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Solutions for a Creativity Crisis: Technological Disobedience
Andrea Kuszewski   Sep 23, 2010   The Rogue Neuron  

When you think of the ideal creative environment, what comes to mind? We may imagine a place where you have freedom of expression, a place that encourages breaking convention, somewhere that is abundant in resources that are readily accessible for innovative development of technology, and exposure to many different cultures for inspiration and collaboration.

So as you imagine this ultimate creative playground, does Cuba come to mind? From what we know of Cuba, especially since the embargo in the 1960s, it seems like anything but the ideal creativity-inspiring environment.

A Cuban-American artist and designer, Ernesto Oroza tells a different story, though. In an interview about his book, Technological Disobedience, he shows us how the people of Cuba, following the embargo, came together as a societal unit, overcoming their challenges through collaboration and innovation - their creativity being their savior. As a nation they flourished, and became a more innovative, creative society as a result of all the hardship they endured.

How is this possible, or even likely? For the last few years, we’ve been told that the most nurturing creative environments are freer, not more restrictive, and that stress and pressure to produce a specific product crushes creative insight. If this is true, then how do we explain the Cuban Creativity Phenomenon? As we face a Creativity Crisis in America, what can we learn from this example?

Before I answer these questions, let’s hear Ernesto’s description of Cuba during this time of both economic strain and creative growth. The following paragraphs are transcribed from the interview, which can be viewed here.

In the 1960s, when the Americans left Cuba, they took the engineers with them. So Fidel encouraged people to work with machines - and many people began to do their own repairs. This spawned a movement called National Association of Innovators and Rationalists.

In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a deep economic crisis known as “The Special Period In Time Of Peace”. As the crisis became more severe, the people’s creativity grew more powerful, and everywhere you looked, you saw solutions to the needs that people faced everyday in every aspect of life… transportation, children’s toys, clothing, food… everything was replaced by substitutes, provided by the people.

In ‘94-‘95 is when this movement became really visible. The state could no longer support its people- the stores were empty. This type of production spawned its own economy. The government was very aware that this crisis was going to be very complex, so they published a book by the army called The Book For The Family. It was a compilation of international publications, like Popular Mechanics and others. It had “simple fixes for electrical home appliances”, medical instructions, the use of botanicals, protection, and survival.

The book that Fidel published contained many of the projects that the army had been working on, to prepare them if Cuba was attacked by North America; he distributed the book to the entire public. Truly, the country was forced into a sort of survival mode. Given the harsh economic conditions, the lack of technology, products, no sources of income - one would expect a complete collapse of the spirit of the people, and for the heart of the country to begin to crumble, and ultimately, for creativity to wither. After all, we have seen research that shows how creativity is killed by restrictions, stress, and other limiting factors. Cuba in the 1990s pretty much looked like the worst possible environment for creativity and innovation.

However, that wasn’t the case - the opposite happened. The people flourished. Their creativity soared. A few years after that initial book was distributed, the government wanted to see how well those ideas resonated with the people, so they invited the public to send in their own ideas. The responses came flooding in - ideas for devices to charge batteries for hearing aids, how to make antennas out of tin trays, devices made from parts of broken washing machines that were turned into shoe-shiners, motorized bicycles… and many, many others. They took all of those ideas that the citizens sent in and put them into a book of its own, called With Our Own Efforts.

When placed in a situation where innovation was necessary, Ernesto said, “People think beyond the normal capabilities of an object, and try to surpass the limitations it imposes upon itself.” In this way, he describes their behavior as Technological Disobedience, or breaking all rules in which that product’s technology was intended (rule-breaking, like I’ve said before, is one of the hallmark traits of creativity).
While this is a heartwarming and amazing tale of resilience, courage, and collaboration, how do we explain why it happened, given these circumstances that seem less than ideal for creativity?

Several things are at work here.

First of all, we can look at the crisis situation itself. They faced lack of resources, stalled technology, no jobs or industry - so they had to make do with what they had. Basically, this put the whole country into survival mode, a large scale Gilligan’s Island, if you will. We often find that when people are put in life or death situations, they will do what they need to survive. In Cuba’s case, families needed products to help them live. Without jobs or income, they couldn’t exactly purchase items, and because of the collapsed industry, those items didn’t even exist in the country to be purchased anyhow. They had no choice but to innovate - using broken parts from out-dated electronics, found objects, whatever they could, in order to create the products they needed to survive.

Second, Fidel, either by stroke of genius or pure accident (most likely it was a little of both), saw the type of predicament that the people would be faced with as result of the embargo and put out that publication, The Book For The Family, which planted that seed of creativity. Sometimes all you need to get the creative vibes going is to get that first little seedling to start everything growing. Once they began to see alternate solutions to problems, as outlined in the book, they began looking at the problems in a completely different way.

This is similar to how people, once told the solution to Dunker’s Candle Problem, are suddenly able to solve subsequent creative tasks more successfully. Once your mind has broken through that barrier of Functional Fixedness, you are more open for creative insight. The Cuban government did this on a national level. By putting out that book, distributing it to every citizen, he gave them the solution to the candle problem. This started them thinking down a more creative path, even if it was primarily out of necessity to survive.

