Solutions For A Creativity Crisis: A Look At Cuba's Technological Disobedience
    By Andrea Kuszewski | September 17th 2010 10:35 AM | 16 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Andrea is a Behavior Therapist and Consultant for children on the autism spectrum, residing in the state of FL; her background is in cognitive


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    When you think of the ideal creative environment, what comes to mind?  We may imagine a place where you have freedom of expression, a place that encourages breaking convention, somewhere that is abundant in resources that are readily accessible for innovative development of technology, and exposure to many different cultures for inspiration and collaboration.

    So as you imagine this ultimate creative playground, does Cuba come to mind? From what we know of Cuba, especially since the embargo in the 1960s, it seems like anything but the ideal creativity-inspiring environment. A Cuban-American artist and designer, Ernesto Oroza tells a different story, though. In an interview about his book, Technological Disobedience, he shows us how the people of Cuba, following the embargo, came together as a societal unit, overcoming their challenges through collaboration and innovation—their creativity being their savior. As a nation they flourished, and became a more innovative, creative society as a result of all the hardship they endured.

    How is this possible, or even likely? For the last few years, we've been told that the most nurturing creative environments are freer, not more restrictive, and that stress and pressure to produce a specific product crushes creative insight. If this is true, then how do we explain the Cuban Creativity Phenomenon? As we face a Creativity Crisis in America, what can we learn from this example?

    Before I answer these questions, let's hear Ernesto's description of Cuba during this time of both economic strain and creative growth. The following paragraphs are transcribed from the interview, which can be viewed here.

    "In the 1960s, when the Americans left Cuba, they took the engineers with them. So Fidel encouraged people to work with machines- and many people began to do their own repairs. This spawned a movement called National Association of Innovators and Rationalists.

    In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a deep economic crisis known as "The Special Period In Time Of Peace". As the crisis became more severe, the people's creativity grew more powerful, and everywhere you looked, you saw solutions to the needs that people faced everyday in every aspect of life... transportation, children's toys, clothing, food... everything was replaced by substitutes, provided by the people.

    In 94-95 is when this movement became really visible. The state could no longer support its people- the stores were empty. This type of production spawned its own economy. The government was very aware that this crisis was going to be very complex, so they published a book by the army called "The Book For The Family". It was a compilation of international publications, like Popular Mechanics, and others. It had "simple fixes for electrical home appliances", medical instructions, the use of botanicals, protection and survival."

    The book that Fidel published contained many of the projects that the army had been working on to prepare them if Cuba was attacked by North America; he distributed the book to the entire public. Truly, the country was forced into a sort of survival mode. Given the harsh economic conditions—the lack of technology, products, no sources of income—one would expect a complete collapse of the spirit of the people, and for the heart of the country to begin to crumble, and ultimately, for creativity to wither. After all, we have seen research that shows how creativity is killed by restrictions, stress, and other limiting factors. Cuba in the 90s pretty much looked like the worst possible environment for creativity and innovation.

    However, that wasn't the case—the opposite happened. The people flourished. Their creativity soared. A few years after that initial book was distributed, the government wanted to see how well those ideas resonated with the people, so they invited the public to send in their own ideas. The responses came flooding in—ideas for devices to charge batteries for hearing aids, how to make antennas out of tin trays, devices made from parts of broken washing machines that were turned into shoe-shiners, motorized bicycles... and many, many others. They took all of those ideas that the citizens sent in and put them into a book of its own, called "With Our Own Efforts".

    When placed in a situation where innovation was necessary, Ernesto said, "People think beyond the normal capabilities of an object, and try to surpass the limitations it imposes upon itself." In this way, he describes their behavior as Technological Disobedience, or breaking all rules in which that product's technology was intended (rule-breaking, as I've said before, is one of the hallmark traits of creativity).

    While this is a heartwarming and amazing tale of resilience, courage, and collaboration, how do we explain why it happened, given these circumstances that seem less than ideal for creativity?

    Several things are at work here.

    First of all, we can look at the crisis situation itself. They faced lack of resources, stalled technology, no jobs or industry—they had to make do with what they had. Basically, this put the whole country into survival mode, a large scale Gilligan's Island, if you will. We often find that when people are put in life or death situations, they will do what they need to survive. In Cuba's case, families needed products to help them live. Without jobs or income, they couldn't exactly purchase items; because of the collapsed industry, those items didn't even exist in the country to be purchased anyhow. They had no choice but to innovate—using broken parts from out-dated electronics, found objects, whatever they could—in order to create the products they needed to survive.

