The A.I.R. Innovation Breathes
By Theo Edmonds
December 4, 2022

Artists Can Help Higher Education Build Creativity Infrastructure

“Science is needed to seek the truth of something. Art is needed to seek the truth of everything.” – Theo Edmonds, Culture Futurist™

 It’s no secret that human creativity is a cornerstone of innovation and growth. It is the only thing that can future-proof an organization. Yet, many organizations—especially universities—often struggle to tap into their immense creativity. Universities that intentionally build their “creativity infrastructure” will experience growth in the coming “next jump” of American systems. Those that don’t will lag further behind.

Building a creativity infrastructure requires a synthesis of many disciplines. There is no one discipline that “owns” creativity. However, moving forward will require some to transform their thinking about what role artists can play in this important work.

Three Ways Artists-Innovation Residencies (AIRs) Support Strategic Growth Portfolios

Over the past two decades, contemporary artist residencies have become as much a fixture at Silicon Valley companies as video games and Kombucha. Despite corporate tech’s future fixation, artist residencies in companies have roots alongside other culture-shifting ideas of the  1960s. IBM, Bell Labs, and Hewlett-Packard invited artists to spend substantive time in their research centers. Today CERN, the SETI Institute, and NASA all have deep engagements with AIRs.

AIRs may be higher education’s most practical step for catalyzing creativity infrastructure development. AIRs are substantive, precise, and capable of engaging America’s modern economy and society in culturally responsive ways. Let’s explore three ways that using AIRs to develop creativity infrastructure can help universities future-proof their strategic portfolios.

ONE: A Fresh Perspective on Problem Solving

One key benefit of artist-innovation residency (AIR) programs, is that they can inspire innovative connections between a university’s internal and external stakeholders. These programs can spur students, faculty, and administrators to think expansively when tackling complex challenges. Moreover, artists often bring fresh perspectives on familiar topics, which can challenge long-held assumptions about how things work or should work. This kind of questioning can lead to breakthroughs in understanding and new ways of looking at things.

Artists have a unique set of highly developed skills that allow them to look at problems from new angles and find creative solutions that others may not consider. AIR programs help universities synthesize culture for strategic use by holistically, effectively, and efficiently engaging the drivers of human creativity.

Universities must understand that artists are as differently trained and nuanced as scientists. Understanding how to bring the right mix of perspectives and lived experiences to AIRs will directly impact the AIR program outcomes. Experts can effectively guide this process. Quantitative data can even be the jumping-off point for inquiry. It is incredibly short-sighted to labor under the assumption that only qualitative data can be used or produced by AIRs—further, the exponential impacts of machine learning open new potential here as never before.

TWO: Culture Readiness

Why do good ideas often not succeed? It may not be the quality of the idea. Research shows that the culture’s readiness to introduce the idea matters most. AIRs can help universities find new insights into environmental conditions, both built environments and social environments, which will be critical for creativity infrastructure effectiveness.

AIRs center organizational culture in their engagement processes. Further, they seek to understand how internal culture aligns with the organization’s external culture. After all, no employee is just an employee. Each brings their own culture(s) to work and school. Well-designed AIRs understand this and use creative expression to increase critical thinking across the cultural landscape. Other future of work skills – like compassion, curiosity, and cognitive flexibility – can also be impacted positively. 

AIRs approach to creativity infrastructure development through arts-based experiential learning helps universities unlock latent capacity. The more unlocked capacity, the more creative solutions surface to real-world problems. For universities to stay relevant and enjoy growth-oriented relationships with internal and external stakeholders, the ability to ask good questions is important. Cultural responsiveness is no longer a “nice to have.” It is a “must-have.”

THREE: Collaborative Innovation: Expanding Beyond How Might We? to Include More What If?

The most successful innovations often come through collaboration between disciplines that don’t traditionally interact with each other — like physics and photography, neuroscience and theatre, or population health and poetry. Universities should ensure that their AIRs programs include artists who specialize in radically diverse artistic mediums and have demonstrated an authentic curiosity for other disciplines.

Many artists often collaborate with others to achieve their desires. For instance, just think of all the artistic and technical disciplines that go into mounting a musical theatre production for the stage or a fashion show for a runway! This kind of radical collaboration will be increasingly critical in our emerging economy and society.

