19 May 2020

Zoom for Thought

Jim Prior, Global CEO, speaks to Professor Patricia Maguire, Director of the University College Dublin Institute for Discovery, to discuss Creativity in a Crisis. 

In this weekly series, Jim Prior discusses creativity and the pursuit for new ideas, the role of an ideas economy in the future, and how businesses should focus on the real value they can bring to the world right now. 

The COVID crisis has changed everything. How has it changed your own work?

Certainly, a huge amount has changed at the moment. There's still something of a debate about the extent to which the changes we are seeing will remain permanently once the virus has passed. More than anything, changes around working practices and the speed of adoption of technologies, for example, which we've been talking about for a decade or so, have suddenly accelerated in the last two months. 

Superunion is a business that relies on collaboration, shared ideas and iterative working practices. If you told me three months ago if that could still work in a 100% remote environment, I probably would've given an emphatic no. But it's remarkable how quickly we and others have adapted and, if anything, found more efficiency and creativity in this new way of working. The fact that we can now self-determine how we use our time actually allows us to find many new solutions that were perhaps limited by protocols in the past. 

In the UCD Institute for Discovery, we are advocating interdisciplinarity and multi-disciplinary teams. Would that be true as well in your business?

Creativity is all about the fusion of different concepts and ideas and the intellectual capital that is gained through the addition of new thoughts and ideas. That only works when you have multiple points of reference and remain open-minded to new ways of approaching. 

For the past 30 years, interdisciplinarity has been based in the knowledge economy and transferring knowledge from one area to another. What we're doing in the creative world, is less about pure knowledge transfer and more about the capital of ideas. If you look at the world's most valuable companies today, that's how they've been born and how they've grown. Interdisciplinarity is absolutely critical to what we do. 

Can you give us some examples of the types of creative ideas you have seen emerging from this crisis?

Some sectors are absolutely booming. Technology and telecommunications companies are the roads and railways of our world. They're how we get to work, how we get our kids to school, how we connect with friends and family, and our sources of entertainment. There's also a lot of activity happening in areas like esports, which is literally the only game in town right now. 

Today, creativity in the world is less about big set-piece plays, making films or great advertising, but much more about a pragmatic, hands-on attitude to how companies respond. The businesses I'm admiring right now are the ones turning over designer manufacturing capabilities to make ventilators or PPE, for example. If you're looking for the coolest face mask around right now, check out 31 Chapel Lane, a business in Limerick, who've transformed their manufacture capabilities to produce face masks. It's things like that which are wonderful examples of practical, useful, meaningful creativity that resonate the most during this time. 

Do you think scientists are creative?

There's a huge amount of similarity in the process between the science and creative worlds. Scientists and creative people are fundamentally problem-solvers. That ability to interrogate a problem, to hypothesise, to speculate and iterate on solutions is hugely creative. Science largely starts with an experiment, which produces a result which appears positive, and then you spend time working out why it's right. That's often how a great creative process works. Scientists and creative people go hand in hand very nicely. 

Imagining a post COVID-world, which sector do you think will be best placed to continue positive change amongst consumers?

We're still in the very early stages of this crisis, so speculating too much about where we are going to be at the end of this is a little dangerous. Every industry is different, and I'm much more in favour of focusing on the here and now. However, some interesting things are going to emerge from this. Firstly, businesses are going to focus much more on what is the real value that they put into the world. Companies have spent an awful lot of time talking about what kind of organisation they would like to be, but we need to see more companies portraying the kind of organisation they are right now. 

Secondly, I think we're going to see a massive wave of new entrepreneurialism. Much is being made of the number of small businesses that have been forced to close right now, which of course is a tragedy. But many of those businesses and entrepreneurs are going to come out of this crisis with good access to funding, lessons learnt from their previous experiences and an idea about something they could do in this world which will be more valuable than what they were doing before. There's a huge amount of change ahead, and I'm optimistic about the fact that there will be a much more purposeful, meaningful way forward. 

How can we be more creative?

Write yourself a really good, clear brief. Articulate the proposition around what it is you're creating in the simplest way. If you can explain your idea to someone over the phone in 15 seconds, then it's a good idea. If you can't, go back and simplify. Then you'll get there. 


Watch the full interview below.