Creativity: Ideas, Invention, and Innovation

I recently attended a seminar on creativity at the Seymour Senior Center. It was conducted by Carl Nordgren and I found it very revealing. One of the things he emphasized was that creativity exists and that it changes throughout our entire lifetime. I’d like to share with you what my perspective as an economist reveals for me about the nature and consequences of that creativity.

Playfulness, curiosity, inquiry and improvisation are essential elements of creativity. However, by no means are they the whole story. It is one thing to have a creative “idea” and another thing to make the idea into a reality.

Let’s consider creativity under very different circumstances. The first is when someone comes up with an idea that has no prior experience or understanding of what it takes to get from here to there. For now it is just a new idea, one that popped into their head. The second is when the person who comes up with the idea has a clear understanding of the related processes of production — of what it takes to get from where they are to where they want to be. Then there is the situation where he/she is a recognized, highly-skilled Creative Master Craftsperson who comes upon an idea that pushes the boundaries of their discipline. Perhaps it is an entirely new product, a variation of an existing one, an art work, or a novel, lower-cost, more ‘efficient’ way of producing the product itself.

ideaKeep in mind that there is a significant difference between:

  • having a new idea,
  • bringing it to fruition the first time — the invention, and
  • producing multiple similar copies of it – the innovation.

Sometimes the new ideas come about because the creator has multiple skill sets or a familiarity with different materials or different methods of production.

When an innovation comes into being and is widely accepted, it displaces the old ways of doing things. The new ways make some portion of the population better off. Nonetheless, the displacement causes harm to others and makes them worse off, including those who were involved in supplying the products that were previously relevant.

To begin the discussion of creativity I’ll tell you a story. Last Saturday I was at the Carrboro Farmers Market. I was at Bill Daigle’s booth sitting on one of beautifully crafted chairs. Bill is a woodworker, who calls himself “The Chairman’. (Check out his website and the attached pictures of his work.) I spent a little time watching a three-year-old boy that we’ll call Sam.

His parents were deeply involved in conversation with friends they had just spotted at the market. Sam saw the footrest of one of Bill’s chairs and was singularly focused on it and playing around it. He climbed on top of the footrest, got off and moved it up against the chair. Sam then climbed onto the foot rest and then the chair, where he sat in it with his legs on the footrest. After a while Sam got bored and decided to check out the table that Bill had built with various paraphernalia on it. Along with the other things were some ‘healing crosses’ Bill created. Sam started playing with them. One fell off the table and hit the floor, drawing his mother’s attention. Sam ran over and grabbed his father’s leg for support. The video of the experience is still in my head!

Sam exhibited curiosity in dealing with a new, novel situation –a setting he had not previously experienced. His curiosity led to exploratory, experiential and experimental behavior, allowing Sam to do what he wanted to do. Sam’s creativity certainly worked for him.

Let’s compare Sam’s behavior with that of a Creative Master Craftsperson’s. We are talking about a person that is highly skilled, experienced and fully understands the “process of production” — what it takes to get from where you are to where you want to be. Among my idols are Frank Lloyd Wright, Isamu Noguchi and Louis Armstrong. Choose yours and imagine that you are right there along with them when they came up with n idea and begin working on it. They go through their own creative process, one based on their extensive knowledge and experience. The end result is there for all to see.

In that context let’s look at the situation where s/he comes up with a creative idea — a new object, piece of music, creative work, or new process of production. It is something no one ever thought of previously.

The next stage is when the new idea pushes all previous boundaries of the discipline. When the idea comes to fruition it becomes an ‘invention’, something that is new, novel and not simply an extension of previous experience. Under those circumstances it may be patentable.

invention-industrial-revolutionSometimes the new idea comes from a person with extensive prior experience. At other times it comes out of the blue. In either case, it is necessary to go from the idea itself to the initial successful attempt to bring it to fruition — the invention. The invention goes through its own process of production, which by its very nature cannot have been experienced previously. Typically, it is not a simple direct path without any hiccups. In all cases some of society’s limited time, energy, resources and funds (TERF) are required to make it happen.

There is another circumstance that is important to keep in mind. During the entire time from when s/he originally comes up with the idea until it comes to fruition, s/he must have sufficient TERF and the basic goods and services required to survive and to fulfill any obligations or commitments that they have taken on. All activities related to the development of the “idea” must come out of the individual’s and society’s discretionary disposable TERF.

