’Tis the Season for Creativity, Innovation Experts Say

UNIVERSITY PARK – The holidays are a time for wrapping ourselves in nostalgia. And like sipping eggnog by a crackling fire, there’s a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Long-held traditions are integral to marking the occasion. Religious ceremonies, gifts, decorations and food connect people in the present to holidays past.

“Creative people are constantly writing down ideas, always aware that their next thought might be great, even though they know that nine out of 10 ideas are nothing.”

      — Darrell Velegol, distinguished professor of chemical engineering

But according to a group of innovation-focused Penn State professors, it’s the season for new ideas, a time for homegrown traditions and fresh ways of thinking that complement the traditions we hold dear. For them, creativity can bring more fun, strengthen bonds among family and friends, and lessen the negative environmental impact of a season of consumption.

“Your richest creative outlet is wherever your heart is, wherever you do things that make the world a better place, even just for a moment,” said Kathryn Jablokow, associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering design. “For some people, it’s making things, baking things, sending cards. For others, it’s their presence with people.”

Jablokow recently taught the “Creativity, Innovation and Change” massive open online course (MOOC) with Jack Matson, professor emeritus of environmental engineering, and Darrell Velegol, distinguished professor of chemical engineering. The engineers presented practices that could be utilized by technicians, entrepreneurs, artists and everyday folks looking to unlock or nurture their creativity. More than 150,000 students in 165 countries signed up for the course, which concluded in November as part of the University’s initial offering of MOOCs with Coursera.

“The principles of creativity and innovation are universal, even if the applications are different,” Jablokow said. “So people all over the world can understand and use them; I think that’s why our MOOC was so successful.”

Creative giving

Gift giving is a prime opportunity to put creative thinking into action. In a time of wish lists and gift cards, a more innovative approach can lead to gifts with meaning, the kinds that could strengthen a relationship and be cherished by the receiver, according to the professors.

“Think about gifts as you start to go to sleep at night to prompt your unconscious mind,” Matson said. “Then when you start to wake up in the morning, record dreams and thoughts on a notepad by your bed.

“That transition time when you wake up from the unconscious may provide a wealth of creative, offbeat ideas for holiday gifts. People often fail to realize that a major source of ideas is in the unconscious and is available to solve many problems creatively, not just gift giving.”

“Creative people are constantly writing down ideas,” Velegol added, “always aware that their next thought might be great, even though they know that nine out of 10 ideas are nothing.”

He also suggested an “idea-generation Christmas party,” a brainstorming session with friends.

“Set up a contest or game where the teams aim to win by coming up with the most ideas for a particular group and the craziest, cheapest or most expensive,” he said.

The ideal gift giver connects with the gift receiver, acknowledging their experiences, talents and interests, the professors said.

“Everyone is creative. Try thinking about how the receiver of your gift is creative — in small ways or big ways,” Jablokow said. “Then give them a gift that will support their unique creative spirit.”

When gift giving, memories and best desires for the receiver can inform choices, according to Susan Russell, associate professor in the School of Theatre, who helped generate original video content for the MOOC.

“This makes the gift giving personal and creative as well,” she said. “Gifts can help kids create themselves, but creativity is rooted in present knowledge, so if the little girl likes cars, don’t get her a car, but get her a model car she can build, thus creating an experience with a possible future through a present action. … The optimal words for gift giving are givesomeone an experience with the possible.”

With that said, offerings of cash or gift cards, Jablokow said, can make an impact with thoughtful presentation.

“Think of gift cards or cash as enablers of a person’s creative capacity and then wrap or present them in a way that shows that you recognize their creative gifts,” she said. “If they like music, wrap up the gift card in sheet music. If they love to invent things, attach the gift card to an issue of Invention magazine.”

Her parents devised a scavenger hunt involving a series of boxes containing clues and the final container holding money. Velegol and his family package gift cards with fresh sweets.

Peace on Earth

The holidays also present a time to rethink customs that are wasteful, Matson said, who learned the virtue of reusing wrapping paper from his parents.

“Later in my life, I adopted a practice of wrapping gifts in newspaper, which could then be recycled,” he said, “and using odd containers with no wrapping for gifts that would be then used for other purposes.”

He also recommended shopping locally, buying gifts made from recycled materials, taking public transportation for holiday travel and recycling Christmas trees.

“‘Peace on Earth’ also means being peaceful to the Earth from an environmental perspective,” Matson said. “The holidays should be a time when we respect the earth that provides life and sustenance to all living creatures.”

New family traditions can emerge when we access our values and think about new ways to celebrate them, Jablokow said. Serendipity also can play a role. Once, she said, her mom hastily placed an overlooked gift in a brown paper bag with a bow and snuck it under the tree one Christmas morning.

“Over the years, it became a funny family joke — ‘Hey Mom, where’s the brown paper bag?’ So, eventually, she stopped doing it ‘by accident’ and started putting someone’s gift in a brown paper bag from the start,” Jablokow said. “It might be the most expensive gift they got that year or it might be underwear.”

An infusion of creativity also can build bridges among those of different faiths, celebrating diversity as well as shared values.

When coming together, Jablokow said, a traditional gift, meal, song or poem can add a distinct stamp to shared sentiments of togetherness and optimism during the holidays. When decorating their home for the Highlands neighborhood’s Holiday Home Tour on Dec. 15, Matson and his wife, State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, chose a “Peace House” theme welcoming to all religions. Their décor includes Native American and Bhutanese influences as well as a memorial to the late humanitarian Nelson Mandela.

“That which is most personal, is also most general,” Velegol said. “By sharing a particular meal or tradition or cookie you remind all of us about our own particular meal or tradition or cookie. It creates shared meaning.”

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