By Brian E. Clark
WAUKESHA – Wisconsin’s 300-plus bioscience companies know well the need to keep discoveries bubbling out of their labs.
So they embraced – sometimes with loud bursts of laughter – a speech by a witty British professor who has been knighted for his innovative work to adapt education to the 21st Century.
“Creativity is as important to the future as are literacy or numeracy,” said Sir Ken Robinson, who now lives in Los Angeles and consults for corporations, universities and countries around the globe.
Robinson gave the welcoming speech Thursday morning at the Biotechnology and Medical Device Association’s annual conference in the GE Healthcare Institute. Other topics during the day included global biological threats, personalized medicine and challenges for life science companies in China.
Robinson praised Gov. Jim Doyle and former Gov. Tommy Thompson for their emphasis on innovation, an advocacy that Robinson said is serving Wisconsin well. Both Doyle and Thompson spoke at the conference as well, which drew more than 350 biotechnology executives, workers and students.
Robinson, author of the book “Out of Our Minds – Learning to be Creative,” said most of the schools in this country – and his native England – are stuck in an 18th Century mode that often stifles original thinking.
Though Robinson does not doubt the need for excellence in math, language and science, he said it is a mistake to put the humanities and art at the bottom of the hierarchical list in schools.
And he said it is even a bigger mistake to think that teaching to standardized tests will make students brighter or better adapted to future workforce needs.
“That is the simple answer, but narrowing the curriculum is the opposite of what we should be doing,” he said.
“The world is shifting on its axis and a university education is no longer a passport to a good job,” he said. “It is a visa, but it doesn’t guarantee employment.”
To stay ahead, he said every company has to figure out how to be an innovator and how to innovate faster than the competition.
To do that, he said the education establishment and companies alike should embrace creativity and cultivate it.
“This is a broader view of intelligence,” he said. “Everyone is creative, but we train it out of people. We should be doing the opposite.”
Robinson said he found it perplexing that musician Paul McCartney was not considered talented enough to be a member of his school choir, or that John Cleese, of Monte Python fame, was never encouraged to pursue his humor until he had finished his university studies.
“We need to promote diverse ways of thinking because and be dynamic,” he said. “Technology will be part of the solution. And in many ways, our children are way ahead of us.
“We can’t control the future,” he said. “But we can engage our young people’s minds and treat creativity with the respect it deserves because we have no idea what the workplace will be like in the decades to come.”
In an interview after his talk, Robinson said he believes many business people and most scientists “get it.”
“They see it as a ‘bottom line’ issue. Creativity and talent are seen as very good thing,” he added.
But educational institutions will take longer to turn around.
“It’s a complicated endeavor,” he said. “But moving to standardization is not the answer, certainly. You need to engage students at all levels, not put them in boxes. If you do, you’ll be left behind.”
Kevin Conroy, president and CEO of Madison’s Third Wave Technologies, said he found Robinson’s speech provocative.
“If we want to survive and prosper, we need to have a structure that pushes constant innovation. Perhaps by putting development people into research areas,” he mused.
And Sara Viranov, a patent attorney with the Quarels & Brady law firm in Madison, said companies that have numerous minds working on projects are often more creative.
“Thinking in non-traditional ways should be encouraged,” she said. “If you come up with a novel solution to a problem, it could result in a new patent. Encouraging a diverse culture of ideas is an excellent way to lead into the future.”