create our vision and begin to sketch out our plan for the year. During the call we created space for each of us to tell the others what skills we wanted to develop or what we wanted to learn during the course of the year. Each person was encouraged to integrate that aspiration into their schedules and we committed to support each other in doing so. Mine was finding more time to write blogs which is a very different kind of writing than I’m used to as a climate policy researcher.
Over the past few years I’ve written a few blogs a year, but only when I felt inspired. I typically ruminated on an idea for months before it finally culminated in a published blog. And that was fine but it didn’t help me generate more ideas. At the end of last year I committed to write one blog a month for each of the initiatives I lead. Then I inscribed my commitment in my blog on new year’s resolutions, thus, making myself accountable. And you know what happened? Suddenly the ideas started flowing. By the start of the year I had ideas sketched out for six months of blogs. Each blog that I write involves research into topics I don’t typically investigate in my day to day work on Loss and Damage. This research leads me to new ideas and new ways of seeing both challenges and solutions and to different people from whom I’ve learned even more. The connections are endless and this has already led to new ideas which I am currently exploring with a few others in our collective work on Loss and Damage.
My commitment to writing blogs has also led to more collaboration which is the point of our work under the Loss and Damage Collaboration. Recently I co-wrote a blog on the importance of learning from failure (with another one in the pipeline) with a friend and colleague Kehinde Balogun who works on well-being, something I know very little about. As we’ve discussed the blogs we’ve worked on and are working on together I’ve learned so much from her through conversations we likely would not have had were we not creating blogs together. I’ve integrated those lessons into my own work on transformation and Loss and Damage, something we continue to explore together as well.
As a result of my experience writing blogs, I've begun thinking about how I could write more and have signed up to a writing platform which I’ve long belonged to as a reader. I haven’t published yet but I’m thinking about what I might write if I did. And that has inspired me to explore different types of writing on different topics than I’d usually read about and that has led to different ideas and so on.
All of this happened because I wanted to write more blogs in order to explore my creativity. I’d encourage you within your own teams to have a conversation about what brings each of you joy and encourage each other to do more of that. You never know where it might lead.
Comparison is the thief of joy: Do what works for you
A few years ago, I took an online course in creativity from social scientist and highly acclaimed researcher on vulnerability (among other things), Brené Brown. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs I have a slight obsession with personal development and am game to try (almost) anything if I think it might help me evolve as a human and improve my experience on planet Earth (not that it’s been bad so far but there’s room to grow, you know?). Armed with supplies including paint, markers and a sketch pad, I began the course with enthusiasm. I was feeling excited that I was about to explore a different side of myself. And then the course began and the assignments began to roll in. Draw this. Paint that. Dear Reader . . .
And I can’t even remember what I painted. I just remember that it didn’t feel inspiring. I couldn’t remember what it feels like to just draw and paint with abandon. To feel my creativity unleashed. To not judge what I was creating. And at the end of the course felt like an utter failure.
I didn’t get the point of the exercise which was to meet myself where I was and to find what sparked joy for me. Instead, I compared myself to Brown and her artistic friends (who said they weren’t artistic but I mean, come on). So, I put the markers away, gave the paints to a friend, stashed the sketch patch deep in a drawer and promptly forgot about my intention to explore my creativity completely. Writing about this experience makes me a little sad. I wish I’d just drawn what came to me and painted what inspired me. Instead of worrying about what it looked like I could have focused on what it felt like and that might have been . . . joyful. Maybe I’ll give it another try.
There’s a whole wide world to explore
One medium that I am comfortable with is photography. I got my first SLR camera when I graduated from high school having shown both an interest in and an aptitude for photography as a teenager. For a few years I continued to make time for taking photos as I travelled the world for my “day job” and shared them with family and friends. And then somehow I stopped. Maybe life became too busy. Whatever it was, I lost a part of myself in that process.
