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The World of Creativity Conferences and their Vital Role in Global Learning


Dusk Day 1, the 1st New Zealand Creativity Challenge, New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Creativity conferences are now some of the longest annually occuring live learning events globally. The US Creative Problem Solving Institute Conference is in its 59th consecutive year; the American Creativity Association Conference is in its 25th consecutive year; the South African Creativity Foundation Conference is in its 19th consecutive year and CREA, Sestri Levante Italy and Mindcamp in Toronto, Canada are just babies starting out with only 10 consecutive years each under their belts.

There is a reason for this phenomenon. Creativity conferences deliver to adults creative learning experiences years of formative education failed to deliver and continues to fail to deliver.

Unlike academic conferences where papers are presented in lecture form or TED Events where presenters stand on a stage and deliver a professionally rehearsed PowerPoint chalk and talk to a well intentioned wealthy elite, creativity conferences are the only places globally where delegates, creative practitioners and facilitators come together with the deliberate intention of exposing, testing and exchanging the creative thinking and methodologies they have developed in their own professional practices. For participants, these conferences offer a safe environment to explore creative practices in action, to tap into their own gestalt and to learn in some way how creativity may inform their personal and professional worlds.

Creativity conferences are not about commercial agendas or places for celebrity key note speakers either. Indeed, some very well known key note speakers with a book to promote or an academic theory to impose have been badly exposed because they have not understood a creativity conference is a peer to peer learning experience and as a result is a great learning leveler regardless of where you might perceive you fit in the learning hierarchy. As Bob Dylan famously wrote “You gotta serve somebody” and a creativity conference never allows you to forget that creative insights lie within us all and each one of those insights is correct for the moment in which they occur.

Creativity Conference Experiences. 

Those interested in creative thinking and practice are a wildly eclectic conglomeration of knowledge seekers. Delegates and presenters come from all works of life, all levels of society and an extraordinarily wide range of cultures and experiences. The entire Unilever Global Product Development team, two union leaders from the rigs of the oilfields of Alberta, Canada; the Global Head of Deloitte Consulting; a world champion traditional story-teller - a Jamaican English professor; a UK nuclear physicist on a UK Wellcome Trust scholarship exploring the science of creativity; the Head of the New York State Department of Health, a former US Defence Force Cultural Analyst who had led teams in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Lebanon and Ireland, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Gombe, Northern Nigeria  - a scholar in traditional Islamic studies, the Vice President of the Chinese Creativity Research Institute, the Executive Director of the Royal Canadian Mountain Police Officers Training, the Head of the Harvard Business School’s Administration,  the Propaganda Director of Lech Walesa’s Polish Freedom Movement whilst Poland was still under Communist rule and the Poet Laureate of Singapore are just the tip of the iceberg of the types of delegates I have engaged with in sessions at international creativity conferences over the past two decades.

Participants come together generally over 3 - 5 days in 90 minute sessions wading through an immersive learning experience not unlike a theater or arts festival with audience participation rather than audience as removed listener, being the main point of difference.

Sessions seek commitment and engagement with personal risk for both participant and presenter with often only the sketchiest of one line briefs to describe the style of content or expected outcomes. The experience is like walking into a deep forest without a map or compass. There is no process to guide you, no regulation or governance to adhere to to ensure your mental, psychological or cultural safety, no peer review giving you an anchor on which to hang your heuristic hopes. There is no right or wrong at a creativity conference session. There is only learning.

I have participated in a session with 20 senior business executives using clay and Lego blocks to compare which medium would offer the best tool to facilitate new thinking around the climate change issue. Clay provided a more divergent way of working and thinking, Lego produced a more deliberate and constructed approach to thinking.

In a session on creativity and reflective practice facilitated by a philosopher and yoga guru I participated in, a senior military leader angrily interrupted the movement component of the facilitation when the yoga guru demanded the delegates physically freeze in our inner warrior pose and reflect on it.

“Woo!! Woo!!” said the Military Man. “Have you, Philosopher and Yoga Guru, experienced action on the battlefield. Your demand we reflect on the physicality of the warrior would produce madness in our forces. Understand that.”

One of the most insightful creative learning experiences I witnessed highlighted the difference between the forces of formal education and the reality of a true creative learning experience.

A particular type of 3 day creative simulation sets up a business, organizational or social challenge with the deliberate intention of losing the stated aims of what the original challenge is. The purpose of this construct is to find the deeper meanings behind the challenge, in the process, producing new thinking and new knowledge around old paradigms.

This simulation methodology calls for several thought leaders, with some loose understanding of or association with the challenge, to facilitate action learning workshops using their methodologies and practices to reflect on the challenge.

What occurs over a period of time due to the immersive nature of the workshops is the original intent - the challenge - becomes blurred, seems remote and creates confusion amongst the participants. They become lost and uncertain about the connection between the challenge and the workshops. They start asking questions about the purpose of the challenge and what relevance the workshops have to the challenge. They want outcomes just as they expect and are taught to expect in real life.

During the second last session on the last day, they are asked to form small groups to go away, discuss and prepare a presentation to the remainder of the participants on their learning journey and its outcomes. The presentations are always powerful as they capture the elements of a creative journey - the sense-making involved in the journey and the profound new insights reached personally, collaboratively and creatively not only around the original challenge but around creative practice,too.  It is through this process, adult participants re-experience learning as a creative medium.

