Who knew that writing about play would be such hard work. There is a lot of stuff out there on “play” … types of play, dynamics of play, the value of play, and so on. Robin Marantz Henig, for one, writes about the serious side of play. (NY Times Magazine, February 17, 2009) Apparently, for scientists who study play, it is far more than a “frivolous luxury” …
“Play is a key part of neurological growth and development … an important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.” …
Well, if that explanation doesn’t take all the fun out of it, pondering the evolution of play goes a step further, delineating the myriad reasons why play is not hereditarily recommended:
“When it comes to animal play, scientists basically agree … that it’s a mystery why they do it, since there are so many reasons not to. It all seems incredibly wasteful, and nature does not usually tolerate waste. Play can be costly in terms of energy expenditure … using up calories the young animal could more profitably use for growing. … Frisky playing can also be dangerous, making animals more conspicuous and inattentive, and thus more vulnerable to predators and more likely to hurt themselves as they romp and cavort.”
We’re not talking dodge-ball here. Like play, the random and spontaneous dynamics of creative problem solving call upon inner processes which can both exercise the mind and delight the spirit. Case in point, the playful work of Grzegorz Kozakiewlcz, a mixed media artist who uses computer technology, stop motion photography, hand drawing, cut up cardboard, and a glue gun to create whimsical, wonderful miniature scenarios. As you watch Grzegorz work his magic (below), you can almost hear his parents lamenting in the background, “We buy him nice toys and all he wants to do is play with the box… “ Also, note the hip, cool music. (Everything is so much hipper and cooler with a hip cool sound track.)
I’d like to say something disparaging about this man’s probable trust fund, but I am actually extremely envious of his devotion, capacity and opportunity to romp and cavort on his own inner playground. More maddening yet is his articulate and virtuous philosophical outlook:
“Whatever you use … advanced technology or a pencil, what matters is the initial idea and the process of its creation … Let’s do it a different way, like no one has done before.”
Rather than compelled to “turn off the computer and go outside,” a la Play-Offs Part 1′s interactive software bloke, Neave (rhymes with heave), I am drawn to enter the tiny cardboard world of the pencil-rebel. There is something comforting, yet edgy, almost poetic, about Grzegorz’s work – small-scale, everyday objects rendered in pencil by the human hand; painstakingly cut out of pieces of brown cardboard; their creation documented and revealed in fits and starts before our eyes; their purpose left in question.
“Obama lauds innovative spirit … Future economic prosperity depends on building a new, stronger foundation and recapturing the spirit of innovation.”
Historically, tough economic times have catalyzed surges in innovative thinking - Hewlett Packard and Polaroid were formed after the Great Depression, MTV came close on the heels of the recession in the 1980′s, and Apple’s iPod (developed during a sharp decline in sales and margins of consumer electronics in 2001) joined the “pantheon of game-changing innovations born of hard times, alongside Depression-era breakthroughs such as nylon and the jet engine.” (HBR, July/Aug. 2009) If history repeats itself, the current economic downturn is the perfect storm of opportunity for innovation.
The rustling in the bushes is all there – at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer suggests that, “Companies and industries that continue to pursue innovation during tough economic times will achieve a significant competitive advantage and position themselves for growth…” … And, “… companies investing countercyclically in R&D (biz-code for innovation) during downturns tend to outpace their competitors on the upswing.” (HBR)
What all this means is, between random jolts from the Federal Reserve and the pitch and yaw of consumer confidence, companies and industries around the world are rifling through drawers, combing executive profiles, and making the mad dash into the ethers in search of both survival and triumph in the huge pot of gold at the end of the Next Big Innovation. Suddenly, the fluffy and elusive x-factor of creativity/innovation/design has become the imperative “it-force” behind economic recovery and prosperity. From Washington to Wall Street, everyone is using the “I” word, rushing into the vortex with new takes on how to pin down and quantify innovation.
Dev Patnaik, founder and chief executive of Jump Associates, a Silicon Valley growth strategy firm (clients include Nike, Target, and Hewlett-Packard) discusses the underpinnings of innovation in this month’s Fast Company, ”Forget Design Thinking and Try Hybrid Thinking.” Fast forward to his point, Patnaik suggests that there is a unique role that designers and their skill-set/way of thinking can play in making everything — products, services, experiences, and industry-specific entities such as finance, education and government — better. He then pushes beyond that thought to propose that something bigger is going on in the minds of successful innovators:
“… something bigger is going on, more powerful than the adoption of a single school of thought. The secret isn’t design thinking, it’s “hybrid thinking “: the conscious blending of different fields of thought to discover and develop opportunities that were previously unseen by the status quo …”
We’re not talking about “multi-tasking” here … True hybrid thinkers (you know who you are) traffic in the cracks between traditional areas of expertise and are able to ”connect the dots between what’s culturally desirable, technically feasible, and viable from a business point of view.” The new face of innovation demands that we “see the world through multiple lenses and draw meaning from seemingly disparate points of data.”
According to Patnaik, “hybridity” matters now because the problems we need to solve are too complex to be handled by any one skill-set. Gone are the good old silo days where depth in a single field trumps breadth in multiple areas. Audiovox design executive Lou Lenzi asserts that those who want to innovate, must be “one part humanist, one part technologist, and one part capitalist.”
Well, “hybrid thinking” might be a catchy modern phrase, but it isn’t a new concept. In the spirit of “Everything old is new again,” hybrid thinking can march to the back of the line behind lava lamps, lime green and liberal arts. Two words for Dev: 1. da; 2. Vinci.