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Guest blog: where do ideas come from?

I guess this is a reasonable question to ask someone involved in a project whose ambition is to create a thriving community ‘driven by creativity’. It’s such a vexed question that it’s not surprising that some companies have always been content to reply “We don’t have ideas; we buy them in”. That was good news for Mad Men and, let’s be honest, remains so for many of us in the creative industries.

When Tom Stoppard was asked, he replied, “If I knew, I’d go there.” When Terry Pratchett was asked, he claimed he went to a warehouse called ‘Ideas Are Us”.

The truth is that to many people, this drifts into the area of magic, or of special talent, or just pure chance.  I love the story, apocryphal or not, that Kubrick devised the Blue Danube sequence in 2001 as a result of his editor listening to Radio 3 when he visited the edit suite.

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen.

Ideas are too important to leave to chance encounters. This is now a world where if you want it, you can make it; if you want to copy it, you can make it quicker and smaller. If you need to know more, press a button on your mouse. In the future, the only thing that will distinguish one business from another, any organisation or even country from another is the scope of its ideas, its creativity. Our challenge is there is no route map.

If there was, I’d like to think Welbeck would be on it and I’ll try to explain why.

The Welbeck Project is at the heart of a busy rural farming landscape – it’s an intensely practical place. That’s important because we can too often think of the search for ideas as an arty pursuit (one of my clients called it fluffy). But it’s in the field of science that we’ve seen the greatest steps forward, the greatest challenges to conventional thinking, the greatest effects on our lives. Yet most kids still think that science is dull and studious. We need a mind shift.

Let’s Explore

For example, the archetypal science experiment must be putting two rats in a maze with a lump of cheese at its exit. We decide that the rat that gets to the cheese first must be the ‘smart’ rat and the one worthier of closer attention. But maybe, just maybe, we should be examining the other. Perhaps he’s the more adventurous, loving the exploration – “if I go way up here, I get to come all the way back down over there. And if I go round and round these corners, who knows what I might find?” While the other, motivated only by greed, follows the well-trodden path, and discovers nothing more than his next meal. Which is going to have the next big idea?

Welbeck is about giving people the space to explore and it’s no coincidence that this space is physical as well as emotional. It’s a lot easier to view the world differently when you’re in a different world.

I was intrigued this weekend to read a review of a couple of books in the New York Times (not my regular reading but it seemed kind of topical).   One, Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation suggests that ‘some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly’. He appears to then suggest as exemplars cities and the internet. I’ve not read the book, but that seems to me to cover an awful lot of bases…

The cover of the other book reviewed highlights what I think we have to offer at Welbeck by way of an alternative:

Your Box or Mine?

I think a lot of ideas come from dislocation. It’s why we say that someone is thinking out of the box. It’s why I run workshops in theatre space rather than in a conference room. It’s why we try to stand in other people’s shoes and see through other eyes.

We once told a client that the answer to her problem was a spider, Kylie Minogue, and a spanner. Her team worked on that and discovered a solution – their only puzzle was how we’d known. They had shifted their mind to somewhere new and the solution was waiting there.  Try it yourself – you might be surprised.

I hope we’re offering more than just dislocation at Welbeck but it is one genuine benefit of working in a totally different environment.

The view is another. So if you catch me seemingly just staring out of the window, maybe I’m looking for an idea. If you bump into Tom Stoppard, let him know where he can find us.

More background about our current guest blogger, Scott Sherrard.

Are you interested in guest blogging for Creative Nottingham?