An excessive focus on productivity is actually having the opposite effect. By having an implicit or explicit goal of being productive in any particular endeavour, we limit the scope to think beyond the immediate task at hand. Through having the space to think and learn without the pressure to immediately assess the benefits, we can spark the new ideas and connections that lead to the innovations of tomorrow.
This has been brought home to me, having spent the weekend with 30 of the UK’s brightest and best young researchers as part of NESTA’s Crucible programme. The participants come from a wide range of different science and social science disciplines, and from both university and industrial environments. The aim of the programme is ultimately to support interdisciplinary research collaborations, through forging new connections, new ideas, or new opportunities. However, I believe that one of the real benefits of Crucible is the opportunity for the participants to network and to learn about a wide range of subjects from a series of interesting and sometimes provocative individuals.
This weekend we were fortunate to have Martin Kemp from the University of Oxford giving a fascinating presentation about the interaction between art and science which was for me the highlight of the weekend. A more detailed interview with Martin about interdisciplinary collaboration is available from here. He made a point that we simply don’t allow ourselves the luxury to tap into that childlike wonder about the world, by asking questions of people and learning how stuff happens in disciplines outside of our own. I recall going to additional lectures in philosophy as a student event through my main subject was physics. I wasn’t formally registered for the course but just had an interest in the subject so decided to sneak in on a regular basis. Not only was it enjoyable and thought provoking at the time, a longer term benefit has been to develop a different way of thinking which is frequently very useful. However, I now realise that we don’t have the opportunity to do that kind of thing nearly as often as we should, and I think it is actually detrimental to our innovation capabilities.
There is of course a balance to be stuck. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we shouldn’t have aims or objectives when starting out on a task. Nor do I wish to undermine the importance of planning carefully. I simply believe we should all engineer more opportunities in our work and personal lives that aren’t immediately orientated on being productive, rather that are about learning about a new subject, and expanding our experiences in some new direction. Google, for instance, allow their staff to spend 20% of their time on their own projects or interests without pressure to deliver on the business plan. This feels intuitively to be the right sort of ratio of structured verses unstructured time, but why don’t other organisations follow suit? The benefits may not be immediately realised, but over the long term, I strongly believe that this will be beneficial for our productivities as individuals and ultimately as a country.