Innovate or Die: Why Creativity Is Economic Priority Number One

So you’ve met Lou, Jack and Marla, and you can see they’ve experienced a relative change of fortunes in recent years.

Once upon a time Lou, with his MBA and finely-tuned productivity system, was the darling of the corporate world. Meanwhile creative types like Jack and Marla were not taken seriously, at least in the workplace. Now Lou’s one step from the scrapheap and people are falling over themselves to work with Jack and Marla.

Something is happening here, but Lou doesn’t know what it is.

Why is it that creativity and individuality, which used to be anathema to the corporate world, are now in great demand? Did all those hard-nosed business people suddenly decide there was more to life than capitalism and give up chasing dollars so they could express their artistic soul?

Not exactly.

The exciting new land of creative opportunity is actually the tip of a very large economic iceberg. To understand these opportunities, we need to look beneath the surface.

Abundance, Asia, Automation – and America

In his book A Whole New Mind Daniel Pink argues that we’re ‘moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age’.  Economic advantage and professional success no longer come from the logical, analytical skills of knowledge workers but from creative, conceptual, and relationship skills. So the lawyers, accountants and MBAs who ruled the roost during the 20th century are now giving way to ‘artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers’.

Writing for a US audience, Pink identifies three fundamental reasons for this change:

  • Abundance – In a rich country like the USA nearly every market is over-supplied with functionally adequate, reasonably priced goods. Faced with such abundance, consumers have become more discerning and demanding. They now expect products to be beautiful – or funky, funny, sexy or otherwise distinctive. And producing distinctive products requires creativity.
  • Asia – ‘Made in China’ is old news. Western nations are used to seeing manufacturing jobs crossing the oceans to Asia. Now the same is happening to knowledge work such as computer programming, engineering, accounting, copy-editing and law. ‘The main reason,’ says Pink, ‘is money. In the United States, a typical chip designer earns about $7,000 per month; in India, she earns about $1,000.’ The results ‘are scaring the bejeezus out of software engineers and other left-brain professionals in North America and Europe’.
  • Automation – In 1987 chess grand master Garry Kasparov boasted ‘No computer can ever beat me’. In 1997 he was beaten by the IBM computer Deep Blue. More recently Kasparov said ‘I give us only a few years. Then they’ll win every match’. For Pink, Kasparov is symbolic of legions of knowledge workers such as lawyers, programmers, accountants and even doctors who now find at least part of their work taken over by machines and software. Why pay an attorney $200 an hour to produce a standard legal document you can obtain from a website for a fraction of the price? According to Pink ‘Any job that depends on routines – that can be reduced to a set of rules, or broken down into a set of repeatable steps – is at risk. If a $500-a-month Indian chartered accountant doesn’t swipe your comfortable accounting job, Turbo-Tax will’.

To survive in the Conceptual Age, Pink advises us to ask ourselves three questions:

1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
2. Can a computer do it for you?
3. Is what I‘m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

If your answer to question 1 or 2 is yes, or if your answer to question 3 is no, you’re in deep trouble.

Hey Lou! What’s up? Why the long face?

From this perspective, creativity isn’t a nice-to-have or a fun-to-do, it’s a matter of economic survival. Complex, challenging creative work is (so far) difficult to automate or outsource cheaply overseas. Creativity is what transforms utilitarian products into distinctive artifacts that are a pleasure to look at and a joy to use. It’s what makes people queue for days to get their hands on an iPhone, ignoring the clever friend who tells them they can get a ‘technically superior’ alternative for half the price.

No wonder those who can deliver creativity have the potential to reap financial rewards. And no wonder the brightest creative talents – people like Marla – are treated like rock stars.

The View from London

Earlier this year I attended the Innovation Edge conference in London, organised by the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). The theme, common to such diverse speakers as Tim Berners-Lee, Bob Geldof and the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was that creativity and innovation are critical to the future of the UK economy. Or as the NESTA Total Innovation report puts it in more academic terms:

In an increasingly competitive global economy, innovation – the ‘successful exploitation of new ideas’ – is regarded as the major source of competitive advantage for mature economies like the UK.