Importantly, there is no guarantee that the idea will ever come to fruition. Nevertheless, all the limited TERF involved is used up in the process. When the idea does not become a reality, it is TERF that could have served a more useful purpose. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the invention, even when it is patentable, ever sees the light of day. In the 1930s my Dad got a patent for an umbrella tent. That is as far as it ever went. The invention becomes part of the public domain after the patent protection period when it becomes available to other potential producers.

The next step is to follow through with the invention and make the new product or new process of production available to potential users — its innovation. Two intermediary steps are required. The first is to set up the process of production for the new product or process. That often requires changes in the way the invention was produced initially. The second is to make potential customers knowledgeable about the innovation — its uses, benefits, potential issues and its price. To be able to remain in business, the sales price must at least cover all of the long-run, most efficient costs of production, marketing and distribution of the good or service at the selected level of output. (For more details about pricing in this situation, see my essay on “Monopoly Pricing”.)

When the innovator is able to provide the customers — the households, firms and/or governments — with the quantity demanded for the product or service at the market price (to use the lay-term) we’re in business! When the price charged exceeds all the long-run cost of production, the company makes “excess profits”. Those are returns over and above all of the costs required to produce the product or service, including a reasonable return for coming up with the invention.

When the price charged for the innovation is over and above its long-run cost of production, the higher price takes money out of consumer’s pocket. They could have used those funds to purchase additional goods and services that they would have preferred. That would make society’s product mix more consistent with the public’s desires. The net effect of that type of pricing is that it makes it more difficult for those at the lower end of the income distribution to become better off.

Moreover, the excess profits provide the company, the managers and owners with additional funds. Those funds help them maintain their position in the upper-end of the income distribution. Some of those funds can be used to maintain and extend the monopoly position and also to engage in economic and political activities that promotes their private agendas. It is also important to recognize that every innovation changes the basic technological and economic conditions under which we, as individuals and as a society, operate. That is especially true of the innovations that have a profound effect on our lives, livelihood and lifestyle. (If you are not convinced about that I suggest you check out my blog post entitled “Me — Then ’til Now”.

Also importantly, every innovation mandates change. The old ways of doing things are no longer the best way and, in fact, they may become irrelevant. As a result the companies and individuals that produced the “old products” — like horse-drawn carriages — are displaced and replaced by the firms and employees producing the new products. The technical economic term for it is “the reallocation of scarce resources”. The reallocationbottom line is that while some households and firms are made better off as a result of the innovation, others are harmed and made worse off. Perhaps one way to help them would be to assist them in their transition. Some of the funds necessary to make that happen could come out of “excess profits” earned as a result of the innovation.

In summary

The challenge we face, both as individuals and as a society, is to discover what creates and triggers our creativity. It is likely to be different for each of us. As an aside, it would also be interesting to find out what suppresses it. Once we determine that it will be easier to promote creativity.

The “idea” triggered by creativity opens up uncertainty as to whether the new product or process of production is, in fact, achievable and also what it would take in terms of the time, energy, resources and funds (TERF) to make it happen. Nevertheless, the idea will never become a reality unless the necessary disposable discretionary TERF is available. Furthermore, the innovation brings changes along with it. They include the transformation to the new technological and economic conditions and the unintended consequences, like the use of disposable TERF for unsuccessful ventures and those firms and individuals who are made worse off by the new developments. Those consequences come along with the benefits the new innovation brings. An integral part of creativity and the innovation is that it brings along with it the resulting changes that the societies have to adjust to.

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Me — Then ’til Now

Recently I’ve decided to change doctors. I have decided to see a physician that has more knowledge about the specific needs of those of us who are aging. The medical history form for the UNC Geriatric Clinic requested that I tell them about myself. It is probably a bernieonstjohnlittle more lengthy than they required. Somehow it morphed into a blog post! So here goes.

I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on January 7, 1928 at 25 minutes to midnight at 4 lbs/10 oz. Arriving two months earlier than expected, I had to be fed with an eye dropper. I went down to 3 lbs/13oz. before my weight started to pick up. I was told that I was wrapped in absorbent cotton and put into a cigar box. (I must admit I don’t remember any of it, but I guess that’s because of my aging.)

