Sub-theme 15: Can Creativity Save the World? How Creativity Can Help Build a Sustainable Future

Christina E. Shalley
Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, USA
Rita Bissola
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy
Pier Vittorio Mannucci
London Business School, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Can creativity save the world? On the one hand, the answer seems to be yes; human survival has long been premised on our ability to be creative, and the application of creative thinking to solve problems has been a key competitive advantage of our species (Puccio, 2017). In an age where resources are increasingly scarce, and sustainable economic activity has become key to our survival, the ability to find ways to use and reuse scarce resources in new and useful ways can thus be fundamental. From this perspective, creative and innovative thinking can serve as a key driver for sustainable economic development and growth.
On the other hand, creativity comes with destructive potential: the golden ages of creativity have always been characterized by increased turmoil, conflict, and calamities (Goldin & Kutarna, 2016); the groundbreaking invention of atomic energy brought with it the terrible outcome of the atomic bomb. Creativity can at times go hand in hand with negative instincts, such as immoral behaviors and dishonesty (Gino & Ariely, 2012; Gino & Wiltermuth, 2014). In other words, “the creativity and pathology of the human mind are, after all, two sides of the same medal coined in the evolutionary mint” (Koestler, 1967: xi). From this point of view, uncontrolled creativity and innovation could actually harm, rather than foster, sustainable economic development. The relationship between creativity and sustainability is thus two-faceted. Consequently, there are many opportunities for research exploring this duality, and the conditions under which positive or negative effects of creativity are more likely to prevail.
Creativity can be conducive to developing novel solutions to issues such as climate change, pollution, and the depletion of natural resources. One of the focuses of creativity research has been on knowledge combination and recombination, and in particular on the ability to “make do” with scarce resources (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Simonton, 2003). For example, Campbell’s (1960) pioneering work on blind-variation and selective-retention emphasized the dual nature of the creative process, with blind-variation leading to the originality of ideas generated, while selective-retention affects the utility of the ideas (Simonton, 1999). While plenty of research has explored idea generation, we still know relatively little about idea selection, a phase whose accuracy is likely to be particularly relevant in order for the creative process to result in sustainable solutions. Creators are in fact not very good at recognizing the creative potential and novelty of their and others’ ideas (Berg, 2016; Mueller et al., 2012), and often seem unaware of the consequences and implications of their inventions and discoveries (Koestler, 1964). However, in recent years scholars have started to tackle how to help individuals to understand the full potential of their ideas (e.g., Perry-Smith & Mannucci, forthcoming; Zhou et al., 2017), but our understanding of how to enable individuals to select their most creative ideas is still lagging behind practical needs.
Another interesting area of inquiry is which type of creativity would be more conducive to the generation of solutions that can foster sustainability. Scholars have identified different types of creativity (e.g., Madjar et al., 2011; Unsworth, 2001), and in particular have focused on the differences between radical and incremental creativity. Radical creativity consists of developing completely new processes and products, while incremental creativity involves relatively small changes to existing ideas, processes or products. On the one hand, radical creativity seems to be what is needed in order to provide solutions to the gargantuan challenges posed by climate change, pollution, and the like. However, radically creative ideas are also characterized by higher disruptive potential, and thus could lead to unintended negative consequences. On the other hand, while the adaptive nature of incremental creativity seems inadequate to face the challenges posed by sustainability goals, its focus on finding new ways to re-use existing ideas/products and on the modification of existing processes or products could provide excellent answers to issues such as recycling and pollution reduction.