Like the US, the UK has seen other nations undermine its traditional strengths in manufacturing. Like the US, we like to see ourselves as a nation of innovators. The Creative Industries and the ‘Cool Britannia’ image have been important features of the New Labour government over the past decade. London is recognised as a leading creative centre, with nearly 20% of its workforce employed in the creative industries, which rival its financial services in economic importance.

One of the conference sessions I attended was called ‘Where the UK leads…but for how long?’ and focused on the challenges of maintaining our tradition of innovative industry in the face of worldwide competition. Like the US, we know we can’t take creative pre-eminence for granted.

Bottom line: if we carry on like Lou, we too will be screwed.

From ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’

On the face of it, the idea of focusing on the sexy creative work while shipping routine production overseas might be appealing to Westerners with a creative bent. Appealing but dangerous. Last year a Fast Company article about China’s New Creative Class challenged the idea that the Chinese will be happy to ‘stamp out a widget, or knock off a DVD’ while the West leads the world in creativity.

China is not content to serve as factory to the globe. Call it economic foresight, or cultural pride, but despite the stratospheric growth of its economy – 10.7% last year – China knows that cheap labor alone can’t sustain the boom. While a flurry of activity (and, yes, a government five-year plan) has stressed scientific and technological innovation, look a little closer and you’ll see that creativity in art and industry – in design, fashion, media, and the like – is fast becoming a driving national mission.

That was certainly the impression I got from the stunning China Design Now exhibition at London’s V&A Museum – a glittering showcase of graphic design, fashion and architecture in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although there was plenty of evidence of Western and Japanese influence, there were also many startling and memorable works stamped with a distinctive Chinese identity.  We’ve heard a lot about China’s unfolding economic potential, but what struck me about the exhibition was the vast cultural wealth China has to draw on as it rediscovers its pre-revolutionary heritage, which should be a rich source of inspiration for its modern creatives.

In a recent book Michael Keane argues that Chinese government and business leaders are now focused on replacing ‘Made in China’ with ‘Created in China’:

A great new leap forward is imminent. The ‘world factory’ is no longer the default setting for development. China aspires to be a serious contender for the spoils of the global cultural and service economies.
(Created in China)

Keane stresses that there are significant barriers to innovation in the Chinese economy and political system. So Western industry currently enjoys a creative head start, reflected in the fact that of the new Olympic buildings on show at China Design Now, only one was designed by Chinese architects. But given that China has signaled its creative ambitions, it might be rash to bet against it realising them long term. And China is not the only ambitious country in Asia.

A New Global Game

Wherever you go in the world, the pieces will be seen from a different angle, but globalisation means we’re all now playing the same game. Whether it’s Chess, Xiangqi, Shogi or a whole new board game depends on your point of view. No single country or culture gets to decide the rules. And collaboration may well be a more effective strategy than naked competition. Jack is coming along nicely as a player. Marla is approaching the status of a Grand Master (or Mistress).

Like it or not, work migrates to where currency and labour markets make it most efficient and profitable. You can only charge a premium for something that cannot be obtained easily and cheaply elsewhere. So if you want to avoid the ‘race to the bottom’ of a price war, it makes sense to develop those skills and qualities that are hardest to commodify – namely creativity and innovation.

Abundance, Asia and Automation are key drivers of change, but they are not the only causes. Others include the development of digital technology, which facilitates quick and easy creation and distribution of ‘virtual’ products, and the internet, which enables collaboration over vast distances. The result is the emergence of a new creative economy – which we’ll look at more closely in the next post.

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

Hosted by poet and creative coach Mark McGuinness, The 21st Century Creative podcast helps you succeed as a creative professional amid the demands, distractions, and opportunities of the 21st century.

Each episode features insights from Mark and interviews with outstanding creators – including artists, writers, performers, commercial creatives, directors, producers, entrepreneurs and other creative thought leaders.

Guests include Steven Pressfield, Scott Belsky, Jocenlyn K. Glei, Joanna Penn and Michael Bungay Stanier.

Responses to this Post


  1. I love the subtitle of A Whole New Mind:

    Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

    Reading that book was a wake up call for me. It’s a whole new world with creative jobs being much more in demand.

