Creativity ambassador: Bologna Process ‘stifling creative thinking’

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Europe’s higher education reforms are making university graduates less creative, Erik Spiekermann, one of the 27 ambassadors of the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Erik Spiekermann is an ambassador for the European Year of Creativity and Innovation. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You have been working on a manifesto for innovation and creativity. How much progress has been made? 

We are fighting our way through a draft that is a combination of various other drafts – so the meta-draft, as it were – which of course is typical because people here are very diverse culturally, linguistically; we have scientists, artists and designers, so it’s complicated. I must admire Odile Quintin (the EU’s director-general for education and culture) for getting together such a diverse group. 

At the same time I’m used to working differently. In my company we’re used to solving critical problems like this in a different way. It’s fine for people to talk freely, but you have to pin ideas down a little more – this has been a very open process. God knows how anything is ever going to become tangible. Probably in the usual way: we’ll listen to everything and two of us will go home and write down whatever we got out of it, which is unreliable, but that’s the way it goes. Bengt-Ake Lundvall is going to write a draft of what has been discussed and, being a visual designer, I’ll put it into a visual form. 

What will the final document look like? 

The idea is to make something really concise – about as short as the ten commandments – and then maybe add a second level of action points. It needs to be a poster so people can quote it quickly, but it also needs to have depth. If it’s just a poster, then it’s like advertising, and that’s not good enough for us. But if you give it in full length, nobody is going to read it. So you need a headline and backup. If it were a website, you’d have a headline, and if you roll over the headline, a little pop-up will appear giving more information. 

In terms of content, what areas have been agreed upon and what areas are still up for debate? 

Well, we have a definition of what creativity is and we’ve also agreed on what areas we’d like to see more creative thinking applied to. For example, the economy, education and other areas of society. We need to open up the scientific community to become less rigid. We need better communication between various European institutions. 

You mention creativity. Will this be a manifesto for creativity, innovation or both? 

Both. 

Have you defined both terms? 

I couldn’t define innovation myself; I had a hard time with it. It’s not going to be more of the same. Innovation isn’t making new products – the world doesn’t need another espresso machine and doesn’t need another car either for that matter. Nor does it mean innovative financial products – we’ve had our share of those – and it doesn’t mean creative accounting either. 

Innovation means new thinking. It simply means that people should use their inherent creativity to come up with solutions that didn’t exist before. Those solutions can be answers to problems, answers to products, but they don’t necessarily have to be artefacts. Children are inherently creative before they learn how to do a job. 

This year was conceived before the crisis erupted, and now everyone is talking about innovation as a driver of economic growth. Has it been difficult to keep the creative side in this project?

Not at all, not with this group of ambassadors. Even though there are several scientists in the group, we realise innovation is an approach that you can apply to anything and that we have to stop thinking in narrow boxes, where physicists talk to physicists and English teachers only think about English. We’ve got to start looking across our fields instead of just following the same old rules. Creativity means asking the right questions in the first place. 

Do we need more innovation in education and, if so, what would this involve? 

I am not an expert, and to me innovation is too closely associated with making new products. ‘New’ in and of itself is not a quality. ‘Better’ is a quality. Europe is not about making more; it’s about making better. We need to make sure that we are healthier, have better water to drink, have cleaner air, fewer cars on the streets. But there will certainly be a major focus on education in the manifesto. 

Is it possible to teach creativity? 

Yes you can. The famous Ed de Bono – another ambassador – has a method for teaching lateral thinking and there are others. I’m a designer, and when we start design projects, we have methods to solicit ideas from people, to break down hierarchies. Often you get the boss and two of his people in the room, and their ideas are hidden because they answer to the boss. But there are methods to overcome that dynamic. One of them is to visualise what is being said. Drawing, sketching and gathering thoughts helps pin down ideas, and that’s underestimated as a tool. 

Does the way we learn in Europe these days run counter to what you are describing? 

Yes, totally. It has to do partly with the Bologna Process that’s happening across European universities where everything is results-based. You have to be through your bachelor’s degree in three years’ time and have a set number of points in each semester. So it’s not about learning: it’s about achieving and getting the right amount of points. 

It’s horrible. I teach at two universities and I can see this already. People won’t have time to study, because they have too many exams. Things don’t sink in; students have no time to explore something they might be interested in. That’s totally uncreative. Creativity is not results-based. 

What will happen after the manifesto is launched in the autumn? 

Well that, of course, is out of our hands. Nobody thinks we’re going to change the European public at large, but the input of the ambassadors – who had a non-bureaucratic, non-political approach – has provoked change. The impact we’ve had on the Commission can already be seen. You don’t usually invite people into your house to criticise you. We keep accusing them of being Eurocrats and they readily agree. We’re putting the cat amongst the pigeons here. There’s a certain amount of noise that we’ve created. The Commission actually does want criticism. Maybe they are getting more than they bargained for. 

In terms of implementation, is there any target on investment or outcomes? How hard are these things you’ll be calling for? 

No. This is the problem at the same time. It’s a very soft thing. It’s asking people and politicians to become more creative. These are essentially like the Ten Commandments – you can adhere to them or not. We can’t really threaten anybody. The only carrot we have is to say that unless we become more creative in Europe, you’re going to suffer badly. We want to be positive about it rather than negative. 

Are we in danger of being overtaken by emerging powers like China and India? 

I know India a little better than China, but I do know that they are so keen on education. They are like Europeans were in the 1950s after the war, when everything was broken. There was an enormous energy to do better and not repeat old mistakes. 

We’ve become big and fat and tired and stodgy. The crisis may have shaken us up, but not enough as far as I’m concerned. We’re saying there is a crisis and we need to have the same sort of enthusiasm that people in India have. They want to go to school and they want to learn and they want to change things. They want to make a good life for themselves and they don’t expect the state to protect them. 

We’ve got to get that energy back and become eager to learn. Writing exams is not learning, it’s training. Writing exams is a 1970s concept. I’ve never hired anybody because they had certain points. I hire people because they are good people and they can do something. 

What skills do you look for when hiring somebody? 

I look for attitude. If you have a good education you have an attitude. Without an education you are unsure of what you are doing. I don’t care what kind of educational background people have. If I only hired designers in my design company, it would be very boring. So we have linguists, psychologists, people who come from all walks of life. 

I, personally, am an art historian by trade, but have been working as a designer for 40 years. Nobody has ever asked for my papers. The tools you can pick up, you can learn skills. The rest is your attitude, your brain, your curiosity. 

Will the manifesto be distributed beyond Brussels? 

Well, it needs to be published and put out in the press. That’s why I want to make it as provocative as possible. All we can hope to do is get people talking about this. 

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