    Secondly, Fidel, either by stroke of genius, or pure accident (more likely it was a little of both), saw the type of predicament that the people would be faced with as result of the embargo, and put out that publication, The Book For The Family, which planted that seed of creativity. Sometimes all you need to get the creative vibes flowing is to plant that first little seedling in order to start everything growing. Once they began to see alternate solutions to problems, as outlined in the book, they began looking at problems in a completely different way.

    This is similar to how people, once told the solution to Dunker's Candle Problem, are suddenly able to solve subsequent creative tasks more successfully.  Once your mind has broken through that barrier of Functional Fixedness, you are more open for creative insight.  The Cuban government did this on a national level.  By putting out that book and distributing it to every citizen, he gave them the solution to the candle problem.  This started them thinking down a more creative path, even if it was primarily out of necessity to survive.

    Which brings me to point number three: Stress and creativity.  We've heard before that stress is bad for creativity; in fact, I've said that myself.  Indeed, pressure to produce under strict guidelines, micromanaging people to death, kills creativity. If you look at Cuba, their government seemed pretty restrictive, and the pressure was enormous—to survive or not to survive. So why the increase in creativity, of all things?

    It's all in perception. How we view a problem has a tremendous impact on how successful we are in overcoming it. Take a typical stressful situation, such as losing your job. You could say that the hardship of being unemployed could be depressing and stress-inducing, and thus kill any attempts at creativity. Understandable. However, if you see losing your job as freedom from the restrictions of your previous job, suddenly everything starts to look a little different. Instead of it being a negative, "I have no job" it becomes a positive, "Now I am free to explore new things".

    When you look at the situation in Cuba, what you really had was a complete and total lift of all restrictions. The people had no jobs, no money, there was no industry—all things that would seem like restrictions. But they aren't really when it comes to creativity. You need to have those kinds of limitations in order to get you thinking outside the box in the first place. What it did was force the people to think creatively, because they had no choice. They had to look around and say, "I need [these things], so I need to think of a way I can get them, using anything I can find in order to create them."

    Ernesto explained that once the Cuban people took apart that first fan (or washing machine, or blender), out of necessity to get at a needed part, they no longer saw that object in the same way. They didn't see a fan, like a consumer would see one on a shelf. Instead, they saw all of the components that make a fan, and how they could be reassembled into other needed products. This flexibility in thinking—entertaining alternate possibilities to every problem—was a necessity to stay alive. Once they got into the habit of thinking that way, what started as creative problem-solving evolved into a complete mindshift of the Cuban society, and in essence, fueled the creative innovation of an entire country.

    The best part about this entire story is how the creative mindshift spread. The entire population began to think more creatively about everything; it became a way of life. They took pride in their products. They bartered. They shared with neighbors. Eventually, it spilled over into their arts culture as well. There is a thriving art community in Cuba, influenced greatly by the nation's mindshift—first emerging as a means to survive, but transcending that need and defining a culture, one that proves to be on the rise as a significant influence on the rest of the world in the years to come.

    If there is one thing that we, as a very privileged nation, can learn from Cuba, it's that there is always another solution, another method of development, another possibility. If we face problems as a society, we can't stay locked inside our rigid fortress, closing out any alternate solutions just because they may seem unconventional. Maybe as a country we need to suffer a little in order to push us to the point of seeing beyond the instruction booklet—into a place where we can imagine endless and limitless solutions.

    I will close with Ernesto's words, in describing the Cuban people:
    "People were so pressured by the crisis- so constrained. Like a caged animal without food, that is made capable of jumping any barrier or wall. And in this way, they break all limitations- aesthetic, legal, economic, and this liberation is a moral liberation."
    You can watch the entire interview with Ernesto Oroza here. His book is titled, Technological Disobedience.


    Creativity is likely spurred by poverty and even oppression; as the sociological thinking goes, 30 years of Borgia oppression, war, murder and deceit in the strictest Catholic country gave us the Renaissance and 500 years of Swiss peace gave us the cuckoo clock.

    American scientists contend every modern project costs $500,000 - but Indians make a microscope for $4.  Culturally, that will be a big leap for their next generation of researchers.

    Not being allowed to own computers and having a lousy economy may be why Cubans turned to creative things - but I don't think that makes for a better society so it's a rather poor trade-off.
    Perhaps no longer being a catspaw for the Soviet Union also had an effect.  As Robert Conquest summed that lot up rather nicely:

    There was an old Marxist called Lenin,
    Who did one or two million men in:
    That's a lot to have done in,
    But where he did one in,
    Old Uncle Joe Stalin did ten in.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    ehe basically, "necessity is the mother of invention" -- when did people forget that to suddenly 'rediscover' it as 'technological disobedience' ?