    Fortunately, based on the book, there are ways to increase creativity. Creativity doesn’t seem to be something that you’re born with.

  2. Mark,

    You get extra cool points for having “guiness” in your name 🙂

    But seriously, I think you’re right about creativity being not just a “good idea” but an absolute necessity for economic survival in today’s world.

    Heck, even some “low level” creative jobs like article writing, content creation, etc are being outsourced to asia for little money…

    Makes ya think…

  3. Great work, Mark. I’m really looking forward to the official launch!

  4. Great article, lots of food for thought.

    I think it is interesting, at least from my experience, that the UK school system is set up to beat creativity out of kids. Creative day-dreaming kids are seen as disruptive, they want a group of sheep-like followers who will grow to be good little citizens and be told what to do.

    Then we grow to adulthood and find out that day-dreamers are an increasingly important part of being competitive

  5. Mark,
    I am thrilled to see you, Brian and Tony creating these videos and articles. I am so there with what you are teaching and sharing. Kudos.

    Having been a creative, right-brained person all my life. I am loving the validation of my innate skills and traits after so many years of being treated as “less than” because I didn’t fit the linear-thinking mold that was considered the norm.

    I have been coaching what I term Creative Multipreneurs for a couple of years now and will happily refer my peeps to this blog. I am sure they, too, will be thrilled to realize and own that our time has come.

    Creatively Yours,

  6. Hi everyone, thanks for the great feedback. We’ve got plenty more where this came from – hope you’ll stay tuned…

  7. Great article. I saw this site while following @skellie on Twitter. I look forward to more thoughts, insight, and experiential commentary. Thanks!

  8. Outsourcing article writing to the cheapest bidder is a mistake. I’ve seen (and had to correct) such writing and I can’t begin to explain to you the quantity of pure drivel those sources produce. You might be saving a buck now, but it’ll cost you in the long run in the form of annoyed readers, lack of quality links and the general perception of you as a peddler of inferior content.

    That said, creativity is indeed “economic priority number one.” Great clip!

    • I think you haven’t got actual reasons for outsourcing yet. Its not just buck saving, actually absence of pool of intellectuals is one primary reason. Over the period US gathered intellectuals from all over the world (to a a great extends from Asia, Germany etc) now each nations emerged and captivating their potentials. So do not think westeners are the only intellects who have creativity! Even the projects and products wholly built in western countries are totally crap. Also, to have really innovative ideas do not require abundant of investments.

  9. One could look at what you’ve written and feel hopelessly depressed about the future and its potential economic threats for those who continue to do things the “old-fashioned way.”

    Or, one could take the optimistic approach and feel excited about the creative tsunami that is destined to surge across the U.S. and the world in the coming years.


  10. Creativity and innovation is key in being able to change one’s business model and also maintain/increase retention of customer relationships.

    Usually its not even the ability to be creative but a lack of processes that promote creativity that undermine our abilities to churn out innovative thoughts. Obviously people aren’t engaged in the most innovative thinking when they are doing repetitive, mind numbing tasks.

    The key place where people need help is in how to identify these inhibitory processes and reorganize their environment into one that allows them to outsource certain things while focusing on their core abilities.

  11. The key place where people need help is in how to identify these inhibitory processes and reorganize their environment into one that allows them to outsource certain things while focusing on their core abilities.

    Azam, you’ve nailed it on the head right there.

  12. Great series, and about dang time! I wrote in “Little Shifts,” (Sourcebooks, 2004) about creating a vital connection to the imagination. I thought it was pretty subversive — getting people to use not only their minds, but their creative minds! Now, multiple streams of thought are converging and what I call the collective imagination is really flowering. And one very cool thing about a need for creativity and collaboration is that each person’s unique contribution is welcomed. So the innovator steps ahead in their realm just by digging deep into their own self-expression. What a world. What a time. Keep it coming, people!
    Suzanna Stinnett

  13. Robyn Boyer says:

    Kudos to the exalting of creativity, to making it the edge for tomorrow’s economic success. BUT, Lateral Action and friends seem a celebration of self, of individual accomplishment. Who’s going to help those less endowed? While the gifted race ahead with their next brilliant idea, think of the millions left behind. The hungry. The uneducated. The unhealthy. The lost. Where does social responsibility come in or is that too Old School, too left brained?

