10 Characteristics of Highly Creative Environments


Contrary to what the contemporaries in Silicon Valley may have you believe, geography is not dead. Place matters. It matters now more than ever before. The expansion of digital technology has made our environment more, not less, relevant. Every day, corporations are paying large amounts of money for workshops designed to help their employees “think more creatively”. It’s a noble investment but one that will prove futile if the environment in which they work is not receptive to new ideas. The fact is creativity is always a response to our environment. It unfolds at the intersection of person and place. The success of Silicon Valley can’t be dwindled down to a replicable formula. It’s a culture. And if we want to cultivate creative cultures, we must begin by examining the characteristics of highly creative environments. Below I list 10 surprising characteristics of highly creative environments.

irresistible_people1. Creative environments celebrate risk.

For many corporations, this seems entirely counterintuitive. Think about it. We only hire applicants for jobs once we’ve determined that they’re the perfect fit. We only assign tasks to those who have already demonstrated that they can successfully perform them. We have a tendency to treat risk as something to be avoided at all costs, or at least reduced to a minimum. But the truth is, risk and creativity are inseparable. Creativity always comes at a price. Some people and places are simply more willing to pay that price than others.

2. Creative environments tolerate uncertainty and leave space for the unexpected.

Picasso was once asked if he knew what a painting was going to look like when he started it. He answered, “No, of course not. If I knew, I wouldn’t bother doing it.” Studies have found that the most creative environments have an especially high tolerance for uncertainty. You can tell a lot about a place by its relationship with surprise. Does it carve out space for the unexpected? Does it celebrate life’s small serendipities? Are miracles allowed?

3. Creative environments embrace failure and leave plenty of room for mistakes.

The idea that highly creative people get it “right” the first time and don’t make any mistakes is perhaps the greatest myth of creativity. In reality, creative people make more mistakes than the rest of us. This makes sense when we consider that the more shots we take at a target, the more likely we’ll eventually hit the bull’s eye (and the more misses we’ll accumulate, as well). Creative environments leave plenty of room for mistakes and they know how to fail. They keep failing until something works. They fail in a thoughtful and efficient manner. And perhaps most importantly, they fail early. Indeed, failure can be a wonderful learning experience as long as it’s in the aid of some continuing process.

4. Creative environments are chaotic.

For many of us, the word “chaos” has a false negative connotation. But chaos is actually the stuff that makes creative breakthroughs. Creativity craves chaos. The truly creative environment collaborates with chaos as a necessary source of stimulation. In fact, this is true for all of us. Our bodies and minds crave not only stimuli but complex and varied stimuli. It’s this sort of disorder that shakes up the status quo and provides the necessary room for a creative breakthrough.

5. Creative environments are diverse and interdisciplinary.

Creative breakthroughs are always the result of what psychologists call “mental cross-fertilization”. Highly creative environments intentionally bring people of different backgrounds and different experiences together. Much of creativity is about connecting the dots. Making connections where there previously were none. We collect dots in the company of others, but we connect the dots ourselves. An interdisciplinary, diverse environment inherently produces more dots and also different kinds of dots.

6. Creative environments are active.

Think of how many times you’ve had an epiphany while riding in the car, or on an airplane. Something about motion triggers creative thoughts. Darwin’s theory of evolution came together while he was riding in the back of a carriage. Mark Twain was notorious for pacing his study. Mozart always traveled with scraps of paper tucked into his side pocket. Creativity requires kinetic energy.  As the saying goes, “I have never heard of anyone stumbling upon something while sitting down.”

7. Creative environments are comprised of weak ties.

The phenomenon of weak ties was first recognized by sociologist Mark Granovetter. What we think of as weak ties (acquaintances, coworkers, ect.) are actually incredibly powerful when it comes to creativity. Not only are we more likely to learn something new from a weak tie but a weak tie is also more likely to come from a different background than our own. Strong ties (family, close friends, ect.) can make us feel good and often provide a sense of belonging, but they also constrict our worldview. A group with strong ties is much more likely to engage in “Groupthink” than one with weak ties. Highly creative environments are comprised of weak ties. They allow people to insert themselves into networks easily and extract themselves with equal ease. It’s not people’s attachment to the place but their lack of attachment that cultivates the most creativity.

8. Creative environments have high levels of trust and intimacy.

Despite being comprised of weak ties, creative environments display high levels of trust and intimacy. Intimacy always includes a degree of trust. When people feel safe, they’re more likely to share their original ideas and opinions. When they feel trusted, they’re more likely to act upon these. And when they feel valued, they’re more likely to continue to contribute in new, innovative ways. Today, the cities and companies that excel creatively are those where trust and intimacy are high.

9. Creative environments offer attentive, discerning audiences.

Creativity and the recognition of creativity are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. Likewise, creative breakthroughs can’t occur without an audience. The audiences of highly creative environments are not mere spectators. They’re attentive and discerning. They egg each other on, pushing one another to ever-greater heights. A good audience is, in many ways, a co-creator. They disapprove and the creator improves.

10. Creative environments strike a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

“The Intrinsic Theory of Motivation,” developed by Teresa Amabile, states that, “People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the challenge of the work itself- not by external pressure.” Many corporations are inadvertently suppressing creativity by placing the most emphasis on rewards or evaluation. But a certain degree of extrinsic motivation can be helpful. One study found that experienced musicians improvised more creatively when enticed with cash prizes and publicity. The conclusion seems to be that competition motivates experienced creators but inhibits inexperienced ones. Thus, a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is ideal for highly creative environments.