Liberal Education

Creativity and Innovation: Building Ecosystems to Support Risk Taking, Resiliency, and Collaboration

Rather than diving into a discussion of the new labor market, we begin with an anecdote drawn from Amanda’s experience as a supervisor and senior leader at Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), a nonprofit organization established by the City of Los Angeles to accelerate the development of clean technology startups. We’ll call this “Ellen’s Story”:

Last summer, Ellen, an intern working at LACI, approached me toward the end of her summer internship and confessed that she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after she graduated from college in May. Ellen had narrowed her choices down to law school or business school—or potentially both since, as she explained in all earnestness, two graduate degrees would be better than one when applying for jobs. When I probed why she was considering those options, she admitted her music major, while personally fulfilling, wasn’t going to get her a job. Setting aside the fact that I had hired her (despite her music degree!), I knew the source of her fear was that she felt her focus on music left her unprepared and unattractive in the job market. Somehow, in the literal world of undergraduate students, there is an assumption that your major prepares you only for employment in that sector.

I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Let me clarify something for you. You don’t just have a music degree, you have a liberal arts degree that has taught you all the critical-thinking skills you need to get a job, and that is what matters.” I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by her stunned expression. As a politics major at Pomona College, I was once in Ellen’s shoes and, looking back, I wish someone had been as explicit with me about the skills I was developing—and about the skills that I had not developed. After years of performing very well in the highly structured educational environment, which provided a clear grading system to measure my success, I was completely unprepared for the more chaotic, unpredictable, and unstructured life after graduation.

Ellen’s story is one of the many we hear from today’s college students and that inspire our partnership.

This article is a summary of the motivation for, and the themes discussed in, the session we facilitated in April 2015 at “Diversity, Equity, and Excellence: College Learning and America’s Unmet Promise,” a LEAP Centennial Forum cosponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. When we started brainstorming for this session, our conversation focused on how the creativity fostered by a liberal education is linked to the innovation needed in the private sector today. While recognizing the significant social, political, and labor-market pressures to produce more graduates with degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), we believe that it is the power of a liberal education that gives graduates a distinct advantage in the new economy. In the face of contemporary challenges, a liberal education empowers our students—and our future workforce—to ask the right questions and to build the interdisciplinary bridges that may lead to answers.

New labor market dynamics

The main goal of our session at the LEAP Centennial Forum was to identify pathways along which colleges can partner with the private sector to enhance students’ creative power. We have observed how essential this is, as the employee-employer relationship has changed dramatically in the last fifty years. While the labor market of our parents’ generation emphasized job-specific skills that incentivized lifetime tenure within one company or industry, today’s labor market rewards those with the ability to create, adapt, and build bridges across industries. As the economist Henry Farber has argued, long-term employment relationships (“the lifetime job”) have become increasingly less prevalent in the private sector.1 Indeed, economists Robert Topel and Michael Ward have shown that a typical worker will hold seven different jobs during his or her first ten years in the labor market, and firm mobility is the main vehicle for earnings increases and building a professional career.2 Simultaneously, our nation’s societal and institutional support for the “lifetime job” model has also shifted, as demonstrated by the prevalence of defined contribution retirement plans versus company-sponsored defined benefit plans and by the slow unraveling of the link between health insurance and employment.

The emphasis on worker mobility and the ability to transition across industries and employers is not trivial, and thus we need to support students’ acquisition of transferable skills. The dynamics of the new economy are complex. The incentives for workers and firms to invest in relationship-specific knowledge may be misaligned and result in a less productive workforce. Workers may hesitate to invest in the development of skills that are idiosyncratic to a particular firm or that would increase their productivity with their current employer only, for example, and the firm has no incentive to compensate workers for such an investment, as these kinds of skills cannot be developed elsewhere. Similarly, a firm may hesitate to invest in workers who may potentially leave to seek employment elsewhere. This is what economists call the “hold-up problem.” In this environment, then, the best strategy for today’s students and tomorrow’s workers is to invest in skills that are not particular to one firm or industry, but are instead transferrable among firms and industries. Thus, the creativity that is fostered by a liberal education not only enhances worker productivity, but it also improves economic efficiency.

In an economy where incentives are distorted and early-career rewards are accrued through job, employer, and industry flows, it is the responsibility of employees to manage their own careers. Employees must initiate their acquisition of new skills, constantly signal the value of these skills for their current or potential employers, and demonstrate their ability to solve business problems creatively. The reality is that, like Ellen, today’s college graduates face fundamentally different labor market conditions than those faced by past graduates.

