Play Power: How to Turn Around Our Creativity Crisis

The division between work and play is a myth. If America is going to teach its youth to innovate, we need to unite the two.

Nearly a decade ago, John Howkins wrote a book called The Creative Economy: How People Make Money From Ideas. Similarly, Richard Florida identified the "creative class" and suggested that innovation would come from a "super creative core." But somehow, even with this knowledge, we have fallen further behind.

According to Newsweek, the United States is in a creativity crisis. TIME reports that today's students are less tolerant of ambiguity and have an aversion to complexity. And The Futurist suggests that the biggest challenge facing our children is their inability to think realistically, creatively, and optimistically about the future. Wake up, America. The real threat to the United States's continued superpower status isn't from an arsenal of weapons—it's from the lack of an arsenal of the mind.

Innovation companies today don't ask and don't care about basic skills, grades, or SAT scores—instead, they want to know if you can brainstorm all the possible uses of bubble wrap.

Eighty-five percent of today's companies searching for creative talent can't find it. In a recent IBM survey, 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number one leadership competency of the future. And the United Nations just released the Creative Economy Report of 2010, suggesting that creative countries are more economically resilient. As Tim Draper voiced in the documentary 2 Million Minutes, "America is the one country that doesn't seem to recognize that it is in competition for the great minds and capital of the world."

During my keynote speech at MIT's Sandbox Summit last year, I suggested that "Play is the greatest natural resource in a creative economy." In the future, economies won't be driven by financial capital or even the more narrowly focused scientific capital, but by play capital as well. I predict the countries that take play seriously, not only nurturing it in education and the workforce but also formalizing it as a national effort, will quickly rise in the world order. This is not Twister in the boardroom. Rather, it's what Jeremy Levy, a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, would call "a highly advanced form of play."

Literacy is like Legos. Basic proficiency in math, reading and writing are, and will remain, the building blocks of education. But we need to advance our ability to use these literacies. While the United States currently struggles to achieve 30 percent reading proficiency by 4th grade, other economic powers like the E.U. and China have begun their quest for advanced forms of play. For example, the Chinese government recently launched a five-year initiative on fostering creativity and innovation in China, and they are tapping design firms like frog design to play a part.

These advanced forms of play can be more aptly described as superpowers of play. Superpowers, by my definition, are the physical and mental skills that we develop to adapt and thrive in a complex world, while exploring the creative opportunities made possible by global progress. While few will refute that we need a shift in education, the biggest debate may be over what these superpowers—and their roles in this change—should be.

Presented by

Laura Seargeant Richardson is a principal designer at frog design, a global innovation firm. Last May, she was MIT’s keynote speaker on the Future of Play. She has a master's degree in computer science.

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