08/03/2011 05:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Government Leaders And Creativity


A week ago, an explosion in Oslo shocked the world. When most people heard about the tragic and unreal news, they instantly jumped to the conclusion that al Qaeda was behind it and a new war on terrorism was on its way. It was humbling and eye-opening to learn that a lone Norwegian extremist had plotted and executed the slaughter. Jens Stoltenberg, Norway's prime minister, announced that Norway would pursue "[m]ore democracy, more openness and greater political participation," thereby showing that the country would not be intimidated by violence. This is quite a different response to terror than what we have seen within the U.S.A. after 2001's Sept. 11 attacks or in the U.K. after the attack on the Underground train system in 2005. Does Stoltenberg's reaction reflect creative political thinking?

Politicians have a huge impact on countries' creativity and their subsequent economic development; however, it is rare to hear political institutions proposing creative new ideas. Roosevelt implemented the "New Deal," Truman the "Marshal Plan," Bush declared "Global War on Terrorism," and Obama bailed out the banks and the U.S. automotive industry. Whether you agree with the ideas or not, they were all radical and new.

Much like creative design, "Politics is the art of the possible" (Otto von Bismarck). Why, then, do politicians often seem stuck in incremental improvements at the expense of breakthrough innovations? The financial crisis clearly shows the need for innovative thinking from government leaders. Can the crisis be resolved by just tweaking taxes and debt ceilings, or is there anything our political institutions can learn from the creative communities, which are developing new, life-changing products and services, such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Grameen Bank? Can government leaders serve their people and customers better?

Breakthrough innovation is all about tapping into the zeitgeist and seeing patterns, creating new ideas and making quick, small prototypes to fail forward and learn as rapidly as possible. Designers give companies strong, competitive advantages. Denmark and Singapore are among the countries that successfully invested heavily in design, and remember, China is run by engineers who have developed a strong focus on product development.

Designers are creative professionals who formulate strategies, context and performance and literally make things happen. They are trained in generating innovative ways of thinking and new realities while working in interdisciplinary teams, and acting as mediators between various experts. Could there be something in this balanced, multidisciplinary problem-solving approach from which our politicians might benefit?

Special thanks to Sofia Hussian for researching and co-writing this article.