This brings us to the crux of the question: As educators, are we preparing students for today’s challenges? We already know that colleges and universities throughout the country work diligently to ensure the highest academic standards in transferring knowledge to students. We posit, however, that today’s students need more than rigorous academic training and an impressive accumulation of knowledge to succeed in life after graduation. Through our positions at our respective organizations, Pomona College and the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), we both have integrated creativity, innovation, risk taking, resiliency, and collaboration into student learning experiences. In addition, to ensure students are better prepared for life after graduation, we seek opportunities to expose them to real-life problems and to connect classroom learning with the communities in which they live and work. While there is nothing new about coupling outside communities with academic programming to produce more “real-world” learning opportunities, our two institutions, in very different ways, have taken unique approaches to improving the students’ preparation for their post-graduation lives.

Creativity in the liberal arts

Scholars and commentators have long recognized the importance of creativity for economic growth, whether as a mechanism for avoiding recession (e.g., Joseph Schumpeter on “creative destruction”) or as a way to foment economic growth locally (e.g., Richard Florida on cities and the “creative class”). Yet, although the economic importance of creativity may be widely recognized, we are still wrestling with the role of higher education in fostering creativity.

To accommodate the new demands today’s economy places on student preparation, colleges and universities have embraced creativity and innovation. Indeed, efforts to enhance creativity and innovation are changing the educational landscape of the United States. These efforts can take many names and forms—clinics, design thinking, entrepreneurial accelerators. But we argue here that campus interventions alone are not sufficient.

In a provocative essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter N. Miller poses the question: “Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts?”3 Miller explores how design thinking has been lauded as a way to answer difficult questions that have no straight or easy answers. We agree with Miller’s conclusion that the answer to this question is “not yet.” Miller highlights the importance of understanding the human experience, especially via a liberal education, when addressing these hard problems that have no clear solutions. But we must go beyond that.

Enhanced creativity should be fostered and guided toward answering real-life problems; it should affect the very communities where our schools exist, even as its development prepares students for life after graduation. This is the basic premise of the Susan and Richard Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity of the Claremont Colleges (aka “the Hive”) and of the partnerships that the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator has developed with colleges and universities in the Los Angeles area. The main idea is that creativity is not fostered in isolation; rather, creativity is best enhanced when it is part of a collective and diverse ecosystem.

At the Sontag Center, we intend to take advantage of the diversity that is afforded by five different educational institutions in order to accelerate students’ creative capacity. We designed this center based on the core principle that every student must be free to experiment and play, but we did so in order to nurture connections, to cultivate generative mindsets through engagement with ambiguous challenges that have no easy solutions, and to infuse some “doings” into students’ learning experiences. At the center, and through our commitment to the liberal arts, we provide students with a learning environment in which they can experiment and play. The center is also a place where students can attack ambitious challenges, and where they are comfortable doing so using a variety of approaches. For us, a successful project must have a real impact on real users. It also must be ambitious enough to excite students, while still conforming to the clear constraints that exist within the academic world.

An ecosystem of creativity and innovation is not exclusive to private liberal arts colleges. At LACI, we have started exploring the synergies made possible by our partnership with California State University–Northridge (CSUN). As the largest of the California State Universities, CSUN is a major economic engine in the San Fernando Valley of the Los Angeles region. It has a combined student, faculty, staff, and alumni count of more than two hundred thousand. With a bold vision of expanding CSUN’s role as economic engine and academic leader in the Los Angeles region, and in acknowledgement of the power of partnerships, CSUN’s President Dianne Harrison forged a partnership with LACI to launch an on-campus LACI satellite business incubator called “LACI@CSUN.”

By integrating LACI’s pragmatic, entrepreneurial approach into CSUN’s academic disciplines, LACI@CSUN is reshaping how the university’s stakeholders think about entrepreneurship, employment, and even applied research. LACI staff members, who are former corporate executives and entrepreneurs, are weaving LACI@CSUN programming together with the fabric of the CSUN community through guest lectures, a CEO speaker program, alumni activities, internships, the creation of a comprehensive plan for advancing innovation throughout the university, and the development of new venture competitions. LACI staff members also serve as advisors to CSUN faculty who are interested in commercializing their research and as coaches to CSUN students and alumni who want to develop their business ideas.

Although they are often perceived as either too vocational or nonscientific, such opportunities have the potential to transform students’ educational experiences as well as their communities. It is in the kind of learning spaces created by the Sontag Center and LACI@CSUN that students find links between the classroom and the real world. These partnerships are not a substitute for liberal education, but a complement to it, promoting high-impact educational practices such as community-based learning and senior capstones, where students are challenged to address difficult adaptive problems that have no clear answers.

Fostering innovation in the private sector

LACI’s mission as a nonprofit regional economic development initiative is to create a diverse innovation cluster that leverages the strengths of the Los Angeles region in order to help accelerate the clean technology commercialization process and to help companies successfully deliver market-ready cleantech solutions—and the jobs that come with them. As a fast-moving, emerging-industry sector, cleantech is a particularly challenging sector to support.