Last year one of my nieces encouraged me to start taking photos again so that she could get a better sense of my surroundings and the things I see in my daily life. So I did. I started an Instagram account just to share photos with my nieces. I have two followers, two very important people, and that’s how I like it. Posting photos for them to see and engage with motivates me to see new places which forces me to experience new things, which leads to new ideas
While many of us travel often, more often than we’d like, if you're anything like me you go from airport to hotel to meeting venue back and forth to the hotel and finally to the airport once the meeting is over. We need to make time to have new experiences and see new places and have more adventures. And not just for our work but for ourselves. You don’t have to take photos but it’s a nice way to document your experiences and to encourage yourself to see more of the places you visit. It also connects me more to family and friends who enjoy seeing what I’ve captured of where I’ve been.
The role of art and culture in driving climate action
Integrating art and culture more into my life has made me better at my job. My experience is not novel. The role of art and culture in climate action is well established and increasingly explored.In their seminal paper Culture and Climate Change Scenarios an output of a project of the same name, Tyszczuk and Smith (2018:56) argue that integrating more “culturally rooted contributions” into climate change change scenarios would “enrich futures thinking” by providing space for “collective, improvisational and reflexive modes of acting on and thinking about uncertain futures”.
The UK-based Julie’s Bicycle was created to “mobilize art and culture” to address both the environmental and climate crises. The Creative Climate Justice program uncovers the root causes of climate change through social, political and environmental lenses and explores creative responses to address them. The program’s online presence includes a hub with a library of resources on climate justice for the art and culture community and a guide on creative climate justice. More collaborations like Julie’s Bicycle are needed to fully explore the role of art and culture in addressing climate change which requires mobilizing adequate resources and capacity.
While doing research for this blog I found this short film on Climate Creativity which stems from a discussion on how creativity can inspire and drive climate action from social scientists at The Open University in five critical ways:
Persuasion: Translating the facts of climate change into prompts for action by decision makers who have the power to make change and by the general public through behaviour change with storytelling, poetry and other art forms. This turns the facts of climate change into felt experiences and abstract notions into issues that people can relate to.
Participation: Creating opportunities for people to get involved in shaping the world we want to live in as active agents of change. This is “creativity as a grassroots democratic practice.”
Exploration: By engaging our imaginations, creativity helps us reflect on our reactions and explore and express our feelings. Through exploration we can also ask new questions and find new solutions we might not have otherwise thought of.
Innovation: Developing creative approaches to address climate change at all levels of “human endeavour” from science to art and culture.
Cultural transformation: Reimagining and redesigning culture through creativity which helps us imagine different possibilities for the world we want.
In the spirit of radical collaboration we must build on this and other work on the role of art and culture in climate policy and integrate it into our work on Loss and Damage.
Curating and incubating rebel ideas on Loss and Damage
Last year I wrote a blog about the importance of cognitive diversity in curating more rebel ideas. In it I wrote about a concept called homophily which is associating with people and ideas that are familiar. When we don’t do anything different, we don’t allow space for anything new. The more we explore our own creativity, the more we open up opportunities for new solutions.
In our work on Loss and Damage we are faced with the momentous task of mobilizing trillions to address loss and damage. This will require moving beyond the current set of ideas which are recycled over and over again. We need rebel ideas. As author and thought leader Matthew Syed argues in his excellent book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Thinking Differently, to inspire new ideas we need teams of rebels who think differently from each other. Syed explains that, because of the coverage they provide as a collective, groups of rebels have “vastly higher levels of collective intelligence” and that leads to better problem solving (Syed, 2021:54). Nurturing our own creativity helps us see things differently and that’s one part of it but we also need to expand our work and our platforms for collaboration to include more people from different communities of practice and fields of study which must include art and cultural practitioners.
Loss and Damage has a public relations challenge. We need to find better ways of translating our message for a broader audience. Our collective mission is to mobilize trillions in the midst of a global recession and a cost of living crisis in many countries. We need different ways of thinking in order to do that. We especially need to empower and strengthen the capacity of more art and cultural practitioners to contribute to the knowledge base on Loss and Damage and to cultivate ideas for addressing loss and damage by ensuring they have the funding and resources to do this important work. We are very soon to launch our Art and Culture program under the leadership of acclaimed artists and filmmakers Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormond-Skeaping, our current Artists in Residence (Teo is also the brains behind and driver of our advocacy and outreach work). We are excited about this new journey.