  14. Robyn, excellent comment and important questions.

    If I may, let me answer you with a question in return.

    Given the complexity and magnitude of the social and humanitarian challenges you bring up, what type of people will be best suited to come up with innovative solutions? Seems to me that these problems are a great example of things that can’t be solved by old-school thinking (or they wouldn’t remain such huge problems).

    Yes, we’ve focused on economic and personal achievement issues thus far, but we’re only a week and a half in. Stick with us. 🙂

  15. I think I have only now understood what Lateral Action will be about.

    I only fear that maybe you are too ahead of your time for what you are saying here (and the possible future content) is hitting so many nails perfectly, and at the same time.

    Creativity has always been the ‘other side’ of a person. Especially here in Pakistan, you are a Doctor first, then an amateur guitarist. Or an MBA banker by day, a painter by hobby. Creativity or the ability to think laterally (domain name ‘now’ rocks! 🙂 ) is always considered a tool in the arsenal of your degrees, plans and charts. About time creativity takes center stage!

    I hope that you guys don’t end up shunning all ‘functional’ operators, sort of a pendulum swingin way too much on the other side. Form does follow function, no?

    I mean, Lou wears a long face, probably ‘only’ coz someone drew him like that. 😛

  16. Robyn – You are absolutely right that the emergence of the creative economy raises important ethical issues, and this won’t be the last time they are discussed on Lateral Action. However, I don’t think they are as cut and dried as your comment suggests.

    Firstly, there’s a lot more to creativity than being ‘gifted’ and having ‘brilliant ideas’. When you look at the actual process (as we will) it involves an awful lot of dedication and hard work. Similarly, while there’s a place for ‘celebration of self, of individual accomplishment’, creativity is often the result of collaboraton, and therefore a group accomplishment.

    Secondly, I don’t believe social responsibility is a zero sum game, in which the success of some means that millions are necessarily ‘left behind’. I would agree with Brian that this is one area where we are very much in need of creative solutions. And I personally know several creative entrepreneurs who are using their creative and business skills for social ends. They call it ‘social entrepreneurship’.

    Momekh – Poor Lou, we’ve given him a hard time, haven’t we? I don’t think he’s inherently uncreative, he just went along with the pressure to play the corporate game and now it’s changing.

    ‘Form does follow function, no?’ – Yes! Hence the ‘action’ in Lateral Action. Pink makes some very interesting points about the evolving nature of what he calls ‘knowledge work’. e.g. if you are a doctor and a lot of the technical aspect of your work is automated by technology, it frees you up to focus on your relationship with your patients and support them in their healing process. Or if you are a lawyer and computers automate the process of churning out routine legal documents, you have more time to research and tell the story of your case and devise creative solutions to legal problems.

  17. Robyn Boyer says:

    Brian and Mark,

    Thank you for respecting my concerns. I know that the creative process is as much about hard, iterative work as it is inspiration and I do not doubt that the “way-aheads,” the leaders, thinkers and doers will be critical contributors to the social/global challenges we all face. I count myself in that crowd but as a decades-long laborer in the fields of political and social change I can tell you that creativity, by its nature, is about change and that most people fear change and will cling to the status quo even when its crashing all around them. Like the work you guys and Seth Godin are doing, creative tribes must be willing to combine talents around identified goals or needs and apply the collective wisdom and energy to solutions. Whatever the problem. Technology now enables that in a way that wasn’t possible before. Please know I appreciate and welcome what you are developing with Lateral Action and am hopeful that good will come of it.

  18. This is awesome. I have always thought creativity is somewhat natural to a few people. I would love to see if it can be ‘learnt’. Also considering the fact that non-creative people are usually less enthusiastic as well, how can their minds be manipulated to fetch some out-of-da-box ideas. I have talked about creative-time-management (the pdf) in my aperiodic viewsletter, i would soon tell my readers about “Lateral Action”.

    Eagerly waiting for a lot of action…

  19. Robyn – thanks for your thoughtful comments and for raising some important issues. In fact, I’m delighted that several themes have been raised in the comments that we’ll be exploring in future posts.