More broadly, today’s dynamic, tumultuous global business environment is often referred to as “VUCA”—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Some business challenges are technical in nature, with well-defined problems suited for traditional, hierarchical approaches to problem solving. To build a bridge, for instance, you would hire someone who clearly demonstrates competency in engineering and project management. However, some problems in business—as in life!—are messy, open ended, and ill defined. When wrestling with these adaptive challenges, it is often hard to identify the right question, let alone the right answer. Solving adaptive business problems, such as how to react to an unexpected new competitor, requires disciplined, creative thinking as well as reliable access to observations and insights from a wide range of people.

Adaptive problems are too complex for any one person or organization to figure out, and too open ended to be solved by analysis alone. From an educational perspective, this is why it is so important for students to learn to handle unstable, unstructured problems nimbly. Adaptive problems require leaps of insight, which usually involve the combination of ideas from different sources in a new way. Many studies on creativity and innovation highlight the importance of diverse perspectives in the search for novel solutions.

At LACI, we are actively working to create a diverse, inclusive ecosystem—at the personal and organizational levels—by putting the cleantech entrepreneur at the center of our work and measuring our success against our entrepreneurs’ progress (see fig. 1). This entrepreneur-centric model (as opposed to an institution-centric model) creates opportunities for more honest dialogue and better stakeholder alignment. It also creates a “neutral space” where cleantech stakeholders throughout the ecosystem can converge and focus on moving the same needle: accelerating the success of more cleantech entrepreneurs. Just as an adaptive problem is most efficiently solved by incorporating diverse perspectives, an industrial sector’s ecosystem is best served by including a variety of organizations that represent different viewpoints and serve different roles within the ecosystem.

Click to Enlarge Figure

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LACI’s work to promote the development of a cleantech ecosystem in the Los Angeles region is similar to work of the Claremont Colleges to foster a creativity community in an academic setting. While the institutional language may be different, the goals are similar. And both efforts embrace several key elements for building a creative and innovative ecosystem (see table 1):

  • Identification of stakeholders. Stakeholders are defined broadly as any person or organization that interacts directly or indirectly with the ecosystem.
  • Assessment and leveraging of key assets. In order truly to understand how to support and strengthen an ecosystem, you must first assess the ecosystem’s strengths, particularly as compared to other similar ecosystems, and build stakeholder interactions and programming around these key assets.
  • Diversity. Ensure regular access to a wide variety of honest, respectful opinions and perspectives (usually involving the viewpoints of many different groups of stakeholders).
  • Opportunities for experimentation and risk taking. Depending on the type of ecosystem you seek to support, risk taking can take many forms. In the world of cleantech entrepreneurs, for example, it may mean spending time and money researching new prototypes in a prototyping laboratory. For cleantech investors, it may mean investing in a company at an earlier stage than the investor is normally comfortable with.
  • Curated and spontaneous opportunities to interact. In the world of incubators, we call unexpected, spontaneous interactions that result in new ideas “collisions.” To a certain extent, merely the co-location of entrepreneurs in the same office space can spur innovation and creativity. However, more formal settings, such as investor-entrepreneur matchmaking (similar to speed dating) sessions or networking events for women and people of color, can also play a critical role in boosting connections and productive interactions among stakeholders.
  • Success metrics and measurement. As human beings, we tend to focus on what is measured. At LACI, our success is ultimately gauged by the success of our portfolio companies, as measured by their achievements in the marketplace.
  • Effective storytelling. While storytelling might not seem immediately relevant as a key component of an ecosystem, it turns out that, once a wide range of stakeholders is involved, it can be difficult to keep all of them informed, engaged, and motivated to participate. Therefore, strategic communications and stakeholder engagement plans must be developed—for internal and external audiences—to keep everyone up to date and aware of the ecosystem’s progress.

Click to Enlarge Table

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Our experience suggests that even when innovative partnerships arise organically, they are not easy to sustain and develop. For example, the location of different stakeholders in different places generates a spatial challenge, making it less likely that information and ideas will flow across institutions. In a way, college and university campuses should serve as meeting places where students encounter ideas and challenges through transformative experiences.

The Sontag Center and LACI@CSUN are examples of creative partnerships that create spaces where students like Ellen can realize the value of their education by applying what they have learned in the classroom to real-world adaptive problems. Such experiences can be transformative for students, and they make students better prepared to join today’s new labor market.

 Notes

1. See Henry S. Farber, “Is the Company Man an Anachronism? Trends in Long-Term Employment in the United States, 1973 to 2006,” in The Price of Independence: The Economics of Early Adulthood, ed. Sheldon Danziger and Cecilia Elena Rouse (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2007), 56–83.

2. See Robert H. Topel and Michael P. Ward, “Job Mobility and the Careers of Young Men,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 107, no. 2 (1992): 439–79.

3. See Peter N. Miller, “Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts?,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 26, 2015, http://chronicle.com/article/Is-Design-Thinking-the-New/228779.

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the authors’ names on the subject line.


Fernando Lozano is associate dean of the college and associate professor of economics at Pomona College. Amanda Sabicer is vice president for development at Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator.

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