Is the internet killing our creativity? One Calgary designer says yes

Turning to Google or YouTube to learn how to make things is common these days, but one local designer says that habit could kill creativity. 

Geoff Gosling is the co-founder and head of design at Calgary's DIRTT Environmental Solutions. 

Gosling is one of Seven Wonderers sharing their stories at the annual Beakerhead Festival — celebrating science and art — this week. He's presenting a talk called "Embracing Ignorance in the Pursuit of Innovation."

"It really just comes from how we always default to look outside ourselves to get validation of anything we're trying to do," he said on The Homestretch Tuesday. 

The industrial designer says we've been taught since birth to research and find out what other people have already done. 

"The problem with that for me is that you can't help but follow," he said. "And if the goal is to innovate or do something meaningful that's a really bad place to start."

Gosling said an idea doesn't have to be absolutely original, but should be original "relative to where you are."

He says he sees two major problems with starting with what's already been done. 

"When you look at something, it's in our nature, you can't un-ring that bell," he said. "And so when you have that, you inadvertently follow."

The second problem he sees as the bigger issue. 

"If you're ethical, you'll deliberately not follow an idea if you're trying to be innovative," he said. "And so you don't get to go down dark alleys, you don't get to explore because you cut yourself off at the pass."

'Remain as ignorant as possible'

Gosling says his solution is "trying to remain as ignorant as possible."

"When I think about it, I sort of think of ignorance as a precious object," he said.

"It's not like you can't see things, but it's how you choose to go deeper. Firing up Google or YouTube to really deeply understand stuff — you can just choose not to do that. "

In embracing his own ignorance, Gosling says he's had 'ah-ha' moments and turned an idea into a reality. 

"DIRTT is a good example of that," he said. "When we started DIRTT I had come from a totally different industry. I was designing control room panels for NASA and 911, pretty weird background."

Focus on problem-solving

Gosling said in starting DIRTT they were looking for solutions, and they had no idea how to solve the problems they were seeing.

"Really what we did is rather than looking outside we just focused on the problems we were trying to solve, and what came of it was a surprisingly novel approach."

Gosling said they didn't look at other people's work in that process, and the results were great. 

"The conclusion was this honest, practical idea that didn't reflect what we'd seen but actually answered the question," he said.

Gosling said when they first launched DIRTT they expected cards and letters accusing them of stealing an existing idea to come flooding in, but not a single letter or similar patent was found. 

"We're well north of 200 patents so far," he said.

Christin Hume on Unsplash

When it comes to the notion of improving something that already exists, Gosling said it certainly has its place. 

"Especially when you look at things like automobiles," he said. "The incremental improvements you see there from a safety perspective and a fuel consumption perspective are great. There is a lot of value in that, for sure."

But Gosling says there are ways to explore your own creativity — for example in making a unique recipe — you don't need an existing starting point. 

Gosling said he grew up in Langdon, a rural area south of Calgary, and the most innovative people he's ever met are those working the land. 

"So you look at the way I was taught to question, and there is some value in that," he said. 

His biggest piece of advice is for people to trust themselves. 

"Give yourself a shot at thinking through a problem on your own. Making mistakes, that's a great thing to do," he said.

"Don't worry about having to get it right. Don't emulate, let yourself try to solve a problem in a unique way. Whether it succeeds or fails is irrelevant."

With files from The Homestretch