Cross-discipline creativity and Steve Jobs

It is perhaps with a little bit of poetic justice that I saw Mark Brittin of Google speak at MediaCityUK two days before Steve Jobs passed away – the message Mark gave was one that Steve had been actively living and preaching pretty much his whole adult life. I’m not going to eulogize about Apple and Jobs here, there are plenty of other blog posts today that will do that (here’s a particularly good one). Instead, I wanted to talk about what that message was, namely the importance of diverse inter-disciplinarity for creativity and innovation.

When Mark Brittin of Google gave his talk at the new BBC Quay House at MediaCityUK, he was mainly talking about how Google plans to go forward based on what it can do presently and what the kind of information it gathers and presents will help businesses, individuals and educators in the future. More interesting though I thought was his answer to the question I posed to him (and then subsequently posed by the VC of the my university) about the skills that the next generation of entrepreneurs will need. His answer sounded very Jobs-like. He stressed the need for people to learn computer science initially. Not just learning how to use Word or Excel, but Java or HTML. Learning the language of the web, not how to write documents that will one day be obsolete. This just seems like common sense – the IT modules offered in other science degrees and within humanities and social science degrees too – they should all allow students the opportunity to learn basic web skills, not outdated software that perform mundane tasks. This will only aid in their ability to create in the contemporary web-driven economic world.

More pertinently though, he suggested that blended learning is key to fostering creativity and innovation. Or at least, allow the exposure of the wide variety of different skills, theories and experiences. Art and science have often been seen as separate teaching methods, but why not fuse the two? Give performing art and drama lessons to physics students. Teach musicians linear univariate difference equations. Give every student in the land the opportunity to learn about urban subversions (I’d keep me in work anyway!) The ‘siloization’ of teaching is just as damaging as it is in the world of work and industry (particularly the creative industries). Universities that embrace this mixing of teaching will be the ones who succeed in the future, and equip the students with knowledge necessary to create and innovate the new economic opportunities.

All this is of course, ‘very Jobs’. On the day of his death, many commentators have been giving their two pence worth, but one which struck a chord with me was a technology specialist on Radio 5 live this morning (I didn’t catch his name). He was recounting the story of how Jobs did away with the proposed plans for Pixar’s new offices, which included one building for designers, one for the programmers and one for the managers. At greater expense, he built one building for them all, with the toilets in the middle, so every one could meet and force the conversations that spur innovations across academic and disciplinary boundaries. Jobs’ speech at the Stanford graduation ceremony in 2005 below is quite an eerie one, given what happened today. But it serves to highlight the thinking that really belies the numerous people and institutions with whom Jobs networked with, and how important they were in the success of Apple. We should be remembering him as a pioneer, a leader in fact; but that belittles his message of the power of collaborative, open-source, networked, sideways, inter-disciplinary (I could go on…) practice that is now the norm in modern industrial organisations. Creativity and innovate performance comes to fore when these kinds of practices are allowed and encouraged – something which Jobs knew (and did), something which Brittin and Google know (and do), and something which we all need to know (and do).

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