VIEWPOINT: Creativity is key to competitive advantage

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Central Indiana is flat as a result of the Laurentide ice sheet that surged toward Indianapolis 17,000 years ago. Today, the whole world is flat as a result of the technological and social seismic shifts that effectively leveled the economic world, and “accidentally made Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda next-door neighbors,” says Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for

The New York Times.

Richard Florida, researcher on regional economic development, challenges Friedman’s metaphor. Florida says, “The world is even more concentrated, uneven, and unequal than it ever has been … . What’s happening is that those creative centers are sucking up all the talent from the hinterland.”

Regardless of whether you follow Friedman or Florida, we all recognize that achieving competitive economic advantage is now more difficult.

Many communities, including our own, read Richard Florida’s famous argument, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” to mean that regions must nurture a vibrant cultural arts scene to attract the highly educated workers high-growth companies need to hire. The ultimate limitation of this interpretation is that art and design become decorations and entertainments-features and benefits for selling a city.

Certainly, Indianapolis demonstrates a genuine commitment to the cultural vitality of our community and quality of life. While our actions are sincere, appreciation of the arts will not engage the full potential of artists and designers. We must shift our understanding of their roles from creators of cultural artifacts with narrow appeal to agents of creativity and innovation with broadly relevant competencies.

While artists and designers cannot claim dominion over creativity and innovation, they apply skill sets to produce unique outcomes. Describing design’s core competencies, Chris Conley, professor at the Institute of Design in Chicago, identifies “aspects of designing that add value to the spectrum of activities within the business enterprise-the ability to engage the context and reframe problems, to work abstractly, to visualize, to use form to embody and communicate ideas, to discover critical relationships, and to generate meaningful alternatives.”

In the book “A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age,” Daniel Pink declares that linear, analytical and computer-like thinking are being replaced by empathy, inventiveness and understanding as essential skills for business success. Pink writes, “To flourish in this age, we’ll need to supplement our well-developed high-tech abilities with aptitudes that are ‘high concept’ and ‘high touch.’ High concept involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to come up with inventions the world didn’t know it was missing. High touch involves the capacity to empathize, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.”

Innovation has been the leitmotif of the mainstream business press for over two years.

“Designers are teaching CEOs and managers how to innovate. [They] help business people better understand and meet their customers’ desires. Companies are creating ‘chief design officer’ slots, and designers are helping corporations build their own innovation centers,” writes BusinessWeek Editor Bruce Nussbaum.

Many important initiatives in our community could use design strategies to realize success. Indiana’s BioCrossroads life sciences initiative, Mayor Peterson’s IndyWorks plan, and our universities’ Indiana Venture Center projects might all benefit from more participation by creative professionals as partners in innovation at the policy level.

The news that artists and designers seek to contribute in this capacity may come as an honest surprise. While some artists and designers do not want to engage in community issues, many do. Connecting all of our human resources to form a diverse, multidisciplinary brain trust will require new strategies and values.

Vice is chairman of the Department of Visual Communication Design, Herron School of Art and Design, IUPUI, and co-chairman of the Indianapolis 2005 Environmental Wow Committee. He can be reached at

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