    Sorry Andrea, but I have to bring up nitric oxide, so let me apologize in advance ;)

    It is stress of a certain type and at certain times of neurodevelopment that induce the kinds of creativity that Andrea is talking about. It is stress in utero that modulates in utero neurodevelopment and epigenetically programs the fetus to have more creativity of a certain type. What I call the “theory of reality”, the ability to conceptualize about reality accurately so as to manipulate it to invent, make and use tools.

    This contrasts with what I call the “theory of mind” which allows one the ability to understand and manipulate people. These two contrasting ways of thinking determine one's style in trying to be successful. Do you try and get stuff by manipulating other people? Or do you try to make stuff on your own?

    As I say in my blog:

    A mother's necessity makes her child an inventor.

    In the case of Cuba, the lack of resources did produce hardship that lead to stress and especially stress on the most vulnerable and susceptible to stress (pregnant women and their in utero fetus). The lack of resources also prevented the Cuban government from exerting control over the people. The government couldn't supply anything so the people had to generate it themselves.

    Andrea Kuszewski
    Dave, your last two sentences are right on target. :)
    Andrea, glad you were able to tolerate the NO reference :)

    I think there are fundamental differences in how “stress” from different types of hardship differentially affect neurodevelopment. Stress from material adversity is something that can be addressed by material creativity. Stress from social adversity can't be be addressed by material creativity because the social adversaries generating that adversity will simply take or destroy or thwart what ever solutions material creativity generates.

    I think severe enough social adversity tends to invoke Stockholm Syndrome (i.e. social creativity in figuring out how to rationalize attaching to someone abusive or putting up with an intolerable situation) if there is a specific social agent that can be identified. I think this is how repressive political regimes come to power and stay in power, and how perpetrators keep control over their victims. But this takes certain resources on the part of the perpetrator to direct the victim's anger and animosity that builds up and cause transference so it is directed against the regime's or the perpetrator's enemies.

    The victims put up with being victimized so long as they feel they are not at the bottom and that others are being treated worse than they are, or that their treatment might get worse. I think that is why people tolerate others being made victims, until the bell tolls for them, and it always will.

    In regards the so-called creativity crisis in America, I think it comes from the same thing. I think that too much social creativity has been spent on “gaming” the system such that there are not enough material creativity pathways to success. The most successful and profitable industries in the US are not ones that “create” anything. In 2009, finance and insurance is 8.4% of GDP (7.2% in 1998). Real estate rental and leasing is 13% (12.1 in 1998). Manufacturing is 11% (15.1 in 1998). The drop in durable goods is more, 5.9% (8.9% in 1998), nondurable goods 5.1% (6.2% in 1998).

    The value that people had accumulated in their homes and 401ks was just “gamed away” by the financial industry. People are angry and want to lash out at someone, something, anything and there are political opportunists who are giving them targets, the usual suspects.

    Hello Andrea,

    Reading over your article it reminds me of the situation here in Eastern Germany during the Cold War. This morning -by chance- I listened to a radio feature on GDR product design. More on Günther Höhne and his work (though in German):

    One of the essentials out of it was, "Facing a lack of resources fosters new and valuable solutions".

    My own experience (some sort of action research) comes from my first contact with students from Dresden back in 1990 while they were visiting our university in Mainz back then. Ever since the East has drawn me in, pretty much as it must have been during the exploration times in the US West back in the 19th century.

    Hearing about the shortcomings, constraints, creative solutions first hand has always sparked my curiousity and interest in people. I guess I would have done well in anthropology, especially business anthropology. Who knows what will come along the coming years.

    Keep up the great work and best regards, Ralf

    PS.: I have been following the Cuba discussion for quite some time (more as a loose scanner). Recently after a meeting on Wednesday around questions of doing processes easier ( and another one on Agile Programming led me to the notion that in an economy where surplus is daily issue, these approaches seldom work (without a pressing problem that companies face). So the recent discussion on Facebook that has been originated by AlexLightman a while ago has caught my interest.

