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Time for Asia to build its creative confidence

I think we are entering a new Golden Age of creativity in Asia, something that excites and inspires me tremendously.

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I think we are entering a new Golden Age of creativity in Asia, something that excites and inspires me tremendously.

I have been working as a designer for almost 30 years and, during that time, have seen the evolution of my own craft shift dramatically: From the past, when design was relegated to the end of the process, the “make-it-look-nice” piece of the puzzle; to today, when design and creativity in general are at the forefront of the growth of many thriving businesses, governments and economies, when creative thinking is prized in existing and emerging leadership and lauded as the most powerful driver and differentiator of modern organisations.

Creativity is not just having a moment; it has become a movement.

Asia is having its own creative moment, albeit in many different places and at many different levels.

I want to start with a personal story that I think highlights both a problem and a huge opportunity. I gave a talk in Singapore to a group of students, many of high-school age, about design, its role in helping to create change and how it was a valuable national asset to be cultivated.

At the end of my talk, a young girl, probably 16 or 17, put her hand up and said: “Sir, I have been told by my teacher that I am 79 per cent more likely to get a job if I follow the science track, yet I want to follow the arts track. What is your advice?”

I was floored on multiple levels — by the specificity of her advice (79 per cent? Really?), but mainly by the lack of support for creativity at an educational and even societal level. I told her that I was luckily in the 21 per cent that had made it in the arts track and encouraged her to follow her heart. I hope she does.

Why am I telling you this?

I think it is time for creativity to be deliberately and systematically fostered across Asia at a fundamental level. It needs to be seen for what it really is: A powerful tool for growth and a strong national asset — as strong as technology, agriculture or even mineral wealth.

Creativity emboldens people, ideas, culture. And it does exist broadly across Asia.

One of the most powerful products of living in the technological age is the speed, ferocity and power of creating, spreading and building new ideas, and Asia is connected, not isolated, inspiring and inspired by the world.

But it is time to put some new systems in place, to “unlock” and magnify the inherent creativity that resides across this region.

What would I love to see happen?

First, it is time to build resilient creative confidence at the individual level through Asia. At IDEO, we describe the journey of becoming creatively confident as “guided mastery” — through learning and trusting your own creativity, to becoming fluent in it and practising it and, eventually, teaching it. Education has the biggest role to play in learning it; enabling individuals to apply creative problem- solving will increase their fluency and, over time, they will be able to teach others.

Secondly, we need to design the contexts to enable creativity to flourish by democratising creativity. It is time for leaders in both public and private sectors to accept that they do not have all the answers and that a more transparent process of citizen and staff involvement is critical. (One approach that we use is open innovation, which fosters collaborative problem-solving at scale. Our tool to support this is called OI Engine, which runs

Next, you need to give individuals a process toolkit. Our toolkit is called “design thinking”, allowing individuals to take a human-centred approach to solving problems using design and iterative prototyping to mitigate risk and create relevant solutions. I cannot overstate the value of prototyping enough: Making something tangible quickly takes things away from the realm of the “think-y” and into a more evocative, useful and generative place.

Finally — and, to me, this is the most important shift that I would love to see — you need to expand what you measure. I know that Singapore, for example, is obsessed with KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and I am not suggesting for a second that creating robust measurement does not matter, but it has to take a broader, more pluralistic, more human form. I talk a lot about augmenting the meaning of KPI to one of engagement and have renamed it Keeping People Involved.

Applying these principles to the big issues— education, healthcare, government and governance — that the region needs to transform to grow, to fostering the inherent entrepreneurship of the region and encouraging young people to feel like they can meaningfully enter the “arts track” with an equal statistical probability of success. That is what I am hoping to see and be part of creating in this region.


Paul Bennett is Global Chief Creative Officer of IDEO, an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centred, design-based approach to helping organisations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow. He was a panel member on Channel NewsAsia’s Perspectives talk show that aired on Oct 27.

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