Creating enabling environments
As with all things, building work cultures and environments that encourage and incubate the creativity that leads to creative ideas comes down to strong leadership. In his article on How to Build a Culture of Originality psychology professor Adam Grant explores cultures of nonconformity. He writes:
“To fight that inertia and drive innovation and change effectively, leaders need sustained original thinking in their organizations. They get it by building a culture of nonconformity . . . leaders must give employees opportunities and incentives to generate—and keep generating—new ideas, so that people across functions and roles get better at pushing past the obvious (Grant, 2016).”
Grant maintains that it’s important to “strike a balance between cultural cohesion and creative dissent” (Ibid). He argues for quantity over quality (at least initially) when it comes to generating ideas because as we generate more and more ideas they get better. According to Grant, research has shown that humans generate more and better ideas alone. He recommends that we create space for individuals to write ideas down and then evaluate them in groups.
In our work on Loss and Damage we should each make time in our day-to-day to jot down ideas and then come together through platforms like ours to evaluate and build on those ideas. In order to generate rebel ideas, we must expand our work to include other communities of practice and fields of study. We can’t generate ideas, however, if we’re perpetually overwhelmed. We need dedicated time and space. I find I have the best ideas when I’m out in nature but everyone is different. I urge you Dear Reader to find a bit of time each day to do something that inspires you or find space just to be quiet in the midst of your hectic day. This will not only help you in your work but in every aspect of your life. And that’s also important. We must take care of our bodies, souls and minds to do the work that we do.
We deserve to create just because
Yes, nurturing our creativity will help us in our work. It will help us generate the rebel ideas we need to mobilize trillions to address both economic and non-economic loss and damage at the scale of the needs on all fronts and in all parts of the world. And that’s important. Of course it is. But we are more than the work that we do. We are all artists and creators. We deserve full, adventurous, exciting lives. We deserve to do things that light our soul on fire just because. We deserve to dance. We deserve to make music. We deserve to appreciate art and create art that's appreciated, if only by ourselves. I want that for you Dear Reader and I hope that reading this blog has inspired you to carve out more time to create in your daily lives. I will fight for your right to create. More on that in my next blog. Until then, take good care of yourselves.
Grant, A. (2016). How to Build a Culture of Creativity Harvard Business Review [online] Available at: https://hbr.org/2016/03/how-to-build-a-culture-of-originality.
Grant, A. (2017). Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. London: Ebury Publishing.
Grant, A. (2019). Frustrated At Work? That Just Might Lead to Your Next Breakthrough New York Times [online] Available at: frustrated-at-work-that-might-just-lead-to-your-next-breakthrough.html.
Mathers, A. (2023). 10 subtle behaviours that make you instantly more creative in the moment Medium [online] Available at: 10-subtle-behaviours-that-make-you-instantly-more-creative-in-the-moment-1936e263e009.
Matthew Syed Consulting (2021). Diversity is Vital to Turbocharge INnovation and Drive Better Decisions Matthew Syed Consulting [online] Available at: https://www.matthewsyed.co.uk/diversity-is-vital-to-turbocharge-innovation-and-drive-better-decisions/
Syed, M. (2021). Rebel Ideas: The Power of Thinking Differently. London: John Murray Press.
The Open University (2022). Climate Creativity: The power of the word to tackle the climate emergency [online] Available at: https://www.socsci.ox.ac.uk/climate-creativity-the-power-of-the-word-to-tackle-the-climate-emergency.
Tyszczuk, R. and Smith, J. (2018). Culture and climate change scenarios: the role and potential of the arts and humanities in responding to the ‘1.5 degrees target’. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 31: 56–64 [online] Available at: https://oro.open.ac.uk/54399/1/Culture
Erin Roberts is a climate policy researcher and the founder of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. This year she is exploring her creativity to curate more rebel ideas for her work and have a more adventurous life.