When you think of the ideal creative environment, what comes to mind? We may imagine a place where you have freedom of expression, a place that encourages breaking convention, somewhere that is abundant in resources that are readily accessible for innovative development of technology, and exposure to many different cultures for inspiration and collaboration. So as you imagine this ultimate creative playground, does Cuba come to mind?
From what we know of Cuba, especially since the embargo in the 1960s, it seems like anything but the ideal creativity-inspiring environment. A Cuban-American artist and designer, Ernesto Oroza tells a different story, though. In an interview about his book, Technological Disobedience, he shows us how the people of Cuba, following the embargo, came together as a societal unit, overcoming their challenges through collaboration and innovation—their creativity being their savior. As a nation they flourished, and became a more innovative, creative society as a result of all the hardship they endured.
How is this possible, or even likely? For the last few years, we’ve been told that the most nurturing creative environments are freer, not more restrictive, and that stress and pressure to produce a specific product crushes creative insight. If this is true, then how do we explain the Cuban Creativity Phenomenon? As we face a Creativity Crisis in America, what can we learn from this example?
Before I answer these questions, let’s hear Ernesto’s description of Cuba during this time of both economic strain and creative growth. The following paragraphs are transcribed from the interview, which can be viewed here.
“In the 1960s, when the Americans left Cuba, they took the engineers with them. So Fidel encouraged people to work with machines- and many people began to do their own repairs. This spawned a movement called National Association of Innovators and Rationalists.
In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a deep economic crisis known as “The Special Period In Time Of Peace.” As the crisis became more severe, the people’s creativity grew more powerful, and everywhere you looked, you saw solutions to the needs that people faced everyday in every aspect of life… transportation, children’s toys, clothing, food… everything was replaced by substitutes, provided by the people.
In 94-95 is when this movement became really visible. The state could no longer support its people- the stores were empty. This type of production spawned its own economy. The government was very aware that this crisis was going to be very complex, so they published a book by the army called “The Book For The Family.” It was a compilation of international publications, like Popular Mechanics, and others. It had “simple fixes for electrical home appliances”, medical instructions, the use of botanicals, protection and survival.”
The book that Fidel published contained many of the projects that the army had been working on to prepare them if Cuba was attacked by North America; he distributed the book to the entire public. Truly, the country was forced into a sort of survival mode. Given the harsh economic conditions—the lack of technology, products, no sources of income—one would expect a complete collapse of the spirit of the people, and for the heart of the country to begin to crumble, and ultimately, for creativity to wither. After all, we have seen research that shows how creativity is killed by restrictions, stress, and other limiting factors. Cuba in the 90s pretty much looked like the worst possible environment for creativity and innovation.
However, that wasn’t the case—the opposite happened. The people flourished. Their creativity soared. A few years after that initial book was distributed, the government wanted to see how well those ideas resonated with the people, so they invited the public to send in their own ideas. The responses came flooding in—ideas for devices to charge batteries for hearing aids, how to make antennas out of tin trays, devices made from parts of broken washing machines that were turned into shoe-shiners, motorized bicycles… and many, many others. They took all of those ideas that the citizens sent in and put them into a book of its own, called “With Our Own Efforts.”
When placed in a situation where innovation was necessary, Ernesto said, “People think beyond the normal capabilities of an object, and try to surpass the limitations it imposes upon itself.” In this way, he describes their behavior as Technological Disobedience, or breaking all rules in which that product’s technology was intended (rule-breaking, as I’ve said before, is one of the hallmark traits of creativity).
While this is a heartwarming and amazing tale of resilience, courage, and collaboration, how do we explain why it happened, given these circumstances that seem less than ideal for creativity?
Several things are at work here.
