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December 17, 2018

How to look at art: Art and innovation: Make the connection

Gaitano Mbati, 21, Eldoret
Gaitano Mbati, 21, Eldoret

Having established an art education programme in some Kenyan schools a few years ago, I had to approach businesses for support. “But what does art have to do with us?!” was their reply. Many businesses do not realise that art fosters creativity (problem solving), creativity results in innovation (ideas brought to market) and innovation drives growth. They do not make the ‘art-creativity-innovation’ connection.

This is worrisome because “Investment in skills and innovation is key to enhanced productivity and competitiveness,” says the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Report 2014-15. Creativity/innovation is now one of the top five most important skills, and acquiring creative employees is essential to sustainable success. Abstract thinking has become a far bigger part of job tasks than a generation ago.

According to leading business surveys, education for creativity is, therefore, a major concern. Eighty-five per cent of employers seeking creative employees say they are having difficulty finding applicants with the creative characteristics. School leavers are ‘deficient’ in the creativity/innovation skill set. In Africa, 75 per cent of business executives say that lack of creative talent threatens their companies’ growth and even survival (Business Council for Africa). The World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Report 2014-15 rates Kenya’s competitiveness 90th out of 144 economies.

But, what does develop creativity? More than 90 per cent of educators replied that art studies (writing, dance, painting, drama, music, etc) are the most effective in developing creative skills. Young people who study art are among the most employable and enjoy higher salaries and enter professional or managerial jobs. Almost 60 per cent of business executives replied that art studies are the most significant indicator of creative workers, equating art studies to entrepreneurial experience (‘Ready to Innovate?’, Conference Board, US, 2007 ). Eighty per cent of inventors say that art directly enhanced their innovative ability. Nobel Prize scientists are 25 times more likely to be actively engaged in the arts than ‘average’ scientists. Educators insist that creativity must be developed prior to students entering the workforce.

Arts, better than anything else, instil the ‘creativity software’: thinking divergently (generating multiple solutions), thinking ‘what can be?’ rather than ‘what is?’, pushing beyond the obvious (outside-box thinking), viewing problems from different perspectives, connecting ideas across disciplines, evaluating ideas (critical thinking), prototyping (the shorthand of innovation), and dealing with failure (seeing failure as opportunities). Creative thinking is visual thinking and therefore it is important to advance the visual skills (observation and visualisation).

Currently in Kenya, only two per cent of secondary schools offer arts (compared with 85 per cent in the US). Although the subject of ‘creative arts’ is compulsory in the Kenyan primary school curriculum, it is not examined, and so schools do not teach it. The consequence is young people are not adequately prepared for a world where creativity is a critical skill many businesses are looking for to enhance productivity.

Companies must make the link between arts, creative workforce, and companies’ profits. Some may argue that because ‘there is no innovation culture in Kenya’ - as one Kenyan senior chief executive told me recently - there is no need for creativity. They should be aware - as one leadership expert said - ‘the graveyard of business is littered with companies that could not or would not innovate’..

Alla Tkachuk founded Mobile Art School in Kenya. Become ‘Kenya Patron of the Arts’, contact Alla for more information on [email protected]


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