When knowledge gets in the way of innovation

20. oktober 2022

Unpredictability and knowledge gaps can spark creativity

From the day we enter primary school, we’re expected to obtain knowledge, and the learning journey continues throughout our working life. Now, there is nothing wrong with craving knowledge. But what if we miss out on creativity and innovative power by not embracing what we do not know? What if our insatiable desire to know and control things prevents us from being truly innovative and creative?

I recently joined EGGS Design and had my first encounter working with designers. One thing quickly became clear to me: Designers can create something valuable out of nothing. Even when it seems we have nothing but an empty void to work with, my new colleagues’ ability to be comfortable with not knowing is a noticeable resource to create value-adding applicable solutions. In this article, I’ll explain why that is.

The human brain on autopilot is smart – not creative

Knowing gives us a sense of security, whereas not knowing will make most people uncomfortable. When you desperately hold on to things is closed to emergence. When you open up your mind to emergence, you enter a whole other world of possibilities and have the opportunity to innovate rather than merely make improvements. We feel a fake sense of security when we think we know what’s going to happen. It’s like a type 2 of thinking. Most of us are comfortable with our brains going on autopilot – what Kahneman describes as a type 2 way of thinking. This is a consequence of an intelligently designed brain that consumes 20% of our daily energy intake. Our brains are neurologically wired to habitual patterns, and being on automatic pilot demands less energy from our brain. It’s a biological brain response that preserves energy and secures survival. Being open to emergence takes a whole other sense of awareness, and unlearning habitual mental patterns comes with a price and potentially a profit.

Lack of predictability is costly – but offers great rewards

The power of knowing nothing is a place where time stands still. It is a place where you can access the playfulness of who you were as a kid, the experimentation from when you were a teenager, the experience of being an adult, and the wisdom of you as a grandparent. This space is incredibly resourceful.

Let me give you an example. If I ask you to imagine a meal that can cost as much as 1000 USD in a restaurant, you are more likely to arrive at a description than if I asked you to imagine a meal that was not bound by any preconditions. If you did not have to take money, seasons, cultural cuisines into consideration and imagine an extraordinary meal, it would most likely be a poorer description.

The point is that the human mind is comfortable with boundaries. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine things within a given frame than in a world where there are no boundaries to imagination. What this tells us is that we need an extremely high level of trust and practice to become comfortable with the unknown to thrive and harness the power of knowing nothing.

The paradox of the Dunning-Kruger effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the cognitive bias we all fall for from time to time and reveals critical pitfalls in learning journeys if we are too obsessed with the idea of knowing. It displays the learning curve where you gradually expand your knowledge; you simultaneously realize what you do not know. David Dunning and Justin Kruger proved how people with low ability at a task tend to overestimate their ability to solve the task at hand.

Hence, the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know.

We know more than ever – yet we can’t make sense of things

The knowledge society is considered a global megatrend, driving the global digital education industry to exceed previous market share and is expected to reach 77 billion USD by 2028 (Financial News Media). In a nutshell, we have never been more knowledgeable as a civilization or had greater access to instant facts. Yet, we have also never spent more time educating ourselves to navigate this world of knowledge. The thirst for knowledge has transformed our value systems, and it is no wonder that being knowledgeable has become a status symbol. But is it perhaps time to give a bit more space and consideration to the value of not knowing everything? To try to work with our knowledge gaps instead of against them?

The Covid-19 pandemic is an excellent example of how not knowing has entered our everyday life. It has asked us to have a whole other level of flexibility. Fortunately, our brains are plastic and wired to be flexible, but we are not accustomed to it in a culture built on contingency. It’s no secret that the corona crisis has hit the creative industries hard. But then again, you could argue that there are no people better suited to deal with disruptive change, like designers, artists, and developers. What makes designers resilient to change is that they know they don’t know everything, and this is precisely what gives them the ability to thrive amid chaos.

It’s a bit of a balancing act, knowing when to use the power of knowing nothing. On the one hand, you want to be humble about what you do not know, avoid getting stuck with one idea, and kill your darlings. When you don’t know, what you don’t know, there is a whole other world of opportunities that unfolds. In a world with access to internal wisdom and innovation rather than improvements, there is a vast space for answering the need for how historic methods won’t fix future problems.

Written by Jeanette Kæseler Mortensen, Creative Leader in Business Design