The creative benefits of the coronacrisis
Since the corona-outbreak and the subsequent lockdown in the Netherlands (about one and a half months ago) I have felt the urge to write about the virus. The reason is that a virus with such an impact on society – similar to wars and natural disasters – strongly forces humanity to use its creativity to reorganize itself. To name a few things: it forces us to invent ways of co-existing while keeping a safe distance; to increase hospital capacity, to develop smart phone apps that detect the virus; or – on a more personal level – to redefine our businesses.
In this pandemic two important elements are consistently presented as mutually exclusive; do we save lives or do we save the economy?
It took me a while to start writing, since I needed to somewhat reorganize myself to the new situation. But now that I have, I actually feel inspired. The lockdown created the space to defragmentise my working memory, as it were, zoom out a little and see things more clearly. The observation that actually started this article, was that in this pandemic two important elements are consistently presented as mutually exclusive; do we save lives or do we save the economy? This dichotomy begs the question: how much is our economy willing to pay for a human life?
The dilemma triggered a cascade of thoughts, starting with the essential quality of creativity; enabling us to merge two seemingly mutual exclusive ideas into a completely new idea. It reminded me of an economic model that directly reconciles our economy with our well-being; the ‘donut economy’1, invented by Oxford-economist Kate Raworth. The donut (a diagram, shaped like a donut) measures our well-being by the realization of an ecological ceiling on the outside and a social foundation on the inside. In between these two borders you create a safe and just space for your citizens, in which things like housing, food, health, education and jobs are guaranteed. The reason why this model doesn’t pit human lives against the economy is that it defines value by human (and mother earth’s) well-being, rather than things like the height and growth of our joint incomes.
Another great quality of creativity is that it’s able to reformulate a problem and, by doing so, find its solution. It is what I heard Li Edelkoort do. She is a Dutch trend forecaster living in Paris and while quarantined in Cape Town she gave a few interviews – in my favourite Dutch TV program and an American fashion podcast. She explains how the virus forces us to do what we should have done already a long time ago; travel less, consume less and spend more time together. The problem is not that the virus makes our world smaller, Edelkoort argues, it is actually the solution.
While we already knew that being stuck in our daily commute was not very efficient, this experiment forces us to experience the advantages of a daily stroll instead
Let’s focus on our addiction to traveling. Covid-19 forces most people on this planet to work at home, and by doing so makes many of us find out that teleconferencing works just fine. And while we already knew that being stuck in our daily commute was not very efficient, this experiment also forces us to experience the advantages of a daily stroll instead (that is, in the countries that have a liberal lockdown). At the same time some employers find out that their workforce actually works more effectively this way. This doesn’t mean we don’t need offices anymore after this crisis. We actually do, since our serendipitous encounters at the coffee machine are essential.2 Not just because we’re a social species, but also because it increases our collaborative creative potential. Though we do need our physical gatherings, we will probably become much more flexible and efficient in using our offices.
An important benefit of the corona lockdown is therefore that it fundamentally changes our perception of space-time; the way we organize our space in relation to when we use it – which changes how we use it. The fact that cities now experience a strong decrease in traffic congestion and air pollution, might inspire them to re-asses the importance of the car. Not just in theory; Milan has just announced to introduce an ambitious scheme to reallocate street space from cars to cycling and walking. On an international level, we might even re-assess the importance of flying – and buy our food, machine parts and holidays more often locally. Or build vacuum trains that directly compete with airlines, while using a fraction of their energy3.
Darwinian cycle of change
Similar to other natural disasters that push us out of our comfort zones, the coronavirus in many ways reshuffles society – just as it has reshuffled my brain. Ideas that have been simmering below the surface already for a while, might finally find the required momentum to break through. Our innate fear against changing our behaviour (that we inherited from our hominoid forefathers) is now overthrown by a more imminent fear of doing nothing. When something or someone is directly threatening our Maslovian basic needs (food, shelter, social relationships), we tap into our creativity to regain them. And that’s why we now more easily accept change. It is where the cliché ‘never waste a good crisis’ comes from; if you want to change things, now is the time.
When old structures are destroyed they automatically make room for new ones, which resembles Darwin’s theory of evolution
The notion that a crisis stimulates change, also reminded me of Joseph Schumpeter (1883 – 1950), an Austrian-American economist and Harvard professor, who became immortalized through his theory of ‘creative destruction’.4 The theory explains how a continuous process of industrial innovation both creates wealth and destroys it; the old structures that are destroyed automatically make room for new ones. This resembles Darwin’s theory of evolution; a natural cycle of species going extinct, once they are taken over by the ‘fitter’ ones. In our industrialized world an example is the automobile with combustion engine being replaced by the electric car. Or, more fundamentally, the oil industry being slowly but surely overtaken by renewable energy – thanks to corona maybe a little faster.