The family moved to Queens in New York City when I was six months old, first to Jackson Heights and then, in 1936, to Flushing. My younger brother, Arnie, was born when I was three. Like most other Queens kids most of those early years were spent in public schools. Summers were spent at camp. At 12 I became a Boy Scout in Queens Troop 45. The next three summers were spent at Ten Mile River Scout Camp Keowa in the Adirondacks. In my second year I was chosen for the Order of the Arrow, Scouting’s honor society. I became a Star Scout, but never made it to Life or Eagle Scout.

In June 1941, I completed the first half of the eighth grade. In September I was accepted by and went on to high school at Fieldston School in Riverdale. Fieldston is the educational arm of the Society for Ethical Culture. To avoid the long daily commute from Flushing to Fieldston, I boarded with a family in Riverdale during the week.

Continue reading “Me — Then ’til Now”

Baskets? Yes, Baskets!

virgin_islands_national_park__virgin_islands_usSomething happened recently that I’d like to share with you. I’ve decided to change tacks and follow my heart and my gut. Together, Erin Coyle and I have been trying to help others understand the broken health-care system and how to work their way around and through the intricacies of it.  We’ve enjoyed doing it and have even gotten some favorable responses. From time-to-time some of the ideas have shown up as blog posts or as topics on my website: www.imperfecthealthcaremarket.com.

Early in November, I got a call from the St. John Historical Society. They were planning a meeting in December honoring St. John baskets, and they asked me to come down to talk about them. The Virgin Islands, volcanic in origin, rose out of the ocean like mountaintops cropping out of the sea. The two larger ones are St. Thomas and St. Croix. The smallest — St. John — is where I lived for eighteen years. When I first moved there in 1987, I studied St. John basketry. Through basketry, I met Mr. Herman Prince, St. John’s premier basketmaker and basketry teacher. When I told Mr. Prince that I wanted to write an article on St. John baskets, he said, “Before you write an article about baskets and basketry, you

Mr. Herman Prince. St John's premier basketmaker and teacher.
Mr. Herman Prince. St John’s premier basketmaker and teacher. (Picture courtesy of the St. John Historical Society.)

should learn how to make one.” So I took his course at Hawksnest. Not only did I learn how to make a basket, I also learned much about the culture. In 1990, I published a basketry article, entitled, “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John,” in The Clarion, the magazine of The Museum of American Folk Art. My interest in basketry didn’t end there; during my 18 years on St. John, I collected more than 25 baskets, many made by preeminent St. John basketmakers.

The phone call from the St. John Historical Society got me thinking. Sometime in late November, I pulled the collection of baskets out of the attic, looked them over, and realized how special and beautiful they are. Five of Mr. Prince’s baskets arein my collection, as well as others from St. John basketmakers such as Louise Sewer; her daughter, Lorrel; Victor Sewer; Felicia Martin; and Ina George. I also own a basket made by renowned basketmaker Jackie Abrams, who visited St. John in 1993-94.

Looking over my baskets, I thought, “Wow – some of these baskets really are fine art.”

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum had just launched a basketry exhibit: “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” on display from October 4, 2013 to December 8, 2013. Looking over the catalog, I realized that one of the 63 baskets in the exhibit was made by my old friend and teacher, Herman Prince! His “St. John Market Basket” was in the exhibit and is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection; you can see it on the exhibit’s website and on page 144 of the show catalog. One of Jackie Abrams’ baskets was also in the exhibit as part of the Cole-Ware Collection.

I began to really think about my time on St. John, especially the time I spent with the basketmakers. Many basketmakers that I knew, including Mr. Prince, have already died. I quickly realized that if I don’t tell the stories about them, valuable information about the basketmakers and the baskets will be lost, forever.

Preserving the collection – and the stories that go with it – is important not only so people can learn about St. Johnian basketry and its relationship to the culture; it can even preserve and pass on the art of basketry itself. One of the baskets in

Mr. Herman Prince's, St. John Market Basket.
Mr. Herman Prince’s, St. John Market Basket.

the collection is a miniature St. John basket with a cover, made by Ms. Lorrel Sewer. She learned basketmaking – the form called wist work – from her mother, a premier basketmaker in her own right. Ms. Lorrel gave me the basket for the collection in 2000. A number of years later, I got a call from her asking if I would be willing to send it back to her. She wanted to make another one, but she had forgotten how to make the cover.

Ms. Lorrel had lost that skill, and there were no other basketmakers alive to teach her. Because I had preserved the basket by keeping it as part of the collection, she was able to re-learn how to make a basket cover by studying her own work!