Which brings me to point number three: Stress and creativity. We’ve heard before that stress is bad for creativity; in fact, I’ve said that myself. Indeed, pressure to produce under strict guidelines, micromanaging people to death, kills creativity. If you look at Cuba, their government seemed pretty restrictive, and the pressure was enormous - to survive or not to survive. So why the increase in creativity, of all things?
It’s all in perception. How we view a problem has a tremendous impact on how successful we are in overcoming it. Take a typical stressful situation, such as losing your job. You could say that the stress of being unemployed could be depressing and stress-inducing, and thus kill any attempts at creativity. Understandable. However, if you see losing your job as freedom from the restrictions of your previous job, suddenly everything starts to look a little different. Instead of it being a negative, “I have no job,” it becomes a positive, “Now I am free to explore new things”.

When you look at the situation in Cuba, what you really had was a complete and total lift of all restrictions. The people had no jobs, no money, there was no industry - all things that would seem like restrictions, but they aren’t really when it comes to creativity. You need to have those kinds of limitations in order to get you thinking outside the box in the first place. What it did was force the people to think creatively, because they had no choice. They had to look around and say, “I need [these things], so I need to think of a way I can get them, using anything I can find in order to create them.”

Ernesto explained that once the Cuban people took apart that first fan (or washing machine, or blender), out of necessity to get at a needed part, they no longer saw that object in the same way. They didn’t see a fan, like a consumer would see one on a shelf. Instead, they saw all of the components that make a fan, and how they could be reassembled into other needed products. This flexibility in thinking, entertaining alternate possibilities to every problem, was a necessity to stay alive. Once they got into the habit of thinking that way, what started as creative problem-solving evolved into a complete mindshift of the Cuban society, and in essence, fueled the creative innovation of an entire country.

The best part about this entire story is how the creative mindshift spread. The entire population began to think more creatively about everything; it became a way of life. They took pride in their products, they bartered, shared with neighbors, and it spilled over into their arts culture as well. There is a thriving art community in Cuba, influenced greatly by the nation’s mindshift - first emerging as a means to survive, but transcending that need and defining a culture, one that proves to be on the rise as a significant influence on the rest of the world in the years to come.

If there is one thing that the U.S., as a very privileged nation, can learn from Cuba, it is that there is always another solution, another method of development, another possibility. If we face problems as a society, we can’t stay locked inside our rigid fortress, closing out any alternate solutions just because they may seem unconventional. Maybe as a country we need to suffer a little in order to push us to the point of seeing beyond the instruction booklet, and into a place where we can imagine endless and limitless solutions.

I will close with Ernesto’s words, in describing the Cuban people:

People were so pressured by the crisis - so constrained. Like a caged animal without food, that is made capable of jumping any barrier or wall. And in this way, they break all limitations - aesthetic, legal, economic, and this liberation is a moral liberation.

You can watch the entire interview with Ernesto Oroza here. His book is titled Technological Disobedience.

Andrea Kuszewski, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, lives in San Francisco and works as a researcher and manager with VORTEX Research Group. She investigates the neurocognitive factors behind human behavior.


Perhaps what we need is an oppressive Marxist government to destroy the economy and force us into survival mode. I’m not a conservative and I’m against the embargo but extremophiles blaming Cuba’s woes only on the embargo and not on their system of government is ingenuous at best.

Exactly. America is too restrained and controlling. Think of the quality control inspector that gets fired for doing his job. Think of the fox guarding the henhouse. Think of the research results that are skewed to show the efficacy of the drugs. Think of the statistics that are used to obfuscate the real facts. and so on, and so on.
Love your insight and analysis.

Fascinating.  Necessity is the mother of invention, or rather, the street finds it own use for things.  What seemed to me the critical point was not the repression, or the economic failure, but the rather the re-purposing of ordinary items.  Once a fan is no longer a fan, but a source of components, we can begin to create with it.

In that regard, American technology, pre-packaged, opaque, disposable, is entirely antithetical to innovation.  We’ve had a generation of people grow up with an essentially magical relationship with technological artifacts.  They an be manipulated and invoked, but not understood.  Maybe our elementary schools should have disassembly classes.

Don’t know enough about Cuba or its biomedical, however America treated certain banana republics, in C. and S. America, pretty badly. That might be to act as a champion of the obvious, though.
But look for a moment at the bright side: if Obama is re-elected we have some sort of an unknown-at-this-time chance to mend fences in Latin America; with the Bush-league ditherers we go nowhere. And does anyone with more than an inch of forehead think the Libertarian Party, or some other ‘3rd’ party can grow itself large enough to make a difference? We are stuck with our crude electoral politics for the duration; that is elementary.
Obama has got to be re-elected, such is square one. Let’s remain calm, think it over—and yes, DO—let’s do it one step at a time.

More & more it appears we need a defense tax, if we are going to play the nationalist game, which we are playing, it has to be paid for in a manner that demonstrates those who have much to defend are paying for the dirty business of destroying those in other nations who are considered less valuable than we are.
Again, square one.

Andrea -

Thanks so much for sharing. This is the spirit that still is inherently here in Eastern Germany. Some twenty years ago the former GDR crashed and with it was the great creativity driven by the shortage of everything in life hidden by the overflow of consume.

Cuba is probably the last living role model of the true creative environment. We all get really really creative when we lack something, we truly want:-)

A crazy vision I have set up back in 2008 after seeing what is possible in Finland. In the midst of almost nothing, just water, trees and cold amidst the Finnish mainland.

In the context with what happens in Cuba it doesn’t sound that crazy at all. (creativity is not based on technology it is based on interconnecting of various creative minds through conversation, trial & error, and creating the future we want to see and experience)

Awesome and let’s learn from Cubans and others.

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