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Will Creativity and Innovation Be Stifled by the Bailout?

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SimplyForties is a 47-year old single mother of a college-aged son who is navigating her way through midlife and documenting it at SimplyForties, where she writes about personal finance, relationships, grown children, the environment and social responsibility. She lives in a small rural town in far west Texas where she tries to live a better life every day.

"We are going to see a huge deflation of innovation, creativity, and responsibility, paid for by the stimulus package, IMO."

I recently received this Tweet from someone and I've been seeing versions of it a lot lately. It is not my intention to debate about the bailout. I don't see either side winning any converts and its efficacy is something only future generations will be able to decide.

What I would like to discuss is the implication of this statement and all the others like it, which is that creativity and innovation are only fueled by economics. My understanding of the baseline of this idea is that we have a huge problem and, if we throw money at it, we will not need to figure out how to solve our problem or to avoid its reoccurrence. Be that as it may, are people only innovative and creative during an economic downturn?

I have to admit that I have argued a version of this myself when I wrote about lower gas prices being a mixed blessing. In that article I voiced my concern that falling gas prices would stifle alternative energy production. Admittedly, gas prices and the Big Three automakers notwithstanding, there are still lots of people out there working in this area.

I believe people are creative and innovative because they are creative and innovative people. They see a problem and are intrigued with trying to find a solution. I was in the IT field for many years, still am in a freelance way, and every IT person I've ever known has a thing for problem solving. We figure out the resolution to a problem because we have a need to do so. I'm just as driven to find a resolution for IT problems presented by friends and relatives as I am by those presented by paying clients. Being an inquisitive person, I waste countless hours in my workshop coming up with perfect solutions to a myriad of challenges; many of which I could just as easily resolve by going to the store or picking up the phone. I do it because I like to solve problems and don't like to ask for help; not because I'm broke.

At any moment there are countless numbers of inventors in their basements or their little shops tinkering away at solutions to problems. Do they hope to strike it rich? Probably. Will they stop inventing if they do? Probably not. Dean Kamen, inventor of an all-terrain wheelchair and the first insulin pump, is a very wealthy man and yet, among other things, is currently working on a generator and a water purification system to be used in third world countries. Presumably he is inspired not by money but by the needs of others. George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company and inventor of numerous photography related technologies, had a laboratory built in his mansion in Rochester, New York, and continued to refine photography and photographic equipment until he was in his seventies. His invention of the "Brownie", a portable camera for children, in 1937 came well after he was a very rich man.

I've never read an interview about an artistic person, be they painter, dancer, writer, film maker, etc., who failed to say that it wasn't about the money. Did they hope to make a living? Certainly. Would they do it regardless? Yes.

The idea that innovation and creativity are driven solely by economics really bothers me. Am I missing something? What do you think?

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Posted on March 6, 2009.

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8 Responses to “Will Creativity and Innovation Be Stifled by the Bailout?”

  1. kosmo @ The Casual Observer says:

    I’ve started writing lately, after about a 10 year layoff (in other words, I stopped when I graduated college). Yeah, it would be nice to earn a few bucks in “mad money”, but it also just feels good to write, instead of having all the words jumbled up inside my head. Sometimes the words can get into traffic jams, which can cause migraine headaches with all the honking and yelling. Better to let them spill out onto paper and drive other people crazy.

    In today’s world, there has never been a better opportunity for people to reach an audience. Anyone can throw together a website for free and use it to share their creative work. Can you imagine Lazy trying to build up his audience in the 1970s? Much different startup costs.

    IT people are forced to be problem solvers. You can’t sweet talk a computer program into fixing itself – you actually need to debug it :)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kosmo. I think you’re right, it’s a perfect time to try something new! Congratulations and good luck with your writing.

  3. You’ll always win me over, mentioning Rochester and George Eastman! ;)

    I think we will see a rise in innovation, but not because of the bailout. Tough times bring out innovative people. People will do and try thing that they never would have when things were secure. Not everyone – some people will be too fearful in this time to take any chances. But the real risk-takers will shine for a few years, now.

  4. Chad @ Sentient Money says:

    We might see a lack of innovation in banking, due to the bailout (which maybe a good thing), but I doubt we see a lack of it in other industries because of the bailout. Laid off people have plenty of time on their hands to come up with the next big thing. Plus, they are usually very motivated.

  5. Thanks, Stephanie and Chad, for your comments. I’m expecting a huge influx of creativity and innovation and am looking forward to it!

  6. Being a patent attorney, I am a frequent visitor to the world of innovation. I can tell you that money drives a lot of it, particularly when you think about the investment that is required to transition from invention to product. Anytime the government interferes in the free market as it is doing now, innovation is stifled.

  7. Shadox says:

    If anything, this global crisis is going to spark a boom in innovation. Many a successful business has come out of people rethinking their career paths after being laid off, and deciding to go for a business of their own.

    In addition, Americans are finally starting to save money – with personal savings rate reaching 5% last month, and climbing. Money saved is money that will be used for investment purposes (whether through bank lending or stock investing), which will help to support all those seek funds to finance their innovation.

    Cheer up. Things are quite as bad as people make them out to be. Seriously. This too shall pass.

  8. I’m sure money is the reason for a lot of inventors and artists alike – everyone should be paid for their services, that’s just the nature of the beast. However, as a screenwriter, I can tell you that it’s not always about the money. I haven’t sold anything yet, though I’ve had some interest in one or two scripts. I keep writing because I like to tell stories. Eventually I’ll sell and make some money, but in my opinion, art is a great way to express yourself. I learn a little more about myself, how far I’m willing to push myself, with each new script I write. So my writing was never initially about the money. But, I did desire to share my work with others, so when I discovered I could do that and make a little cash while I was at it, then I began to realize that money is a factor in everything we do.

    But, I disagree with the idea that creativity and innovation are simply a product of economic downtime. History is full of innovative people who came up with things during decent economic times. I think if creativity and innovation are in a decline it is because, as a society, we’ve gotten lazier and entitled, not to mention our insatiable need for instant gratification. Invention and art take time. Nevertheless, people are creative. Anything is possible when you put your mind to it.

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