April 21 marks World Creativity and Innovation Day. In celebration of this Day, the State Department’s Innovation Station reflects on what it means to be a creator and innovator.
A fashion runway is truly elegant. Whether linear or winding, monochromatic or vibrant, the runway is strategically designed to showcase and enhance the latest concepts in texture, color, and silhouette. Look beyond its utility, however, and the runway becomes symbolic—even inspirational. Only the most innovative designs make the cut, and in reaching the runway, they find themselves walking toward the future of fashion—toward the next big thing.
By the very nature of its forward-looking approach to design, the fashion industry exemplifies the fact that innovation and creativity represent two sides of the same coin. Taken together, creativity and innovation generate cultural-economic opportunities that can provide solutions to both local and global challenges. So why does it sometimes feel like these complementary concepts are, by contrast, mutually exclusive?
In practice, creativity and innovation require “thinking outside the box,” but the day-to-day meanings of these words have somehow become isolated inside two very distinct boxes. For example, the word “innovation” often evokes images of scientific discoveries and technological advances, like autonomous cars or space travel. Understandably, this makes it difficult for people without technology expertise to feel like they can be innovators, too. Then there is the word “creative,” which might bring to mind Impressionist paintings, classic novels, or Hollywood films. This also makes it hard for people without artistic expertise to believe they can be creators.
But here is the secret: Anyone can be an innovator or creator, regardless of field or occupation. Scientists and engineers developing new applications of technology are innovators, but so is the marketing professional who finds a new way to reach customers, or the grocery store clerk who devises a system to extend the shelf life of produce. The concept of innovation has been locked inside a technology-shaped box, even though innovation really means using one’s unique experiences to inspire new ways of thinking and doing. Innovation is identifying a challenge and finding a tailored, situationally specific way to overcome it. It involves observing the world and finding a new way to represent or analyze it. In other words, innovation requires all the imagination and ideation characteristic of creativity.
Creativity drives innovation, so how do we empower a global community of creative innovators? It starts with making creativity and innovation inclusive by changing the narrative about who “qualifies” as a creator or innovator. Changing the narrative involves telling stories and, luckily, there is an entire set of industries dedicated to just that.
The creative industries play a powerful role in fostering innovative ecosystems. Storytellers across television, film, music, dance, fine arts, writing, and—yes—even fashion tell innovators’ stories every day. In doing so, they help to build inspiration and momentum, resulting in the adoption of innovative ideas or the development of new ones. Telling stories of “overcoming” using diverse media, ranging from podcasts to comics to video games, can help unlock the creative, innovative potential of communities around the world.
And who better to tell these stories than the innovators and creators themselves? At the State Department, The Innovation Station: Creative Industry Lab and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs have been empowering U.S. and global innovators and creators to share their stories of innovation and creativity through programs that offer professional development opportunities and promote collaboration. Dialogue, networking, and the creative process help program participants identify shared experiences between their communities in the United States and around the world.
Initiatives like these are just one piece of a larger puzzle seeking to inspire people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe to see the value in their own ideas and voices. On this World Creativity and Innovation Day, let us think outside the box by redesigning what it means to be creative and innovative. In doing so, we’ll walk the runway toward a future that recognizes the creative innovator in us all. That is the next big thing.
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., leads The Innovation Station at the U.S. Department of State. She received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.