Boiling frog

An excerpt from The Boiling Frog Dilemma by economist Todd Hirsch and policy expert Robert Roach.

The Creativity Riddle

Over the past several years, economists and politicians in North America have linked economic growth and creativity. Management gurus and business schools wax on about the imperatives of innovation and creativity. Entire volumes have been written on how the future belongs to countries, cities and communities with creative workers.

But is the word “creativity” starting to lose its meaning?

In February 2009, as part of a project at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, Richard Florida and Roger Martin – two of Canada’s top minds on the subject of creativity in the economy – delivered a report called Ontario in the Creative Age. (1) The report was commissioned by Premier McGuinty’s government as a way of kick-starting a new conversation about where the Ontario (and Canadian) economy could succeed in a world that has radically changed.

The report was top-notch. But when commenting on Florida’s and Martin’s urging for more creativity in routine-oriented jobs, Premier McGuinty said: “I don’t know exactly what that means.” (2) This sums up the problem. A lot of very smart people – including folks like Roger Martin and even the Premier of Ontario – have bought into the whole idea of fostering creativity in the economy. But at the root of it, most of us might agree with Mr. McGuinty and admit we don’t know exactly what that means.

Creativity has become a flash word, one that flies around corporate boardroom tables, government sponsored reports and MBA group presentations. It gets nods of agreement and easily deflects any dissention.

Who could possibly suggest that the economy needs less creativity? The word itself is full of meaning, but unfortunately it is dangerously close to becoming like other overused words and phrases that business management wonks have beaten to death such as “think outside the box” and “paradigm shift.”

Sadly, the word creativity is becoming jargon. Any discussion of the importance of creativity in the economy risks mimicking all of the other volumes of books and reports out there calling for more creative workers. As much as we would like to, we can’t dump the word creative.

Beneath the jargon-filled baggage economists and sociologists have heaped on it, it conveys a particular notion distinct from being smart, clever, knowledgeable, or even wise. What does creative really mean? According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, creative is an adjective that means: 1) of or involving the skilful and imaginative use of something to produce e.g., a work of art; 2) able to create things, usually in an imaginative way; 3) inventive.


Other thinkers and writers on the subject of creativity give more colour and depth to the definition of creativity. Linda Naiman, the Vancouver-based founder of Creativity at Work, is a creativity and innovation consultant, coach, speaker and author. She is recognized internationally for pioneering artsbased learning as a catalyst for developing creativity, innovation, and collaborative leadership in organizations. She defines creativity this way: “Creativity

[is] the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Creativity involves two processes: thinking, then producing. If you have ideas, but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but not creative.” (3)

On her website, Naiman cites other definitions of creativity that bring even more light to the subject: Creativity is the process of bringing something new into being…creativity requires passion and commitment. Out of the creative act is born symbols and myths. It brings to our awareness what was previously hidden and points to new life. The experience is one of heightened consciousness-ecstasy. (4)  A product is creative when it is (a) novel and (b) appropriate. A novel product is original not predictable. The bigger the concept, and the more the product stimulates further work and ideas, the more the product is creative.(5)

These definitions reveal three consistent themes regarding creativity: newness, originality and action.

Invention, Innovation and Design

There are several different ways to think about invention, innovation and design, and certainly many writers and thinkers on this subject have offered up their own unique (and sometimes contradictory) definitions. But for the purposes of this chapter, the following basic definitions are offered. Invention is the process of creating something new and unique. The combustion engine, the microprocessor, and the electric light bulb are good examples of true inventions. At this stage, there does not necessarily have to be a practical application of the invention. True invention is quite rare.

Innovation can be described as the application of an existing technology to a new and very useful purpose. Examples of innovations are the modern automobile (the application of the combustion engine to transportation), digital music (the application of the microprocessor to digitize information) and street lamps (the application of electric light to make roads safer). Notice the difference between invention and innovation: the former is something brand new, while the latter is really just taking the invention and finding a new, practical use for it.

Design is the improvement of an existing technology to create a more practical, more useful, or more aesthetically pleasing item. The Apple iPod is a perfect example of great design. Note that the iPod was not the introduction of the microprocessor (the invention stage), nor was it the first portable digital music player (the innovation stage). Rather, it was an ingenious series of improvements to how the portable digital audio player worked and interfaced with the user.

In practice, invention, innovation and design often play off one another in the creative process. Nonetheless, these categories are useful for understanding how each snakes through the development of new products.

There is a fourth level of product development that could be called “enhanced product variety.” A chewing gum company that comes up with a new flavor with an enticing name like Ice Chiller or Tropical Explosion is enhancing consumer selection and hoping to gain a fraction of the market in the process. But while creativity is involved, it should not be confused with invention, innovation or design. This is a mistake many companies make: they think of themselves as innovative, but coming up with a new and unique flavor of chewing gum alone is not true innovation.

Thinking beyond the profit-motivated companies that form the backbone of the market economy, creativity generates unique ideas with value in other areas, too. Many of the inventions, innovations and designs in the world of science and academia were driven not by profits, but by naturally inquisitive minds. Think of the invention of the telescope, of modern mathematics and of penicillin – all extremely valuable in improving the world for humankind, but none driven by a boardroom’s demand for higher quarterly profits.

