I recently asked the artist Alice Ladenburg to join the REDD Horizon project in Malawi. An artist? you ask. What is the point of an artist in a project that is looking at building capacity in forest monitoring in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world?
It is easy to dismiss “art” as a luxury. When feeding the hungry and treating the sick are at the top of the “to do” list, drawing pictures or installing some conceptual art piece would seem inappropriate. An (over) indulgence.
But this would be to reduce the issue to something too simplistic….
Within my science area (remote measurements of forests) it is easy to focus on the technical skills and competences that are required to get things done. It doesn’t matter if its geography students in Edinburgh, or forestry students in Malawi, its quite straightforward to list the “stuff” that they should know, or be able to do, to monitor the world’s forests. The difficult bit is knowing what else they need to know. The current challenges the world faces in terms of deforestation – and the associated issues of food, energy and water security, and climate change – will not be solved simply by measuring the forests and making maps (even though they are important pieces of the jigsaw). More than this, we urgently need innovative, holistic and practical solutions that will meet the needs of both the people who live with the forests, as well as those of us elsewhere in the world who rely on forests for the services they provide. And such innovation requires creativity.
So, can you learn how to be “creative”, or is that something you are born with? In fact, there is evidence to suggest we are all born with some capacity to be creative, but that we get this trained out of us as we grow up. Ken Robinson calls this skill, “divergent thinking” – the capacity to see questions in different ways, and to find multiple answers, not just one. He defines divergent thinking as something slightly different to creativity, but identifies it as a fundamental component of creative thinking and innovation.
My task as an educator and capacity builder is therefore to find ways to encourage and foster creativity across the board. In the West, if I ask you where people “learn” creativity, you may say Art School, or you may consider it innate, and unlearnable. If I ask you about innovation or invention, you might say that this is the role of science and technology in universities. I would argue that we need to make links across these groups as a strategy to build capacity in innovation – everywhere, not just in Malawi. Capacity to think creatively is as important as the capacity to process data.
In fact, I don’t think science and art are as far apart as many people think. The best artists and the best scientist share much in common – insatiable curiosity; a desire to go beyond the established ways of thinking; an ability to see the world differently. Divergent thinkers.
So that is why I think it is important to have a project artist: we need as many people as possible to contribute to innovative solutions to deforestation. Creativity and divergent thinking are crucial capacities that must be developed and fostered amongst all participants. Artists are experts in creativity and divergent thinking.
I give the last word to Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
For further reading:
- See the “Jambula!” post in this blog.
- Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on educational paradigms
- The project artist Alice Ladenburg and her blog.
- The REDD Horizon Project
- The Art & Science Collaborations, Inc, in New York
- The Playful Invention and Exploration Network
- The Art Science Collaborative in Edinburgh