  20. Great post to kick off this site (following those great animations, by the way)! CREATIVITY RuLeS!!! In a world where innovations come to light, it IS the creative types who determine primary AND alternative ways to use those products and services. MBA types just don’t get it. What is needed are sites like this and Accidental Creative who discuss the rhythms of creativity, how to keep it close at hand without thinking it always has to be there, but most important of all – creativity CAN NOT be outsourced.

  21. Yes, so many countries see their creativity as the key to their success. At The Creativity Centre we take creativity very seriously and yes I agree it can be taught!

  22. Brilliant article Mark – consumately research and articulated. Agree with broad brush argument – but still concerned that the ‘creative nation’ approach, be it NESTA/UK government or China is a lot about propaganda, and perhaps it’s all cold war again, but this time the space race is the race to be “the world’s creative hub” (how this would be defined, who knows).

    The only serious big growth area in creative sector, in many places outside of London at least, is not in the ‘sexy’ creative jobs like writing, acting, film making but in computer software and web development/design.

    Yes we all need to be creative in buisness – and yes we’re in danger of everything being outsourced to BRIC territories or wherever, but our animators, film makers, games developers, web designers, copywriters and researchers are in, I think, far more grave danger of this than our accountants and lawyers who offer a more localised and tangible value proposition than many creative services.

  23. Thanks Susi. I share your concerns about propaganda – John Tusa has a brilliant phrase when he says that the word creativity has become ‘political margarine to spread approvingly and inclusively over any activity with a non-material element to it’. Attempts to claim creativity for any country or culture are doomed to failure. Creativity thrives on collaboration not exclusivity. Interesting point about the localised services of accountants and lawyers vs the outsourcing of creative services – one more reason to keep our creatives on their toes!

  24. I agree. One of the frustrations I face is that the world is filled with highly gifted people who happen not to have benefitted from our education system and who are therefore often excluded from making a contribution. May I suggest that you look at this, it’s inspiring:

  25. Thanks Patrick, we’re big fans of Ken Robinson at Lateral Action.

  26. Lovin what’s happening here – can’t wait to see what comes next. As a highly creative child of a multi-entrepreneurial father I performed my first act of social entrepreneurialism in 1989. At the time I was tutoring adult ESL students with grade school readers because no materials written for adults existed. Eighteen years later, the three books of stories by students, for students that I published are still being used. Now these kinds of solutions actually have a name!

    While I resisted having the creativity sucked out of me by our school system, I was dumb enough to listen to the advice of the day and gave up acting & painting and generally being creative when I left high school. While I’ve had a good run in business management for 20 years I have also felt completely un-authentic and unfulfilled.

    I am now actively applying my creativity in solving business problems in achieving the change they want – in my own way.

    I have worked in two industries which no longer exist due to new technology and outsourcing but agree wholeheartedly that creativity cannot be outsourced (but it can definitely be taught and trained, like a muscle).

    Keep up the great work gentlemen!

  27. Thanks Jolaine – welcome to the creativity gym!

  28. Mark,

    Fantastic post! I first met Pink when he spoke at a conf in Ohio I attended on behalf of a client. His insight was astounding. You do a great job of expanding the concepts and making them practical.

    I was in China for about a month in ’07 and early ’08. The Chinese are not yet skilled at creating visual and emotionally appealing products that appeal to a Western world. But if you see all that they have created that is artistic for themselves over previous centuries, the notion that they may eventually make the transition to connect with the Western world is unsettling.

    Your entire post should be a call to action for us.



  29. Thanks Shane, glad you liked it and interesting to hear your perspective from having visited China. Interesting times indeed …

  30. Creativity trivialized, its meaning distorted, warped. Capitalist minds dazed as they are carried along by the immense momentum built up by burgeoning capitalist system. Hurriedly trying to push the brakes but to no avail. An imminent crash ahead.

    You can not just put creativity into the place of finely-tuned productivity. Dress-up creativity with the suit of a hard-nosed businessman. Creativity will simply replace hard-nosed productivity.

  31. chaosnet3, you just nailed the entire premise of this blog with your last sentence. Thank you for stopping by.

