New Ideas about New Ideas: Conference Overview

A critical mass for a multi-disciplinary science of creativity and innovation is emerging. While there is a tradition of work on creativity in history, sociology, and psychology, economists, including those in business schools, are increasingly studying creativity. Moreover, cognitive neuro-science has provided a new set of tools for analyzing the creative process at a finer level than has ever been possible. On March 10 and 11, 2006 fifteen experts on innovation and creativity from these disciplines  both established senior scholars and emerging younger researchers met at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts with the support of the Alfred Sloan Foundation. The purpose of the conference was to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue on creativity and innovation.

The timing was also fortuitous from a policy perspective. As the most recent State of the Union Address indicated, the United States increasingly sees its economic position challenged, and creativity and innovation are viewed as the most promising direction for us to maintain our position. On the other hand, this increased interest in creativity and innovation may conflict with demographics the workforce has been aging and creativity and innovation have traditionally been regarded as linked to youth.

I. The Idiosyncrasy of Innovation

With innovation viewed as a way for the United States to maintain its economic position, it is natural to ask what can be done to foster innovation. Perhaps the single point on which there was the widest agreement was that while there are recognizable patterns in creativity, the motivations of creators and the processes by which creative ideas arise are frequently specific to the individual or idiosyncratic. Any efforts to foster creativity will have to address this fact.

At the finest level, the cognitive neuroscientists at the conference showed the idiosyncratic nature of creativity in brain functioning. The cognitive neuroscience showed that solutions to problems often emerge in the unconscious. The right brain is also particularly involved in creative problem solving, perhaps because of the more diffuse links in the right brain, which allow for novel or idiosyncratic connections across distantly related concepts.

Psychosis appears to increase the novelty of associations. Although the clinically psychotic appear to be less creative, it is noteworthy that the more idiosyncratic associations among people who are psychosis-prone (but clinically normal) can enhance creativity, especially in the arts and perhaps in science.

Not only do creative ideas arise in idiosyncratic ways, but the motivations of innovators are idiosyncratic, and this is particularly true in the initial development of an innovation when the explicit returns from innovating are the least apparent. Analyses of contemporary and historic innovations in industry (the development of open-source code); in the sciences (the development and diffusion of quantum mechanics in physics); and the arts (the development of Impressionism and Cubism) all show this pattern. Early innovators were pursuing their own personal goals, while later innovators were more market driven. Consistent with these findings research has revealed an intrinsic motivation principle of creativity people will be most creative when they are motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, meaningfulness, and personal challenge of the work itself; extrinsic inducements or constraints crowd out intrinsic motivation.

Thus, cognitive neuro-scientists, economists, historians, and psychologists all see creativity as being idiosyncratic in terms of the processes through which it develops and the motivations of creators. Given this view, there was great concern about efforts to test outcomes in higher education. Similarly, the group was concerned about the ability to identify areas for innovation and target support to them, as opposed to supporting innovation broadly.

II. The Geography of Creativity

Technological centers such as Silicon Valley and the Route 128 Corridor outside of Boston have been attributed to knowledge spillovers arising among innovators. The presence of many others working on related problems leads to informal interactions that foster creativity. This phenomenon can operate at the level of cities and even nations, and is an important motivation for public investment in research.

Using very different approaches, economists, historians, and sociologists have all studied the diffusion of ideas across innovators. Studying the sciences, one finds that people adopt the ideas that they were exposed to early in their careers and that ideas are modified by and diffuse through communities. Other research shows how startup firms working on leading technologies, including semiconductors, biotechnology, and nano-technology, are more likely to develop in cities where there are more star academic researchers. This work provides an important, direct link between academic research and industrial innovation.

While there was considerable optimism about the future of the United States as a leader in creativity and innovation, there was a general view that the distance between the United States and other countries would likely shrink. As other countries develop their research capabilities, scientific breakthroughs and their commercial applications will likely shift overseas at least to some extent. For us to maintain a strong position, we will have to invest in our scientific and industrial innovative communities.

III. Innovation and an Aging Workforce

The relationship between age and creativity is particularly important today with new technologies developing rapidly and the workforce aging, driven by the large baby boom generation. Will our ability to innovate and take advantage of innovations be affected by the aging workforce? How can companies that need to innovate adapt to an aging workforce?

While there seems to be a presumption that creativity is associated with youth, there was a consensus that older individuals can, and frequently are, highly creative. Economists and psychologists both provided support for this proposition using a variety of approaches. Interestingly, important contributions by older individuals tend to be more experimental or empirical, while those by younger individuals tend to be more conceptual or theoretical. There are also striking differences in the age o great creativity across disciplines.

There is also evidence that innovators are increasingly making their important contributions at older and older ages. The accumulation of knowledge over time generates a burden of knowledge. Thus, while later generations have the advantage of being able to see further by standing on the shoulders of giants, they suffer from having longer climbs


Bruce A. Weinberg

Ohio State University , NBER, and IZA

May 2006


Participants New Ideas about New Ideas

Amabile, Teresa M. Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration; Unit Head, Entrepreneurial Management; Harvard Business School

Darby, Michael R. Professor of Policy, Director of the John M. Olin Center for Policy, Anderson School of Management, University of California, Los Angeles

Freeman, Richard B. Herbert Asherman Professor of Economics, Harvard University ; Director of Labor Studies Program, National Bureau of Economic Research

Galenson, David W. Professor of Economics, University of Chicago

Goroff, Daniel Vice President and Dean of Faculty, Harvey Mudd College

Holton, Gerald - Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of the History of Science

Jones, Benjamin F. Assistant Professor, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Jung-Beeman, Mark Associate Professor of Psychology, Northwestern University

Kaiser, David Associate Professor of the History of Science and Lecturer, Department of Physics, MIT

Kounios, John Professor of Psychology, Drexel University

Lerner, Joshua Jacob H. Schiff Professor of Investment Banking, Harvard Business School

Park, Sohee Professor of Psychology and the Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience, Vanderbilt University

Saha, Subhra B. Graduate Student of Economics, Ohio State University

Sehl, Andrea N. The Varian Group

Simonton, Dean Keith Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California , Davis

Weinberg, Bruce A. Associate Professor of Economics, Ohio State University

Zucker, Lynne G. Professor of Sociology, University of California , Los Angeles