In business, design innovation is often a purely technical process. But this approach overlooks the importance of liberal arts and humanities in inspiring creative problem-solving. While traditional methods are still essential for success, a new approach to design innovation that emphasizes the power of liberal arts and humanities can help companies reach their goals faster and more effectively. AIRs programs can help universities explore how this might work in an integrated fashion that uses divergent and convergent creativity. An effective creativity infrastructure requires both.

The “How Might We” Approach

Design thinking has become an increasingly popular method for innovating products or services in recent years. This approach starts with a “how might we” question, which encourages teams to think creatively about solutions to problems. The goal is to come up with ideas that are out of the box and unexpected. While this can be effective, it often leads to a narrowing of scope and focus on technical details rather than wider possibilities.

The “What If” Approach

An alternative approach that focuses on liberal arts and humanities can broaden the scope of design thinking beyond mere technical considerations. By asking “what if” questions instead of “how might we,” AIRs can help universities explore more abstract ideas without getting bogged down in details right away. This can lead to innovative solutions that draw inspiration from different disciplines, such as philosophy, history, and literature. 

For example, what if we looked at our product or service from a historian’s perspective? What if we considered how stakeholders might interact with our product from an emotional standpoint like they might with their favorite music or film? What if we thought about visual art as a form of market analysis? Questions like these open up possibilities that may not have been considered before when taking a strictly technical view of design innovation.

Leadership Guidance: Developing an AIR Program for Creativity Infrastructure Development

Artist-innovation residency programs have the potential to close the creativity gap in higher education. AIRs can catalyze university efforts for creativity infrastructure development alongside other infrastructure projects that support sustainability by inspiring innovative thinking, encouraging creative intelligence, and fostering inclusive innovation. 

It’s not hard to see why AIRs initiatives are becoming increasingly popular at companies and scientific organizations worldwide today! Bringing more creativity into higher education is a key part of any institution’s success — both now and in the future.

Over the past six days, I completed a marathon of working meetings in Barcelona hosted by the Euro-Mediterranean Economist Association, European Union, Brain Capital Alliance, and CreAct4Med. The objective was to strengthen artistic, scientific, and business ties between CU Denver’s Imaginator Academy and the Mediterranean region’s #Cultural & #CreativeIndustries (#CCI).

I am coming back to America convinced that Artist Innovation Residency (AIR) programs must be central to creativity infrastructure planning in both the public and private sectors. Creativity was once America’s lifeblood. It was central to our identity. It was a central feature in our geopolitical diplomacy. It brought our economy to unimaginable success on the world stage. I don’t believe this has changed – but today’s world requires a fresh approach.

AIRs can spark renewal in our nation’s creativity infrastructure. But, to ensure our institutions thrive long into the future, AIR programs must consider the following:

  1. Collaborative development and network building between #artists, #scientists, and #businessleaders (from #enterpreneurs to large #corporations) hold more potential now than in the last couple of generations. It is a distinct window of opportunity to advance specific and shared interests in meaningful ways.
  2. Sustainability and green practices must be part of strengthening organizational, regional, and global creativity infrastructure systems. This includes aligning traditional notions of #climatesolutions with new transdisciplinary collaborations like those emerging through the Brain Capital Alliance.
  3. Accelerating #scientific understanding of how our #environments (#built, #natural, #social) support critical antecedent conditions for #innovation like #creativity + #workplacewellbeing must have an intense “moonshot” like transdisciplinary focus.
  4. Aligned groups are already taking action to collaborate and pilot more fully through integrated #data#research, and #funding efforts in #CreativityInfrastructure. We must identify the naturally occurring experiments and invest in their survival by carving out time and space for the shared language and processes to develop fully.
  5. Action-oriented applied science pilots can expand our understanding of #sharedvalue by more intentional integration of #artists#scientists, and #business #leaders endeavoring to define #industriesofthefuture with transformational creativity.

Going into 2023, I am cautiously optimistic about the promise I see in the fascinating signals appearing at the edges of more traditional siloed thinking. Especially encouraging is the regional collaborations that seem probable between Denver and various global ecosystems. Creativity is, quite literally, the AIR that innovation breathes. It will be fascinating to see which universities emerge as leaders to enjoy the opportunities a robust creativity infrastructure will offer.

By Theo Edmonds
Culture Futurist™ | Creativity Strategist | Conceptual Artist | #WorkplaceWellbeing Researcher | Entrepreneur