RUISF 2013 Keynote: "Creativity"

Transcript from Florian Busch’s Keynote speech given at Ritsumeikan Uji International Students Forum 2013


The theme of this year’s Forum is “Creativity”.
What is creativity? What does it mean to be creative?

I am here, I think, because what I do is considered one of the most creative professions. While being creative is related to creating, creation, and my work invariably is about creation, I believe that creativity, being creative, reaches much farther, covers a much wider area.

The dictionary defines creativity as

the use of the imagination or original ideas.

Perhaps being creative was one of the most important pushes to turn us humans from the homo erectus into the homo sapiens, from the early humans that had stood up on their hind legs to those who we are still to this day.

We were creative in finding ways that gave us advantages over other animals much stronger and faster, animals that were far superior in most aspects except for that one thing that made the difference: creativity.

All of us living creatures were living within the same constraints, but the use of imagination and original ideas let us humans become more and more flexible in dealing with these constraints.

We kept inventing.

And we did so with relentless perseverance and patience, without giving up until the problem was solved.

Always, intuition played a crucial role. There were those moments, when we had a hunch. And we pursued these intuitions, often driven by a hunger more than that caused by our empty stomachs. Often driven by uncertainty because there was no time for complacency. And so, it was no surprise that we became more and more curious.

Today, some 200,000 years later, these fundamentals of creativity haven’t changed.

Let me tell you why.

(You can already sense that –thinking about all the man-made catastrophes– our creativity has not always been positive.)

(One thing that has changed is that for the first time, creativity has become a buzzword: “Creativity” recently ranked number 1 in job applications.
It seems that the more boring the jobs on offer, the more often applications read “Strengths: Creativity” or “I am creative.”
Which is of course a strange thing: For if this person had really been creative, he or she would surely have found a different way to say so.)

But creativity is not a title, not the sign that has to be on a building to tell us what it is.

Creativity is a process.
It happens somewhere between or as an interaction between these fundamentals that haven’t changed.

Most importantly, it’s when they connect and interact. Creative processes reach across disciplines.

Creativity has many ingredients. Most importantly, it’s when these ingredients connect and interact. Creative processes reach across disciplines.

Today I am going to talk about 5 of these fundamentals, these ingredients of what makes creativity.

Production, Perseverance, Intuition, Uncertainty, and Curiosity.


Let me start with a quote from no other than Mr Sherlock Holmes:

“Data! Data! Data! […] I can’t make bricks without clay.”
—Arthur Conan Doyle

Picture the situation: There is a man, enraged to a point where his impatience seems to make him burst since he knows that something is about to come to light, only he can’t see it because of lack of material, because the world around him is too slow to feed his hungry brain. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is the master of all detectives because of his creative abilities. It is his creativity that enables him to connect the dots. Yet even he, the master, can’t do anything without data, data, data.

Creating is like that. You are not going to get anywhere without lots of material. So, being creative means to produce. Much. And forget, destroy, throw away. Much. It’s all about choices, about being able to choose from alternatives. And then, about having to select. In a time when the number of choices is so easily increased by the computing powers unknown until only a few decades ago, the act of having to choose is often cruel.

When working on projects, I sometimes, perhaps I should admit that it’s more than sometimes, drive my office nuts by getting choices, alternatives developed, and by procrastinating the decision making that will eliminate many of these choices. Because once you make that choice, you are flying. You have just got rid of the rest, you need to follow the path that you have chosen. Until we decide on something, everything is possible. Once you do, you need to stick with it until every single possibility of it has been tested.

Creativity means to produce and persevere…


You can’t invent a new architecture every Monday.
—Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Creating can be tough. Most of what you produce is rubbish, trash, for the bin. But you don’t know that while you are working on it. On the contrary, if you start to think that “this is going to be rubbish” while you are at it, you lose faith, or worse, interest. You stop. Before seeing it to the end, before experiencing the moment of truth. The moment when you can really say that it is good or bad, because you have gone every possible way, because you have followed through. That is, if you have set out the rules, if you have defined the problem.

Creativity means solving problems rigorously. You need to continue following the very rules and constraints that you want to break open.

I would argue that the most creative fields work with the most severe constraints. And by working with them, they loosen them, they break them.

Without perseverance, and we could also call this determination, there is no creativity.

When I had graduated from High School, pretty much the same age that you are now, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The air felt heavier than during the time when my daily schedule had been regimented by school, but at the same time fresher than ever.

I decided to take a year off. But you just don’t take a year off. I had no money for such a luxury. So I had to work for a while. And before I knew it, I was working at a local metal manufacture learning to weld. It didn’t take long before I was teaching those who taught me how to weld how much fun it was to weld all the scrap metal into sculptures.

Luckily the boss never got to know why the amount of scrap metal had suddenly become less and less.

At the end of my working experience, I had some fairly bad-looking sculptures but still no clue what to do with the rest of my life. But I had learnt what it meant to take something and, more importantly, someone out of context, and together produce something crazily new out of waste materials.

There are theories that say that everything, every sentence, in every language, has already been said.
The great Argentine author Jose Lluis Borges even created a library that would hold every possible combination of the alphabet, 99% of it unintelligible gibberish. In this short story, Borges creates his own universe declaring that the possibilities of human creation are finite.

