Nicola Ulibarri’s first book has been published by Cambridge University Press. Photo by Patricia DeVoe
Nicola Ulibarri’s ‘Creativity in Research’ offers direction
By Mimi Ko Cruz
In her first book, “Creativity in Research: Cultivate Clarity, Be Innovative and Make Progress in your Research Journey” (Cambridge University Press, 2019), Nicola Ulibarri argues that academic life in the 21st century is not structured to foster creativity.
“Compare a day in your life to one of Charles Darwin’s,” the assistant professor of urban planning and public policy instructs. “When he wasn’t sailing around the world in HMS Beagle, Darwin spent only a few hours in dedicated work. The bulk of his day was spent writing letters, going on walks, resting on the sofa, or eating with his family. This is exactly the setup that people who study creativity would espouse: leaving plenty of downtime for reflection and an idle mind. Part of generating novel ideas is absorbing information and then coming up with new associations between things you have assimilated.”
Ulibarri and her co-authors Amanda E. Cravens, Anja Svetina Nabergoj, Sebastian Kernbach and Adam Royalty, provide guidance on developing creativity for people doing research or mentoring researchers. Their book presents key abilities that underlie creative research practice through a combination of scientific literature on creative confidence, experiential exercises, and guided reflection.
Ulibarri said “Creativity in Research” is based on a curriculum developed at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.
“By focusing attention on how research happens as well as its outputs, you can increase your ability to address research challenges and produce the outputs you care about,” she says. “Simultaneously, you may also transform your emotional relationship with your work, replacing stress and a harsh inner critic with a more open and emotionally empowered attitude. Whatever your background, discipline, or career stage, this book can give you concrete tools to gain clarity, be innovative, and make progress in your research journey.”
She adds that when she started her doctoral journey at Stanford, she took a class on design thinking and learned “a set of tools used for human-centered design and innovation in product design, healthcare, K-12 education, etc.”
Therefore, along with her fellow researchers, Ulibarri says, “we realized these same techniques could be used for innovation in scholarly research, so we developed a workshop curriculum to teach Ph.D. students at Stanford. In the decade since, we’ve been teaching these workshops around the world. However, the demand has consistently been higher than our bandwidth, so we wanted to write a book to share the curriculum and insights with a broader audience.”
The book synthesizes research on the abilities underlying creativity from across a wide array of academic literature and presents the literature in a manner tailored to research practice, Ulibarri explains. It also provides exercises and techniques for readers to try, allowing them to practice new approaches to build creativity in their research. It focuses on emotional, cognitive and behavioral aspects of research practice, thus treating research holistically. And, it encourages readers to use mindfulness, reflection, and self-awareness as a foundation for creativity in research while optimizing their own individual approach.
The following is an excerpt from “Creativity in Research”:
Creativity is the heart of research. No matter your field, scholarly work prizes novelty and innovation: identifying new problems worth solving, explaining unexplained phenomena, solving problems that haven’t been solved before, producing new interpretations of important cultural or historical events, or developing new methods to study the world. While creativity is a nebulous construct (kind of a “you know it when you see it” thing), it is generally defined as the ability to produce new ideas or solutions.This generation of novel ideas is the basis for innovation, so to be a truly innovative researcher, you need to be creative…
Unfortunately, though, modern research conditions don’t support optimal creativity, so many scholars are not achieving their full creative potential.
First, many researchers are never explicitly taught how to be creative, which means that most learn about creativity by trial and error. Graduate students don’t tend to receive instruction in creativity as part of their training. A lucky few PhD students might learn the skills to manage creativity from mentors; a few exceptional courses also cover these skills. Some scholars with hobbies or previous careers in “creative” fields like music, fiction writing, software design, or printmaking may bring those lessons to their research. But these are the exceptions, rather than the rule. The majority are self-taught creative scholars: Over multiple years and multiple projects, researchers develop an appreciation for creativity and tailor their own techniques. Most of the time, this learning is left to the learner to figure out, meaning it becomes more sporadic, difficult, and stressful than it has to be. Developing creative skills or strategies from scratch — under pressure because you need them — is about as fun and useful as reinventing the wheel because you are stuck somewhere without transportation. You get yourself wherever you need to go, which is the immediate goal, but perhaps you later realize that you could have done it with a bit less effort.
Second, academic life in the twenty-first century is not structured to foster creativity. Compare a day in your life to one of Charles Darwin’s. When he wasn’t sailing around the world in HMS Beagle, Darwin spent only a few hours in dedicated work. The bulk of his day was spent writing letters, going on walks, resting on the sofa, or eating with his family.This is exactly the setup that people who study creativity would espouse: leaving plenty of downtime for reflection and an idle mind. Part of generating novel ideas is absorbing information and then coming up with new associations between things you have assimilated. Activities where your mind isn’t focused on a particular task, like going on a walk or daydreaming, help shift your mind into an idle state where generating and associating ideas is easier.In fact, you can even distract your conscious mind with easy tasks like brushing your teeth — which probably explains why so many people say they have great ideas in the shower!
But, if you’re like most modern scholars, your daily reality is not creative idle time, but being busy. In an industry that was once considered relatively low-stress, surveys of academics point to increasing levels of stress, “identifying both mounting workload and an increasing pressure both to publish and acquire external research funding as significant contributory factors to academic distress.” It is increasingly hard to land a full-time job after completing the PhD, pressuring graduate students to come up with stellar research questions, publish a lot, and become well-known scholars just to land a job. Successfully doing this requires significantly different abilities than succeeding in coursework (where a problem is handed to students). The emotional investments are potentially greater, too, given the passions that lead many students to pursue a PhD in the first place. And once you do find that coveted job, if you are one of the lucky ones, surveys suggest that it’s more difficult to obtain tenure now than it was ten years ago.This leads to an unhealthy “publish or perish” mindset — especially among pre-tenure faculty.
What this adds up to is a focus on productivity and outcomes. Open any publication or blog providing advice for academics and you’ll find guidance on how to write regularly, manage your time better, or work more efficiently so you can produce more and/or maintain work-life balance. But rarely do you see advice telling academics to slow down and revisit how they are doing their research.
Ulibarri is an interdisciplinary scholar who uses political, social, and technical perspectives to evaluate the sustainability of environmental planning and decision-making practices. She investigates the interaction between people, infrastructure, and the environment, with a focus on redesigning planning, permitting and operations to meet more diverse social and environmental needs. She holds a Ph.D. in environment and resources from Stanford and has been a member of the School of Social Ecology’s faculty since 2016.