The challenges we currently face are without precedent. More people live on this planet now than at any other time in history. The world’s population has doubled in the past 30 years. We’re facing an increasing strain on the world’s natural resources. Technology is advancing at a headlong rate of speed. It’s transforming how people work, think, and connect. It’s transforming our cultural values.

If you look at the resulting strains on our political and financial institutions, on health care, on education, there really isn’t a time in history where you could look back and say, “Well, of course, this is the same thing all over again.” It isn’t. This is really new, and we’re going to need every ounce of ingenuity, imagination, and creativity to confront these problems.

Sir Ken Robinson

While it’s becoming more and more apparent today that creativity is becoming essential within the 21st century, it may be difficult to see and understand how creativity can help us transcend these problems, especially since many of them are often social and inherently intangible in nature (i.e. culture). A simple way to bridge this gap of understanding though and make these social problems tangible is by seeing them as social systems and then understanding how creativity is able to transform these systems as a whole.

Creativity & Innovation

Before we jump into the systems part of it though, let’s try to understand the basics of creativity first by taking a look at one of the definitions of it.

“Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.”
Wikipedia

And just to be on the safe side, let’s get one more perspective and definition of creativity but this time showing how innovation relates to it.

“Creative thinking is characterized by unusual ideas and distant associations. To be considered creative in scientific terms, an idea must be original or novel and also appropriate, useful, relevant to a task. Innovation is a product of creativity.”
Explorations of Creativity

Memory network diagram from Explorations of Creativity showing how "Linkages among distant items may produce innovative output."

Memory network diagram from Explorations of Creativity showing how “Linkages among distant items may produce innovative output.”

Systems

Now lets explore the basics of systems using the following definitions and quotes below.

“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.”

“Before going too far in that direction, it’s a good idea to stop dissecting out elements and to start looking for the interconnections, the relationships that hold the elements together.”

“A system generally goes on being itself, changing only slowly if at all, even with complete substitutions of its elements — as long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact.”

“If the interconnections change, the system may be greatly altered.”

“Changes in function or purpose also can be drastic.”

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

To summarize and simplify the above, a system is a collection of elements organized within a relationship and working collectively towards a common purpose. Transforming a system isn’t achieved by changing the elements of the system but rather by changing the relationship and/or purpose of the elements.

the-nature-of-the-future-distributed

Diagram from The Nature of the Future by Marina Gorbis

Examples of Social Systems

Before we go on though, let’s quickly go over some examples of social systems to help visualize them within our minds.

Systems Thinking, Wikipedia

Systems Thinking, Wikipedia

Networks, communities, organizations, and institutions are often the ones that easily come to mind when thinking about social systems today. More complex social systems that are often difficult to grasp for people would be things like cultures and world views.

What most people completely miss though is that our sense of self-identity is a social system itself. In effect, we are comprised of a collection of elements (i.e. experiences, knowledge) and they collectively define our sense of identity by the way they are organized within a relationship that achieves an overall purpose.

Transforming Social Systems

So within an organization, many people may change within it, coming and going, but those people as elements won’t change the organization much until the collective relationship and purpose of those people change as a whole. And with regards to the Future of Work, that’s exactly what’s happening right now. Silos, boundaries, and borders are dropping within organizations and people are connecting and interacting in completely new ways and with completely new values. In effect, old relationships that previously limited the way the organization worked are now being broken and reformed to create new ways of working.

Stage diagrams from Building Smart Communities Through Network Weaving by Valdis Krebs

Stages from Building Smart Communities Through Network Weaving by Valdis Krebs

In terms of individuals, it’s the same thing. Many of us are being limited today by an old relationship which has us defining our identity and self-worth almost completely upon society’s extrinsic needs and purpose with little value for our own. But with the Future of Work, we are rethinking the extrinsic relationship and purpose that often defines us by others and are now seeing new ways to intrinsically define ourselves through our own chosen relationship and purpose. In fact, another more common word that represents this “relationship” of your life redefined in a more intrinsically unified way is passion (i.e. your passion & purpose).

Creativity: Breaking & Reforming

So to summarize and simplify all of the above, creativity allows us to transform ourselves, both individually and collectively, by redefining the relationships and purpose both within us and between us. In effect, creativity isn’t simply an act of forming new relationships or associations between things but rather an act of forming new relationships between things by breaking and letting go of old relationships in the first place. One cannot occur without the other, as it is this creative destruction which makes the creative construction possible, which is why creativity can often be seen as a divergent act that can threaten the stability of things.

Opening, Exploring, & Closing from Gamestorming by Dave Gray

Opening, Exploring, & Closing from Gamestorming by Dave Gray

But remember one key important thing though, especially with regards to transforming ourselves. The elements which form us stay the same. Thus we don’t have to fear a sense of losing ourselves because we aren’t starting over from scratch but rather are rearranging the way we look at ourselves as a whole and becoming more of who we are. This is the emergence of who we are in action. And I can speak from experience when saying that when you finally shift the way you look at your life, with a new sense of passion and purpose to it, you’ll suddenly start seeing an evolving, meaningful order to it, whereas previously you may have only seen a chaotic, meaningless mess.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Albert Einstein