So what I’ve decided to do is to make a video that documents my collection of baskets. It will bring the baskets and their history to light and to life. It will honor the basketmakers who came from the small, isolated island community of St. John. I want to help tell the story of how they raised the level of the baskets they produced to museum-quality fine art. I want to make sure that the stories, memories, and culture of these beautiful people will not be lost! I plan to donate the video and  all of the baskets in the collection to the St. John Historical Society. I want to honor the makers and help preserve their stories and culture for future generations of historians, visitors and viewers.

In short, I have decided to follow my true passion. For now, the other important things we have to offer will just have to wait.

Clothing

eskimowoman
This is Inuit elder Qappik Attagutsiak in her traditional caribou and sealskin clothes. Location: Arctic Bay, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canadian high Arctic
Photographer: Sue Flood

Like all mammals, humans have fur. Some of us have more, others less. In addition to our fur we have created clothing to help protect us from the environment or to take advantage of it. Clothes have other functions as well. Like plumage it attracts members of the opposite, or the same, gender. It can be used to attract attention or to hide. Or used as an indication of the group we belong to and of status, rank or position in the hierarchy. The name or number on it can identify the person. It can be an indication of affluence. Clothing can also be part of our kit bag of tools, allowing us to do whatever job we undertake better. Importantly, it is a way to express who we are and our creativity.

Clothing is an art form as well as one of the basic inputs. Like the others it is dependent upon the materials that are available, on our ability manipulate them and the skills of the artisan. As the changes in it over time demonstrate, it also depends the environment, the current technology, the tools and available resources. Like all other art forms it is a product of the culture. And within that culture it depends on the imagination and creativity of the artist and, in this case, of the wearer as well. Whenever we see a piece of clothing or an image of it, a number of questions may come to mind such as: who created it, what is it made of, how does it fit into the environment, etc. In addition to covering us up or not and protecting us from the environment, clothing has many other functions:

  • It varies depending on environmental conditions.
  • It helps us stand out in a crowd or to hide.
  • It identifies us as a member of a team or group and as who we are.
  • It is an indication of class, status and rank.
  • It can serve as a tool helping you do your job.
  • It is an art form.

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Seeing Some Shelters and Clothing as Fine Art and Fine Craft

yurt
Kyrgyz Yurt, Afghanistan
Photograph by Mattieu Paley, National Geographic
Blanket-draped yaks hunker down outside a young Kyrgyz couple’s yurt on the eve of a summer trading journey. Made of interlaced poles covered with felt, these portable homes are packed up and reassembled for seasonal migration. Wooden doors are imported to the treeless plateau from lower altitudes.

Think of shelters and clothing as art. Some of them are really fine, museum quality art.

At that level each is a masterpiece of achievement. The artist –whomever he or she was –stepped up and used their creative imagination and fine skills to produce a functional and beautiful structure or fine piece of clothing. They accomplished that in spite of the fact that they were constrained by the technology and tools of the time and the materials and resources that they had at hand. Most of the materials were local, some were traded for. Each piece — each fine work of art — came into being as a result of their skill and their creativity using the materials they had available. Furthermore, each artist had a deep understanding and respect for the materials they used. Let’s look at some examples from that perspective.

Having seen them, ideally what would you like to know about each of them? The answer is simple. It would be the information provided for any piece on display at a museum. That includes:

Shelter

Thatched-Houses-Skye
Thatched roof cottage, Ireland

Rumor has it that as a species — Homo sapiens — we originated in Africa and migrated all over the globe. On a daily basis each of us requires some essential inputs like clean air, water, food, clothing, rest and shelter. See Viewing the Body as a Complex Machine. Shelter provides protection from the elements like heat and cold, the wind, rain, etc, and from daily and seasonal variation and their extremes. The nature of the protection required depended upon where we were living and on the materials that were available locally as well as the skills and tools of our ancestors. That is where our creativity as a species came into play. Using the resources that were available locally and their imagination, our ancestors created shelters to protect themselves from the elements. They were all different and beautiful. They included: Cave dwellings, TeepeesAdobes, Sod hutsThatch housesIgloos, and Log cabinsMany different structures evolved. Those are just some of them.  Aren’t they beautiful, artistic and creative? For a better understanding about what we would like to know about each of these shelters as works of art see Seeing Some Shelters and Clothing as Fine Art and Fine Craft. Continue reading “Shelter”