Additionally, the negative and potentially destructive consequences of creativity are still relatively underexplored. Creativity is a word that is surrounded with a positive aura, especially in the popular press and media, and often it is regarded as a “magic” moment that leads to new ideas that will change the world for good. However, some studies have provided evidence for an association between creativity and dishonesty, with a reciprocally reinforcing effect between the two (Gino & Ariely, 2012; Gino & Wiltermuth, 2014). Indeed, pursuing creativity implies adopting behaviors that can be considered unethical such as breaking the rules, challenging authority, and risk-taking (Baucus et al., 2008). This would suggest that there is a dangerous, yet unavoidable link between creativity and unethical behavior. However, recently scholars have started to show that the likelihood that creatives behave more or less unethically is dependent on personal and contextual conditions (e.g., Keem et al., 2018; Vincent & Kouchaki, 2016). This nascent area of inquiry presents many opportunities to explore how the link between creativity and dishonesty can be mitigated, if not entirely severed. For example, which organizational configurations (Bissola et al., 2014) in terms of HR and management practices and solutions (i.e. rewards, feedback, leading by example, team work) could lead to the maximization of both ethical and creative behaviors? In addition: what is the role of the leader and leadership styles in preventing unethical behaviors without hampering followers’ creative performance? It may be that some practices and leadership styles intended to develop ethical behaviors may prove useful in fostering creativity, and vice-versa (Baucus et al., 2008).
Another interesting area of inquiry would be to explore whether creative people consciously think about the ethical consequences of their ideas and what could prompt them to do so. Creativity research usually does not discuss the ethical aspects and potentially dangerous applications of novel ideas, taking for granted its positive contribution to the improvement of general conditions. This neglect is likely rooted in the idea that if a creative outcome satisfies the customers and stakeholders’ demands, this should be regarded as an inherent sign of its positive nature. On the one hand, one could think of diminishing the risk of unwarranted negative consequences by adding notions of responsibility and ethics to the criteria used in creative idea selection, elaboration, and implementation. On the other hand, taking into account responsibility and ethical issues could be perceived as a positive, energizing challenge, which in turn could foster creators’ motivation and push them to consider new, unexplored avenues (Amabile, 1983) in order to find solutions to grand issues, such as the reduction of poverty, climate change, and how to share globally scarce resources with larger cohorts of the population. However, adding responsibility and ethical considerations means increasing the complexity of the idea journey constraints in order to see an idea through completion, which is already perilous and full of dead-ends (Perry-Smith & Mannucci, 2017). As such, responsibility and ethics could become constraining, thus narrowing the breadth and number of viable ideas.
Contributors to this sub-theme are encouraged to elaborate and test new theories on how to help creators recognize the novelty and ethical consequences of their ideas, how ideas may vary with regard to their incremental and radical creative potential, on the best approaches to developing creative ideas that foster sustainability, and on the factors that limit or magnify the link between creativity and unethical behaviors. In particular, contributions looking at how creativity can help us to increase sustainability and at the notion of sustainable, responsible creativity would be welcome.


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  • Berg, J.M. (2016): “Balancing on the creative highwire: Forecasting the success of novel ideas in organizations.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 61 (3), 433–468.
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  • Unsworth, K. (2001): “Unpacking creativity.” Academy of Management Review, 26 (2), 289–297.
  • Vincent, L.C., & Kouchaki, M. (2016): “Creative, rare, entitled, and dishonest: How commonality of creativity in one’s group decreases an individual’s entitlement and dishonesty.” Academy of Management Journal, 59 (4), 1451–1473.
  • Zhou, J., Wang, X.M., Song, L.J., & Wu, J. (2017): “Is it new? Personal and contextual influences on perceptions of novelty and creativity.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 102 (2), 180.
Christina E. Shalley is the Matthew R. and Sharon M. Price Chair of Organizational Behavior, Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, USA. Her research interests focus on both individual and team level creativity, and in particular examines the contextual and personal factors that contribute to creativity. Her contributions have been published in national and international journals. Christina is also a co-editor of two research volumes, “Handbook of Organizational Creativity” and “The Oxford Handbook of Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship”.
Rita Bissola is an Associate Professor of Organization Design and Organizational Behaviour in the Department of Economics and Business Administration Sciences at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan, Italy. Her research interests include creativity in teams and the collective creative process, innovation and HRM challenges. Rita has published articles and contributions on these topics both in international as well as national journals and books.
Pier Vittorio Mannucci is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Department of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, United Kingdom. His research focuses on creativity, particularly on how individuals can be consistently creative over time and on the effects of social networks, technology, and culture on individual and team creativity. Pier Vittorio’s work has been published in international journals and books.