First of all, we can look at the crisis situation itself. They faced lack of resources, stalled technology, no jobs or industry—they had to make do with what they had. Basically, this put the whole country into survival mode, a large scale Gilligan’s Island, if you will. We often find that when people are put in life or death situations, they will do what they need to survive. In Cuba’s case, families needed products to help them live. Without jobs or income, they couldn’t exactly purchase items; because of the collapsed industry, those items didn’t even exist in the country to be purchased anyhow. They had no choice but to innovate—using broken parts from out-dated electronics, found objects, whatever they could—in order to create the products they needed to survive.
Secondly, Fidel, either by stroke of genius, or pure accident (more likely it was a little of both), saw the type of predicament that the people would be faced with as result of the embargo, and put out that publication, The Book For The Family, which planted that seed of creativity. Sometimes all you need to get the creative vibes flowing is to plant that first little seedling in order to start everything growing. Once they began to see alternate solutions to problems, as outlined in the book, they began looking at problems in a completely different way.
This is similar to how people, once told the solution to Dunker’s Candle Problem, are suddenly able to solve subsequent creative tasks more successfully. Once your mind has broken through that barrier of Functional Fixedness, you are more open for creative insight. The Cuban government did this on a national level. By putting out that book and distributing it to every citizen, he gave them the solution to the candle problem. This started them thinking down a more creative path, even if it was primarily out of necessity to survive.
Which brings me to point number three: Stress and creativity. We’ve heard before that stress is bad for creativity; in fact, I’ve said that myself. Indeed, pressure to produce under strict guidelines, micromanaging people to death, kills creativity. If you look at Cuba, their government seemed pretty restrictive, and the pressure was enormous—to survive or not to survive. So why the increase in creativity, of all things?
It’s all in perception. How we view a problem has a tremendous impact on how successful we are in overcoming it. Take a typical stressful situation, such as losing your job. You could say that the hardship of being unemployed could be depressing and stress-inducing, and thus kill any attempts at creativity. Understandable. However, if you see losing your job as freedom from the restrictions of your previous job, suddenly everything starts to look a little different. Instead of it being a negative, “I have no job” it becomes a positive, “Now I am free to explore new things”.
When you look at the situation in Cuba, what you really had was a complete and total lift of all restrictions. The people had no jobs, no money, there was no industry—all things that would seem like restrictions. But they aren’t really when it comes to creativity. You need to have those kinds of limitations in order to get you thinking outside the box in the first place. What it did was force the people to think creatively, because they had no choice. They had to look around and say, “I need [these things], so I need to think of a way I can get them, using anything I can find in order to create them.”
Ernesto explained that once the Cuban people took apart that first fan (or washing machine, or blender), out of necessity to get at a needed part, they no longer saw that object in the same way. They didn’t see a fan, like a consumer would see one on a shelf. Instead, they saw all of the components that make a fan, and how they could be reassembled into other needed products. This flexibility in thinking—entertaining alternate possibilities to every problem—was a necessity to stay alive. Once they got into the habit of thinking that way, what started as creative problem-solving evolved into a complete mindshift of the Cuban society, and in essence, fueled the creative innovation of an entire country.
The best part about this entire story is how the creative mindshift spread. The entire population began to think more creatively about everything; it became a way of life. They took pride in their products. They bartered. They shared with neighbors. Eventually, it spilled over into their arts culture as well. There is a thriving art community in Cuba, influenced greatly by the nation’s mindshift—first emerging as a means to survive, but transcending that need and defining a culture, one that proves to be on the rise as a significant influence on the rest of the world in the years to come.
If there is one thing that we, as a very privileged nation, can learn from Cuba, it’s that there is always another solution, another method of development, another possibility. If we face problems as a society, we can’t stay locked inside our rigid fortress, closing out any alternate solutions just because they may seem unconventional. Maybe as a country we need to suffer a little in order to push us to the point of seeing beyond the instruction booklet—into a place where we can imagine endless and limitless solutions.
I will close with Ernesto’s words, in describing the Cuban people:
“People were so pressured by the crisis- so constrained. Like a caged animal without food, that is made capable of jumping any barrier or wall. And in this way, they break all limitations- aesthetic, legal, economic, and this liberation is a moral liberation.”