The artist’s role in civic innovation

This blog is the result of a research partnership between the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts: the Arts, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation (AEI) Lab

By Jessica Sherrod Hale and Dr. Joanna Woronkowicz

Artist-in-residence programs are a way for spaces that don’t typically include artists’ input—such as hospitals, corporations, and public agencies—to incorporate their work. Many of these programs aim to tap the creative potential of artists to boost creative problem-solving and organizational innovation. The literature on creativity suggests there are many avenues for artists to amplify an organization’s creative potential, such as offering new insights, reshaping the collaborative process to bolster group-level creativity, or modeling creative processes for other group members.

Narrowing the focus on the idea of artist-in-residence programs as engines of innovation, the Arts, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation (AEI) Lab recently conducted an experiment to test the impact of artists on creative problem-solving in the public sector. We asked employees of public agencies in the Indianapolis metropolitan area to work in small groups to develop a grant proposal addressing the city’s rising homicide rate. The problem was based on newspaper accounts of the changing nature of violent crime in the city. Half of the groups included an artist while the other half did not. In addition to collecting proposals, we videotaped the groups’ collaborative efforts, which allowed us to observe differences in processes and outcomes for groups with and without the creative contributions of an artist.

Our preliminary findings suggest that artists offer new insights to groups of public sector workers and may boost the creativity of solutions to civic problems. Artists and public sector workers completed two tasks prior to working together to solve the civic problem. In the first task, we presented participants with several realistic problems that they may encounter in everyday life and asked them to generate as many creative solutions as possible. In the second task, we asked participants to brainstorm a solution to the civic problem in advance of working with their group. For both tasks, we counted the number of unique ideas (originality) and the total number of ideas (fluency) that each individual generated. The results for both tasks are presented in Figures 1 and 2 below.

For both tasks, the artists generated more ideas and more original ideas than the public sector workers, though the results are only statistically significant for the realistic problems task. To determine if the artists simply generated more original ideas because they generated more overall ideas, we also calculated the average originality of the ideas generated by each person, which are presented in Figure 3 below. The artists also showed higher average originality for brainstorming solutions.

We were also interested in determining whether these differences in individual-level originality translated to differences in the creativity of group solutions. We asked two experts in local government with the familiarity of the Indianapolis metropolitan area to rate the group solutions for overall creativity as well as novelty and usefulness, which are key dimensions of creativity. The results are displayed in Figure 4 below.

The average ratings for groups with artists were higher for creativity and novelty, but lower for usefulness. Due to the small number of groups, we did not find a statistically significant difference in this study, but this relationship merits further investigation. In our future analyses, we will examine how artists changed the collaborative process and contributed to public sector workers’ problem-solving abilities.

This experiment, overall, shows promise for the concept of including artists in civic problem-solving to achieve greater creativity. That greater creativity, in theory, should increase public sector innovation and effectiveness in tackling public problems.

Through experiments like this one, we at the AEI Lab hope to highlight the importance and utility of artists in society. Watch for more blog posts showcasing AEI Lab projects and results in the months to come.