December 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 6 // Tools of the Trade // 6TOT3

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Creativity Challenge: A Community-Based Approach to Enhancing Creative Action

We could all benefit from the wider application of creative action in addressing problems in our communities. Creativity in individuals can be enhanced and harnessed for improving our communities. The Creativity Challenge is one approach for accomplishing this. It provides training and motivation for individuals and teams to develop personal and group creativity and apply those skills to relevant problems at work and in the community. An enjoyable culminating event allows individuals and teams to test their creative abilities while dealing with significant social problems.

Robert Domaingue
Former Director, Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning
Southern Oregon University
Ashland, Oregon
Internet Address:

Our greatest resource is the creativity of the people with whom we live and work. We can no longer rely on the creativity of a few individuals, but must find ways of cultivating creativity at all levels in our communities. Creativity feeds on itself, and as more people enhance their own creativity they in turn will influence a greater number of people. This enhances both individuals and communities.

One example of this can be seen in the actions of a small southern Oregon city that receives its drinking water from a reservoir in the mountains above the city. The hillside is highly erodible and every few years the reservoir must be flushed of its accumulated sediments, releasing silt into streams and rivers. When downstream communities complained, the city looked at other options, but found that alternatives such as dredging and trucking out sediments was more destructive to the environment.

An interdisciplinary team of representatives from various government and non-government agencies looked at the problem and found a place near the conjunction of two streams to run an experiment. They dug a large catchment area to divert the water into and slow its movement (long enough to drop out the sediments) before it was returned to the stream. The experiment was a great success. It cleaned the water of the sediments, which made downstream communities happy and provided a large supply of sand perfect for use in construction. This city turned a problem of heavy sediment loads polluting streams and rivers into a resource available for purchase by construction companies. This is a good example of creative action at work.

The Creativity Challenge is one idea for spreading creative development among a wider adult population. The Challenge would be an annual event bringing individuals and teams together to test their creative problem solving abilities. The purpose behind the Creativity Challenge is to motivate individuals to develop their creative abilities and apply those abilities to solving problems at work and in the community.

The organization sponsoring the Creativity Challenge would provide training materials and advice for individuals and teams to enhance their creativity. Readings, videos, exercises, and assignments would allow people to develop new skills and to practice them at work and in the community. Individuals would gain a great deal of satisfaction as their creative abilities awake and they find new outlets for expression.

The annual Creativity Challenge would be held in different cities (and eventually different countries). People would prepare all year for the Challenge. As the popularity of the event increased, regional events may be put in place as well. Individuals and teams would gather to face a series of tests of their creative problem solving ability. The tests would last from under an hour to over a week. Some of the tests would be entertaining for an audience to watch. Workshops on enhancing creativity would be available for the audience to attend.

The short term tests would eventually lead up to the main challenge. The main challenge would last over a week and will deal with some significant social problem. The teams participating would not know the topic ahead of time. After the topic of the main challenge is announced each team will have access to a collection of resources (books, articles, films, etc.), and a panel of experts selected from the community.

An example of a main challenge might be: your team has one week to research and submit a proposal for dealing with the homelessness problem in Seattle. You may utilize the assembled panel of experts if you wish. You are encouraged to discuss the problem with different people in the community. You may spend no more than $200 on your research. You must keep a log of your activities and your decision making process. At the end of the week your proposal will be evaluated by a panel of judges. It will be rated according to various criteria (i.e. creative decision making process, humaneness, feasibility of implementation, overall creativity, etc.), and a winning team will be selected.

What are the benefits or "spin offs" of the Creativity Challenge? There are several. A large benefit accrues to the city sponsoring the Creativity Challenge. In the homelessness example, Seattle would receive free creative proposals for dealing with one of its problems. At the very least a great deal of media attention would be generated along with discussions in the community as people debated the merits of various proposals. The attention may galvanize the political will to do something about the problem. There are many problems which could be addressed in the Creativity Challenge (pollution, crime, unemployment, etc.).

Another benefit accrues to the winning teams and individuals. They will be recognized for their creative problem solving abilities. If teams sponsored by particular schools, communities, or companies establish a record of high creative ability then those programs will be recognized. People will begin to ask what those programs do differently to promote creativity. We may see a shift in our organizations as they seek to emulate the successful environments of sponsors of winning teams.

But the greatest benefit belongs to the individuals who prepare for the Creativity Challenge. By preparing for the test, people will develop their creative abilities and will be able to apply those abilities at work and in their communities. We will all benefit from a community of creative problem solvers. The purpose of the Creativity Challenge is to unleash the creative potential of individuals who will turn our problems into opportunities.

Extension agents have a long tradition of helping people come up with creative solutions to their own problems. The Creativity Challenge offers a more systematic approach to promoting creative action among a greater number of people. It should also have a very positive impact within Extension organizations as well. Creative action begets creative action, and we are all the better for it.