    That's an interesting story about how creativity spreads through a society. Mnay Cuban refugees have led a prosperous life for themselves here as well. There's something odd and ironic about a communist dictator asking the people for creative solutions. An alternative interpretation is that these solutions had been bubbling under the surface for years, and that they all came out at once when an oppresive dictator asked for answers from the people. Lastly, it's important to keep in mind the general picture. Creativity can be found in all sorts of aspects of human nature and history. Those few pieces of innovation from Cuba, when compared to the huge scale of innovation throughout, for instance, American history, aren't even drops in the bucket. Furthermore, they are merely innovative ideas, as opposed to innovative products - which first requires resources and second must stand up to real-world use. When we look at countries throughout the world, creativity also tends to require strong property rights, private ownership, patent protection, and at least a bit of freedom - all aspects which Castro banished in Cuban society. As those other factors show, creativity likely requires some ground rules as well, rather than just outright 'rule breaking'. That we see any creativity at all may show that you can't stamp out human nature itself. But compared to the range, wealth and richness of creatvitiy in other parts of the world, we have relatively little else to learn - I would argue - from that found in Cuba.
    Especially the comments (the post only slightly) focuses on some really terrible conditions made by terrible people, the result of such terrible hell seems to be that people become creative, maybe even due to stress in uterus. By that account, Africa should be number one. But I guess the bad communists are even more terrible than actually deadly hunger and tribal wars. Are we not forgetting something, something else that makes this little island rather special, something apart from the horrible horrible bad red people and the horrible horrible suffering they inflict? Maybe there is something else that leads to useful creativity, something horrible maybe they do to the poor kids in school?
    I've been to Cuba and have seen some creative re-use of broken technology, but I've also seen a great deal of resistance to change as well. I think that the system has sapped many of the people of their willingness to innovate, perhaps as much out of fear as a lack of imagination. "Imposible" (sic) is a common and immediate answer to many suggestions for solutions to old problems. Perhaps most people are still afraid to be disobedient; I believe that Castro had basically cast himself as Santa Claus and many just can't shake the feeling that he will discover their disobedience. The second half of the Santa equation is their fear of losing that which Castro has already given them, no matter how small those "free" rations have become. Oddly enough, a thriving black market has changed little through the good times and bad perhaps out of design as a relief valve for anti-government tension. Maybe alcoholics are less willing to organize another revolution if they can drown their sorrows easily/

    Just an update on where creativity comes from, and what drives us to find new way by Kate Bennet, whom I met in Sydney during“reality-is-broken”-teasers
    Steve Davis
    "Maybe alcoholics are less willing to organize another revolution if they can drown their sorrows easily."
    I suggest that they only have to look to their near neighbours in heavenly Haiti to see a likely outcome of the action you recommend.
    "But compared to the range, wealth and richness of creatvitiy in other parts of the world, we have relatively little else to learn - I would argue - from that found in Cuba."
     I think you could learn a good deal from Cuba's quite remarkable survival despite the ongoing US embargo. In fact, creativity is a term most inadequate.   
    Remarkable?  They're trapped in 1960, they are behind every country in Africa except one.

    If the impact of the US is that profound, then we should learn from Cuba to be less stupid.  We are consistently told the US has only marginal authority worldwide - the entire rest of the world trades with Cuba just fine - yet somehow we are to blame because they are an economic and cultural train wreck.  I don't buy it.  Nothing holds Cuba back except the arbitrary inequality that comes from a communist dictatorship.  Russia, Europe, China, etc. are not exactly marginal economic players but if the US is more important than all of the world combined, then their dictator hates his own people more than he hates America or he would step down and give them better lives.  

    So that's his fault - and their for allowing it - not the fault of the US.  
    Steve Davis
    "...he would step down and give them better lives."
    As I said Hank, the Cubans only have to look to Haiti to see a likely outcome of the action you recommend.
    I have no doubt that there are aspects of Cuban life that are far from ideal, but that applies to any society.
    Each society has the right to seek its own balance of competing priorities, and where we might criticise the Castro regime for its restriction of freedom in certain areas, the Cubans obviously feel that they prefer to have freedom from homelessness, freedom from lack of health care, freedom from lack of education. These are all areas in which Cuba outperforms most countries in the West, including the US.
    That is spin, plain and simple.  In health care, the only superior thing they have over the US is an infant mortality rate, and that is because they abort babies at the first sign of trouble, which the US does not do.  A home is a cardboard shack, which doesn't seem all that great, and this education you think is great makes them hopelessly unqualified in every country.  How many Cubans move to Australia and become doctors or professors?  A whole lot of foreign doctors and professors are in the US.
    Steve Davis
    That is spin?
    "...they are behind every country in Africa except one."
    Now that really is spin!
    "A home is a cardboard shack..."
    Come now Hank, you know that there is a significant section of the US population who would be better off materially if they lived in Cuba.
     "A whole lot of foreign doctors and professors are in the US."
    Just as there's a whole lot of foreign medical students getting free training in Cuba.

    Now you and I could argue back and forth like this forever, picking the stats that suit our particular argument, but the point to keep in mind is the one I stated previously, that each country has the right to seek its own balance of competing priorities.