Over the past decades, creativity and innovation have become critical skills in unleashing novel ideas and inventions to keep up with the global economy.

When a country creates and markets new technology, the whole world will gravitate towards it. Isn’t it mind-boggling that a couple of decades ago, touchscreen technology was only featured in science fiction films?

But now, that is how most people all around the globe interface with technology — when using smartphones, tablets, computer monitors and game devices, to name a few.

Science and technology have evolved tremendously, that as the discussions on “Internet of Things” put it, the new rule of the future is: “anything that can be connected, will be connected”.

In other words, with the rapid growth of technology, we simply cannot afford to be left behind. Now, several questions may come to mind. What are the determinants of creativity and innovation? And what can we learn from the most creative and innovative?

Looking at the massive global impact made by the innovation’s powerhouse Silicon Valley, a cultural norm that can be identified is tolerance for failure.

As start-ups require risk-taking, tolerance for failure creates the confidence to try and take the risk of exploring the potential of the invention. Silicon Valley also seizes the culture of not being afraid to “disrupt the status quo”.

Based on the Global Innovation Index Report 2016, Switzerland was named the most innovative country in the world. Switzerland puts education as its greatest capital, fixating on both academic achievement and vocational training, besides putting focus on patent applications and cutting-edge technology.

So, what does it actually mean to be creative and innovative?

As we are well aware, there is no innovation without creativity, as they go hand in hand. While creativity means producing new ideas, innovative refers to the implementation of that creativity.

Besides bringing beneficial change to a person, creativity and innovation also create commercial value, turning innovative technology into economic success.

Acknowledging the importance for Malaysia to vigorously and perpetually involve in the global race of innovation, the government announced the National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (NSTIP) in 2013.

It aims to assist Malaysia’s path to an innovation economy by 2020.

Though measures to promote innovation have been carried out by the government, through the likes of financial incentives, public-private partnerships and research and development infrastructures, these merely serve as catalysts to form a vibrant innovation ecosystem.

Steve Jobs once stated boldly, as he was returning to Apple after more than a decade of absence, “The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting, it is to innovate its way out of its current predicament”.

Apple is among many other successful companies that prioritise innovation as a key success factor. However, are great innovators born to innovate? Or is it a skill that can be learnt?

If Malaysia were to breed top innovative minds like Jobs, what skills do we need to possess, and what needs to change?

The key essentials in creating an innovative mind are:

KNOWLEDGE: To continue to expand our knowledge base, to read and explore even in areas we do not usually read about;

DETAIL: To observe and use all of our senses in detail to absorb as much information as possible;

PROBLEM-SOLVING: To identify the problem, analyse and then pick the most innovative solution;

DESIGN THINKING: Collaborative and rapid idea generating skills, without judgment and focusing on gaining feedbacks and pivoting ideas, and

SYSTEMS THINKING: Skills to examine the interdependent structures of a dynamic system.

What about the most common innovation killers, impacting and curbing the growth of innovation in Malaysia?

Looking into our education system, and our culture in general, rote learning, one-way teaching and non-transactive learning may be the possible contributors.

Furthermore, we are still very much constrained by tradition and culture-bound thinking, where expressing ideas that conflict with the older generation or higher-ranked individuals are considered unacceptable.

We are relatively still lacking in open discussions and freedom in expressing our thoughts, which lead to limiting the improvement of knowledge and creativity.

In the light of that, our education system should be enhanced to introduce these skills for Malaysians even at an early age, for them to be cultivated fully.

However, this change of mindset and culture should also be supported by the older generation — to learn, relearn and, more importantly, to accept that change is crucial.

Reflecting on Malaysia and its creativity and innovation path, it is no doubt that the country has a very large room for improvement.

If we, as individuals and as a nation, have the keenest anxiety aroused by the advancement of innovation, then we should desire, and expect, the ability to compete with global innovative giants to propel Malaysia’s competitive edge and eventually to an innovation-led economy.

This article first appeared in New Straits Times, 27 September 2016.

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