And yet, in reality, we continue to create new things almost every Monday.

Sometimes, actually most of the times, creating something new means putting the existing in a new context.

Marcel Duchamp was a pioneer of this. In 1917, in the midst of the first World War, he took a urinal, turned it 90 degrees and, having signed it with a pseudonym, gave it the title “Fountain”.
A urinal turned fountain. It caused of course a scandal.

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the telephone. He made it better by combining it with something else he didn’t invent, the touch panel. In fact he lifted the telephone to a new level, to something that would surely have a different name if not for its predecessor. “phone” referring to sound – whereas the transmission of sound is merely one of many ways to communicate with these “phones”.

The entire music industry is undergoing a drastic change. Some artists are complaining that now, with the ubiquity of sampling software, everyone can be creative. Other artists are embracing these technologies as their own – and creating. Like always, when creativity dies, many resort to lamenting. In Thomas Jefferson’s words: “The world belongs to the living.”

(The change of creativity and how it is perceived is a creative process itself.)

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
—Thomas Edison

I have talked about the 99%.
Perspiration. Or perseverance, as I called it.

A recent article in the New York times carried the title:
Sure, Big Data Is Great. But So Is Intuition.

The article asks: What makes a good data scientist? And finds that intuition is just as important than the obvious math and computer science skills.

Creativity happens between Perseverance and Intuition.


It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.
—Pablo Picasso

Now, as some of you surely know, Raphael was an outstanding painter and architect of the High Renaissance. Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were considered the masters of their time. By the time Picasso said these words, Raphael was perhaps regarded higher than even the other too. So, if we believe Picasso, it took him four years of perseverance to reach a level of highest human achievement (by the way, Raphael died when he was 37), but the entire time of his life to learn to paint like a child. Picasso is talking about creativity that seems innate to children, the uninhibited stream of intuition.

When we are born, we sort of pop into this world playing naturally in the three dimensions that surround us. In fact, this is probably the most natural way of both searching to understand what this is all about and expressing ourselves. And yet, as soon as our hands show enough sensory qualities, we are given pencil and paper, and, just about as naturally, we start to venture into abstraction, trying to render what we see, hear, touch, and sometimes even smell and taste into flat drawings.

And strangely, at some point, inhibition kicks in: We get stuck in making strange copies of other images, we lose the possibility to see the world. It’s a bit like taking a photograph of a photograph, where your content is confined to what somebody’s already seen, selected. We lose the world around us. The best outcome here could be a ‘perfect copy’. But we stand hardly any chance, because we lack the circumstances that produced the original image. And for this reason, the copies that we are producing are nowhere near being interesting. But it’s neither right nor wrong, it’s often a process most of us have to go through to learn. Some of us, however, are able to make that step, to break out from the confinement and produce originals of our own. For some of these some, this happens early, for others late. It doesn’t matter.

Creativity has no age.

Perseverance and intuition. Only when you relentlessly continue even during those times when nothing seems to go right, when you don’t see anything coming about, only when you rigorously stick to the rules that you have found when defining the problem, only then are you giving yourself a chance for those precious moments of intuition. Intuition and Perseverance, they need each other, more than ever in these sometimes cruelly long times of uncertainty.

Creativity happens between Intuition and Uncertainty


At the end of my studies, when I was supposed to design a final work to graduate from university, I ventured into an unknown territory. At the time, we students were supposed to select one of the given assignments and get down with it. These assignments are a bit like a maths exam, only that instead of 90 minutes you have 6 months to solve the problem and the solution is presented not in a few numbers but on several square metres of drawings and with a heap of models.

I just couldn’t get myself to it. I couldn’t see how designing a library or a museum would be answering any of the things that had accumulated in my mind during the years before. I started searching for what the problem was. It wasn’t that I knew that I was going to search. Years of studying architecture had made me considerably uncertain.

Uncertain of those things that most people consider just that, certain. Decided. Fixed. Is it really that simple? Is it really my task to just solve a problem that someone has come up with?

So my thesis project, without me realising it for some time, became a search. A search for all that I had supposedly learned, a search to destroy all that I had supposedly learned. A search for the problem that I was slowly, painstakingly solving.
It turned out to be an intriguingly difficult project, for I argued against the massive urban planning that cemented urban stretches where the unplanned had once been the best part of the city. And it was an intriguingly beautiful project because it dealt with uncertainty, undecidedness, frailty, curiosity at an urban level.

So in a way, one could say that my architectural adventures began by searching for it. And even today, I believe I am very much at the early stage of that search. And just between you and me, I hope that this search is going to continue. Because I know that searching is part of creating. And I am quite positive that my curiosity will make sure that I keep searching.

Creativity happens somewhere between uncertainty and a state of hungriness that we sometimes call curiosity.


Picasso, whom we just heard talking about learning how to paint like a child, almost paraphrased himself when he famously said:

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
—Pablo Picasso

At a time when many of you are trying to shed “the child” in you —naturally— I wish you all the courage, curiosity and determination to keep the most important part of “the child” in and with you, always.

Thank you.

Kyoto, 14 February 2013