Schumpeter’s theory to me feels optimistic; you can mourn about businesses that go bust or you can be excited about the opportunities for new ones. We are now clearly in the destructive part of the cycle, but as an adaptive ‘species’ we are able to innovate ourselves around the virus. Therefore, the innovators that are able to incorporate the new perception of space-time in their business model, will be at the forefront of the new creative cycle.
Knit your own sweater
I understand that for those who are losing their jobs, looking at the corona-crisis as a form of social Darwinism sounds rather unempathetic – it does. That’s why, as a relatively civilized species, we could, in the future, mitigate the destructive effects of businesses suddenly becoming obsolete, by providing every citizen with a guaranteed minimum income. Another Dutch influential thinker, Rutger Bregman, is already promoting this idea – the universal basic income (UBI) – for a while. He wrote a book about it (Utopia for Realists) and recently an article in The Correspondent. The reason why this concept is now popping up in different places, is that many governments are unofficially providing their citizens with a UBI, due to the coronavirus. Though the critics are afraid that those who are provided with a UBI will lie on the couch and watch Netflix all day, we’ve found out in the past weeks that this gets boring pretty fast. More importantly, the fundamental incentive of capitalism, to make more money than a bare minimum, will prevent us from becoming lethargic.
The concept of a UBI not just perfectly aligns with the donut economy, it also stimulates another idea Edelkoort mentioned in her interview; a new dawn for the ‘the age of the amateur.’ Amateurs, for example, who are knitting sweaters and who could, in Edelkoort’s imagination, replace the huge corporations that inhumanely uses workers on the other side of the globe as machines. I actually thought the age of the amateur was already happening, since it sounds like the promise of the internet; cutting out the middleman and enabling everyone to obtain 15 minutes of fame, and maybe start a business around it. But Edelkoort is specifically talking about craftsmanship replacing mass production.
When AI takes over, there is one unique human trait that will have more room to shine; creativity
The UBI can also be linked to another innovative concept that seems unstoppable; artificial intelligence (AI). If self-learning machines will become as successful and omnipresent as the internet (and they will), many jobs will disappear in the next decades5.5 Not just the simple, repetitive jobs in factories (that have been disappearing already for a while), but also sophisticated legal or medical jobs. Within this decade, AI will probably be smarter in finding the right jurisprudence or diagnosing patients than human beings, since it can easily scan all the knowledge in the world and make sense of it – in its own specialized context. I am not afraid that when this happens, there is nothing to do for us anymore. Instead, only the nature of our work will change. We’ll become more specialized – using deeper knowledge – and there is one unique human trait that will have more room to shine; creativity. Our ability to merge seemingly disparate ideas into new ones, build them into reality and solve problems that we’ve never faced before, are the things that survive when we have to compete with extremely smart robots.
A happier species
Research has shown that for creative jobs, our intrinsic motivation is more important than our extrinsic motivation. Simply put, we choose a creative job because it’s our calling, not because it makes us a lot of money – often it doesn’t. For many people this will also work the other way around; when you don’t have to worry about your salary, you will be inclined to follow your intrinsic drive, rather than be unhappy in a job just because it pays the bills. On social media I now suddenly see quite a few friends turning amateur-bakers while locked down. One is swapping his breads with other home-grown food and another has made a YouTube-tutorial how to bake a decent sourdough bread. I do realize that the interest in baking might also be driven by boredom or an evolutionary instinct, nevertheless it’s probably the kind of amateur activity Edelkoort has in mind, when talking about the age of the amateur.
So, in short, when AI slowly but surely takes over our repetitive, brainless, and uninspiring jobs, there will be more room for us to turn into a more creative species. In combination with a guaranteed basic income, more people will dare to turn their hobby into a job – and become really good at it. In her interview Edelkoort explains she uses ‘amateur’ in the French meaning of the word; one who loves. If we all start doing what we love, we’ll not just become a more creative species, but also a happier one.
Some of the topics have already been featured on this platform before:
1 Though I am slightly pessimistic about a donut economy completely replacing our current economic model any time soon, I wrote about the concept before, because I believe the focus on constant growth in the current model is unhealthy. In this piece I write about how the model should inspire the European Union to turn itself into a truly democratic, social and environmental super power – in comparison with the other two super powers; China and the US.
2 The importance of serendipitous encounters at work was featured in a piece about The Architecture of Creativity.
3 More about the benefits of a vacuum train in this article, in which I ask myself why Europe can’t build a proper train network.
4 I wrote about the concept of creative destruction before to explain how the Western perception of creativity is different from the Eastern one, since for us being original is so important.
5 It will take decades before we have a general artificial intelligence that surpasses us in truly creative thinking. About this topic I also wrote ‘Art with an extended arm’, in which I ask myself the question whether artificial intelligence can make art. And in another article, I explain why robots will not just take human jobs away, but also create new, more specialized ones.