In one particular simulation, a senior academic, who had no experience of these type of creativity methodologies, yet held overall responsibility for its content and direction, took the unprecedented action with the support of his immediate academic reports of stepping in at the end of the second day when the confusion starts to take hold. Under the guise of “taking control to put the workshop back on track” he called the entire workshop cohort together, apologized for the lack of coherency in the agenda, made a summary of where he thought we were going and suggested we focus for the remainder of the workshop on the original challenge which he felt had been lost.

Through the negation and destruction of the process and its outcome, the simulation was seen as a failure with the participants confused and uncertain because their creative ability to find their own outcome had been taken away from them and crushed, an experience all too familiar in a formal education.

Nevertheless, and what is vitally important, is that it is only at creativity conferences that one can experience such powerful thought provoking learning moments.

The Future Of Creativity Conferences

Three out of the four continents now have well established regular not-for-profit and commercially viable international events due in the most part to the committed entrepreneurial activity of creative practitioners with a passion for learning and a willingness to share their experiences and knowledge. Only Asia and the Australia Pacific area have not been successful in establishing one uptil now.

The Glen Jensen Pallet Pavilion, Christchurch constructed from Christchurch Earthquake Debris and constructed by out of work earthquake victims and residents of Christchurch.

New Zealander Wayne Morris, Founder, the Creative Edge, management consultant, writer, artist and drummer is typical of the individuals who initiate creativity conferences. For over a decade he travelled globally attending creative conferences, sometimes as a participant, sometimes presenting himself. Through this activity he gained acceptance amongst his peers, specialist expertise as to how creative conferences are organized, administered and promoted - what works and what doesn’t - and respect such that a well connected global network would support him. This is how it works with creative practitioners and conferences!!

The First NZ Creativity Challenge was held in New Plymouth, the main city on the west coast of the north island of New Zealand between April 28 – 30, 2013, created, managed and delivered by Wayne and a local team of volunteers and sponsors and it was a smash hit. As a first–up international creativity conference, this is about as good as it gets.

The conference commenced with a welcoming ceremony conducted completely in the Maori language setting the scene for a unique New Zealand experience.

Coralie Winn of Gap Filler opened with a superb key note presentation centered around Gap Filler’s creative initiatives that emerged out of the Christchurch earthquakes. Coralie and her two colleagues formed a small group to bring people back onto the streets after the earthquake; to give purpose to life in the central city environs of Christchurch decimated by the earthquakes. She tracked their creative and social journey as it evolved over time unexpectedly into the domain of prototyping and experimenting with "temporary urban design" and the results are quite astonishing. The concept of a Dance-O-Mat was worth the price of the conference alone. Check out the Gap Filler web site

Vivian Hutchinson, New Plymouth Social Entrepreneur gave a stirring afternoon presentation on “How Communities Awaken”. Vivian argued the world in which we live is colonialised by a contracting culture in which business and government conspire to maintain the status quo with cost as the main reason. In these times of further and further fiscal restraints foisted upon us by the spin of these parties, staffed by those intent on shoring up their own jobs and incomes, he exhorted us to surface what he called the Creativity of WE - to form social enterprises built on a model of reflection, resilience and regeneration enabling us to disengage from these colonialising constraints.

As is always the case at creativity conferences, I was not able to attend all the workshops I marked as “must attend” in my programme.

Co- Directors of the Learning Connexion, Jonathan Milne, author of GO! ‘The art of change’ and his partner, Alice Wilson Milne, author of ‘Two Wings to Fly’ though activated my right brain and reminded my brain as a whole I could become a portrait artist very quickly if I practiced their upside down mirroring drawing technique. Former Head of Price Warehouse Cooper’s Management Consulting arm in South Africa and now CEO Xpedian, enterprise architect Francois Coetzee took us gently through the discover, dream, design, deliver framework of the Appreciative Inquiry technique to awaken our personal focus.

Canadian Tim Hurson's Saturday night key note outlining his thinkX approach to productive thinking and creative leadership to manage change rather than be swamped by it set the scene for some great poetry, music and entertainment in New Plymouth's downtown Mayfair nightclub.


The spiritual Mt Taranaki dominates New Plymouth, North Island, New Zealand

On Sunday morning I had the great fortune to attend a Conversation Circle Workshop led by Paora Joseph, a contemporary Maori filmmaker. It never ceases to amaze me when you ask people to talk about their creativity what happens.

This circle of 30 odd participants was one of those circle conversations which started gently building trust as one by one participants introduced themselves through a short story about their own life and journey. Suddenly half way around the circle, an intensely deeper and more spiritual level began to surface as astounding story upon astounding story of creativity and the personal passion accompanying it emerged. It commenced when a Maori grandmother revealed the joy, purpose and new life she had found recently in working with violent offenders and their families. This was followed by a Maori chief's story about the tension in Maori culture, its survival and resurgence into respectability whilst not yet being able to find the middle ground with the pakeha (people of non Maori background); a reflection on and a revelation about the meaning of husbandry from a local New Plymouth gardener who had planted some 15,000 saplings in the local area whilst meditating on the failure of good male role models and how nature would brutally deal with those who failed ("you just have to let some weeds die" was his emotional charged summary) and a beautiful exchange between a recent immigrant to New Zealand, a young German engineer with four children still looking for his identity and purpose in life.

He was asked by Paolo whether he had developed a relationship with Mt Taranki on his walks in his search for his identity.  Mt Taranki, a large extinct volcano that dominates New Plymouth and the surrounding areas, holds a very important spiritual place in Maori culture. The young man said not yet but he was becoming more comfortable with it!! Paolo smiled! 

That moment alone is why creativity conferences are vital to global learning!


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