Is Imitation the Hidden Key to Creativity?

Social scientists create a model of how ideas spread and find that about 30% of people should create while the rest imitate.



We’ve seen how people like Catherina Fake, the Flickr co-founder, and Stefan Sagmeister keep their creative juices flowing. They point out: Constantly working hard blinds you to breakthrough ideas; one solution is taking copious time off. Maybe that solves the problem for individuals. But can society organize itself in such a way as to maximize the number of good ideas it produces?

It might sound like an impossible question, but Stefan Leijnen and Liane Gabora at the University of British Columbia in Canada have created a clever mathematical model that offers an answer.

Their key insight is that creative ideas can only spread if they’re actually adopted by others. Too much creativity, and there’s not enough imitation–ideas die on the vine, because there are so many of them and few ever catch fire. For good ideas to spread, there’s an optimal balance to be reached between creating and imitating.

Leijnen and Gabora modeled that dynamic, and they found that to optimize the profusion of good ideas, we should spend less than 50% of our time on creativity. If some individuals spend all of their time creating new ideas, then they shouldn’t comprise any more than 30% of a population.

Now, the model is obviously a gross oversimplification of how the real world works–and the model depends crucially on its assumptions about the rate of uptake in ideas. But it does offer some interesting insight to the eternal question of how much time an organization should spend inventing ideas, and how much time it should spend vetting them. Organizations and societies that spend too much time on ideas see their overall fitness decline.

As Technology Review points out, it’s possible that our societies have already been built up around these rough divisions in labor and time. And I’ll bet companies have been as well: 30% of staff devoted to product creation and engineering is about what you see in the gross headcounts of big innovative firms.


About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.