  32. China has an interesting economy, especially in comparison to ours (the UK) or America’s. The privately-owned banks here create figures from thin air as deposits and then demand these sums be paid to them with interest, for their private profit. These are called loans, but they are of course no such thing. We don’t seem to have a word in the language for what they actually are. In China, I’m learning, the state-owned banks create figures from thin air as deposits and don’t demand them back. I gather they don’t grant this to everyone, they just do it for businesses. There may or may not be words for this process in Chinese but the consequences are apparent; China prospers, we tank.


  33. Point is (I realise I should have mentioned!!), any talk about China which doesn’t grasp and allow for this fundamental difference to the way we do things is out of context. It’s a whole different ball game over there, and it shouldn’t be.

    BB (cursing the lack of editing facilities here and my bad memory both).

  34. Kruse – Agreed that we should assume that China and other Eastern countries are playing the same game as the West. You might enjoy the article Eric Poettschacher wrote for us on that theme:

  35. My belated point was actually that the two economies, the West’s and China’s, are very different animals indeed. I’ll go check out the article anyway, thanks.


  36. Very well said and fruitful post! You have put ‘left brain work’ and ‘computer programming’ in the same basket, but programming is also an outlet to creativity. Even today, computer software architecture, which is mostly right-brained, is also increasingly being done elsewhere other than the United States. It ‘cannot be done by a computer by itself’ but it is still ‘getting outsourced’. We can safely say, if we can do it on a computer, then someone else in another far East area could do it. So I would add one more question to the three questions you have given: “Is it work that can be done on a computer?” Then a person sitting in another geography can probably do it. We shouldnt forget that the right brains in the East are as ‘creative’ as the right brains in the West, they just lack the right opportunities and connections.

  37. Hi Mohan – I’m not a coder myself, but would certainly agree that programming can be a very creative endeavour. I don’t think all of it is, necessarily – I guess it’s a bit like writing, which can be either left- or right-brained (or both) depending on the subject and the writer.

    My point is that a lot of the programming that used to be done in richer countries is being undercut by cheaper work of the same standard in other places, so places like the US, UK and Japan are having to look to creativity for competitive advantage.

    We shouldnt forget that the right brains in the East are as ‘creative’ as the right brains in the West, they just lack the right opportunities and connections.

    Absolutely. None of this is a matter of innate talent – it’s the result of economic conditions, infrastructure and networks.

  38. you are a very talented writer and those are extremely useful pieces ,the lessons are great , i wanna know if i am really creative or not , how can i do that?and is a creative career something that i should go for??

  39. reading the reviews on John Kenneth Galbraith’s book ‘The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth For Our Time’ .. the views expressed are spreading out .. witnessed by loads of similar expositions .. ubiquitously and universally .. making out people’s minds .. humanity’s next stage of evolution undergoing .. nevertheless it appears goes though aparently … a lagging period .. what’s brewed underneath .. as yet to come out

    or at least .. what national presses .. led us to believe .. corporatism thrives .. all is fine in the Kingdom of Danimarkia ..

    business as usual ..

    one last-ditch effort .. a push .. a kick .. a blow .. corporations .. the capitalist system .. the market economy .. will be transformed from within ..

    a coup d’ etat .. rather than a head-on confrontation .. trenched warfare .. takes longer .. wasting precious time ..

    snatch the tools from their hands .. render them useless .. in their own game .. before they drive us out of our wits ..

    humanity needs the infrastructure, built solely on its own painstaking efforts, intact .. no bloody noses .. just hard-nosed bleeding .. by a blow on their pig-snouts .. can offer the hankies

    come to think of it .. though not explicitly telling .. that is already happening .. in every office .. the world over

  40. My husband and i felt absolutely peaceful that Jordan managed to conclude his studies through the ideas he got using your weblog. It’s not at all simplistic just to always be giving freely tips and hints which usually the others have been selling. And we all acknowledge we have the website owner to appreciate for this. Those explanations you have made, the easy site menu, the relationships you will assist to engender – it is many remarkable, and it’s leading our son in addition to us do think the idea is interesting, and that is especially vital. Many thanks for the whole thing!

  41. Mark, this is really engaging, I’m a 25 year old artist, and I need this type of foresight into the creative world. Thanks.