As well, many of the most useful and valuable technological developments have been the result of human collaboration seeking a solution to a problem. The Internet, the modern accounting system, and GPS technologies are good examples. Profits have been made because of all three, but profit was not the primary motivating factor in their development.

Taking action

Most of us who have ever spent any time at all around children know how naturally creative they can be. The art of imagination during playtime is, sadly, something that is lost on most adults as we busy ourselves with more “serious” academic pursuits in school and the work world that lies beyond. People say all the time, “Oh, I’m not creative.” But in fact, everyone is creative, or at least has the potential to be. Most of us have no idea of the creative capacity we possess and this represents an enormous loss.

A creative person is one who purposely tries to look at a problem or a situation in a new way. Creativity is not a genetic trait, like having brown hair or blue eyes. It is an ability each of us has at childhood, but is too often forgotten in adulthood. According to Robinson: “Creativity is not a separate faculty that some people have and others do not. It is a function of intelligence: it takes many forms, it draws from many different capacities and we all have different creative capacities. Creativity is possible in any activity in which human intelligence is activity engaged.”(6)

In Out of Our Minds, Robinson provides a detailed description of the human capacities and abilities for two related – yet different – mental processes: imagination and creativity.

Imagination is the ability to visualize or conceptualize something that is not actually right in front of you. Imagination means seeing “in the mind’s eye.”(7) It can be of something familiar, such as if you were asked to imagine a sunset. But it is also possible to imagine things completely nonsensical, with no personal experience on which to draw. Robinson, for example, asks his readers to imagine a green polar bear wearing a dress. This is possible because of the human mind’s mental capacity to imagine.

Creativity, however, is different from imagination: Private imaginings may have no impact on the public world at all. Creativity does. It would be odd to describe someone as creative who just lay still and never did anything. Whatever the task, creativity is not just an internal mental process: it involves action. In a sense, it is applied imagination. To call somebody creative suggests they are actively producing something in a deliberate way. [One of the things to] recognize is that being creative involves doing something. People are not creative in the abstract; they are creative in something – in mathematics, in engineering, in writing, in music, in business, in whatever. You could not be creative unless you were actually doing something. In this respect, creativity is different from imagination. (8)

The implication of this is that, to actually be creative, you have to get off your butt and do something. The outcomes of the first few steps are not as important as the actual action of taking them. So, one of the traits of a creative person is the willingness to take action on an idea, an impulse or a hunch.

The Fountain of Creativity

The word creativity runs the danger of being overused in current discussions of economic development. The same holds true for the word innovation. It would be a shame, though, if they end up in the heap of tired business school clichés because they are extremely useful and important economic assets.

Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. And as we have seen, the value attached to any creative idea can often go beyond a market price. But the processes of invention, innovation and design describe how creative ideas add economic (i.e., commercial) value. All three are unique processes in how a product is developed. All three potentially add value to our lives and the economy. And the generation of all three requires one simple thing: a creative mind.

Education is a key player when it comes to fostering a creative society. Learning through the arts is one of many ways educators have found to engage children in the learning experience. The product is children who learn how to learn. And at their core, they are creative. But creativity must not be limited to children. Canadian adults are potentially creative, too, even if they don’t believe they are. The arts, often underappreciated in our society, play an important role here. As well, employers have a responsibility to play by fostering a workplace that is creative.

There is also personal responsibility in the creative process as well. Like anything worth possessing, a creative mind demands action on the part of the individual. If you are struggling with a mental block at work, or needing to find some creative inspiration, take matters into your own hands.

The Canadian economy needs more creativity. Coming up with new processes, inventions, innovations and designs is critical for keeping up in the rapidly changing 21st century global economy. It’s up to each one of us individually to change our attitudes and intentionally choose to embrace creativity.


1 Roger Martin and Richard Florida. 2009. Ontario in the Creative Age. Martin Prosperity Institute.
2 Murray Campbell. 2009. “McGuinty would be wise to focus on the wounded.” Globe and Mail. February 7.
3 Linda Naiman. “What is CreativityCreativity at
4 Rollo May. 2007. “The Courage to Create.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology. January: 47.
5 R. J. Sternberg and T. I. Lubart. 1995. Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity.
6 Ken Robinson. 2001. Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.

From The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline, P & P Publishing (Available from Amazon) ©2012 Todd Hirsch and Robert Roach.Reprinted with permission  by Todd Hirsch and Robert Roach.  

Todd Hirsch is senior economist at ATB Financial. He received his BA Honors in economics from the University of Alberta and MA in economics from the University of Calgary. He teaches a course in economics at the University of Calgary, serves as a mentor for the Economics Society of Calgary’s Student Mentorship Program and is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Calgary Arts Academy.

Robert Roach has a BA and MA in political science from the University of Calgary. Roach is the Vice President, Research at the Canada West Foundation. He has worked on a broad array of public policy topics including economic development, local government, demographic trends, the nonprofit sector, public opinion, regional cooperation, environmental policy, democratic reform and public finance.