With enhanced creativity, instead of problems you see potential, instead of obstacles you see opportunities, and instead of challenges you see a chance to create breakthrough solutions.” 

“Creativity is incredibly important as we address challenges that come our way and to build a better future. It can be enhanced by learning idea-generation techniques, building environments that foster innovation, and mobilizing the drive to come up with breakthrough ideas. The best news is that creativity does not result from a random collection of actions. It is a natural trait that can be enhanced with an integrated set of tools, approaches, and conditions. By teaching creativity across our entire education system, we can only begin to imagine what creative thinkers will do to build a better future.”

These are the words of Tina Seelig, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation at Stanford University, and the author of inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity (HarperOne; April 2012) In InGenius, Seelig discusses the Mobius strip of the innovation engine, which includes culture, attitude, imagination, knowledge, resources, habitat. She explains how each part is integral to the creative process. This piqued my interest as I recently took the Social Marketing team through a ‘Creativity Lab’ to begin designing our upcoming Antenatal Care (ANC) campaign. Our focus is on pregnant women attending their first ANC visit in the first trimester, and attending at least 4 throughout the pregnancy.

Most of the activities and messages that had previously been discussed remained almost exclusively health-centric. While we want to ensure the health messages are clear and correct, we also know that knowledge is not enough and we need to design a relevant campaign that evokes a response much further reaching than fear. Plus, far too often we have had the ‘just get it done’ and ‘use what we are comfortable with’ mentality. It was high time we allow time to be creative and to show the value of the related benefits. I knew I could see more innovation and thinking outside the box that is our cinderblock office. We wanted messages, graphics, and activities that would get the community’s ATTENTION. And make ANC not only normalized, but also in demand.

Noting that this might best be done outside our little office in a place they could spread out, I suggested they find flip chart paper, blank paper, white boards, chalkboards, colored pens, and whatever else they can get their hands on to create a laboratory for imagination and inspiration. The deliverables to come from the lab were a set of themes, messages and ideas for materials based on our Design for Behavior Change Framework and Barrier Analysis results. I asked them to draw, sing, act, paint, what ever they want to do to get some solid creative ideas out there. However, there was still a level of discomfort and extending the license for creativity remotely didn’t exactly get the job done. At least we started to get the juices flowing and the team came away with several interesting themes including, “I approve!” which would incorporate materials with female peers and family members showing they support ANC, and a theme related to the bright futures of children whose mothers attended 4 visits. I arrived in the field a few weeks after the Lab took place and had the opportunity to unpack the rationale a bit more and work with the team to become a tad more comfortable outside of their comfort zone.

We started our first meeting by sharing what resources and habitats lend to invoking our own creativity. We answered the question: When do you feel the most creative or when do you feel like you come up with the best, most interesting ideas? For some it was taking a walk where the target audience leads their lives, for others it was thumbing through magazines or other materials that inspire them (think Pinterest!), for another it was taking a pencil to paper and starting to draw, and another, it was working in silence.

Amongst other things, we actually did a Google and Pinterest search (which for the most part was a new concept for the team) for ANC and safe pregnancy campaigns in East Africa, and spent time looking at both inspiring and not so inspiring magazine ads to facilitate this type of inspiration. After that we took to the whiteboards and blank papers and had a ball coming up with harebrained ideas. Within no time we were up on our feet, laughing and throwing out several exciting concepts in a completely judgment-free atmosphere.

In Lindsey Kneuven’s blog, Unlocking Creativity in Rural Kenyan School Children  she notes that the locally favored regimented, rote memory approach to learning caused school children to “shed their willingness to take risks and abandoning spontaneous inspiration… In adulthood, creative starvation and discouragement can easily translate into regimented action, closed thinking, conformity, and a tendency to blindly adhere to what is known. These qualities make it very difficult to lift oneself out of poverty.”

I will be the first to say that we have our work cut out for us to ensure we supporting the full spectrum for what allows the innovation engine to thrive, especially from a technical skills and knowledge standpoint. We can only see real success once we have a clear understanding of what we are trying to do and some of the necessary processes. With that said, I believe in Tina Seeligns philosophy that creativeness can be enhanced and was thrilled to see individuals on our team take risks and encourage their colleagues to do the same. It will be invigorating to see the group watch the campaign unfold and appreciate the positive health outcomes- the product of their inventiveness.

Unlocking creativity in remote, rural settings like where Nuru works will be the key to poverty alleviation. Experiencing this within our own team certainly makes me feel one step closer to achieving our goal. Let us continue to create spaces that foster imagination, increase exposure to creative ideas and share the necessary knowledge and tools that can make innovative problem solving and program planning the norm. With this attitude and action, we can grab peoples’ attention and incite change.