Imagination: The Greatest Problem Solver

Image by IICD*

When hurricane Irene hit, we instinctively looked to the individuals and organizations whom we admire for their imaginative strength to do something practical, something that would instantly come to the aid of those in need, without speeches, without philosophical observations, without ideological investment in the future. Something practical—now.

There are many among Lincoln Center Institute’s (LCI’s) professional friends who do just that, not only in a time of crisis, but every day. Victoria Kamsler, chief research officer of the charity organization Katerva, was a sought-after professor lecturing on politics and philosophy when, in 2004, hurricane Charley destroyed her mother’s home. A “real-world” impact, and a very quick “real-world” reaction: Victoria switched careers to environmental ethics and now seeks solutions to environmental problems that are imaginative and pragmatic.

Cameron Sinclair, who spoke at America’s Imagination Summit, is CEO (“chief eternal optimist,” according to him) of Architecture for Humanity, and epitomizes creativity and knowhow in the service of the community and urgent needs. No words could speak on the organization’s behalf better than these, from its website:

“The land we bought was literally ‘the site from hell.’ Architecture for Humanity’s design fellow managed to design classrooms that we will be able to replicate on any site. I really think it could be the best built school in rural Uganda.”
—Carol Auld, Kutamba AIDS Orphans School, Bikongozo, Uganda

The very tangible catastrophe named Irene has inspired us to acknowledge some of those who have put their imaginations in the service of humanity in tangible ways. Out of a myriad throughout history, we thought we’d tip our collective hat to just a random few whose contributions have molded our era. Their actions are far-reaching; the evidence they present of the power of creative thinking, and the hope they give us by example, are priceless.

How about Renae Adam and Kristin Johnson. As Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana, West Africa, in the 1990s, they saw the women there, inheritors of a fabulous craftmaking tradition, struggling to take their place in the society. To have imagined economic independence, and a subsequent rise in self-respect, for the female “underclass” at the time, was—one hesitates to use the big word—downright visionary. But, undaunted, Renae and Kristin took the creative approach. They sought practical results with hands-on training in business strategies, launching a brand (jocundly named “Global Mamas”), and trusting the superior quality that is a part of the Ghanaian women’s tradition of batik, beadmaking, and sewing. According to magazine Ode, out of this initiative rose 75 woman-owned businesses in Ghana. This is financial success; the success in terms of human dignity is immeasurable.

This—imagination at work as a daily routine slowly changing the world—is, of course, the theme of the Scott Noppe-Brandon and Eric Liu book, Imagination First. No doubt the authors find it immensely satisfying to realize just how validated that volume is every day by the actions of people and groups who are there for us to check up on, on the Internet, in the papers—were that the news programs dealt a bit more with the likes of them in the media’s eternal quest for “heroes.” Imagination First sought to bring the news of the tremendous importance of its ICI concept (imagination, creativity, innovation) to the everyman. It resolutely eschewed gravitas and an overly academic tone of voice. It was a subtle move to bring in readers who may have shied away from a seemingly unpragmatic topic. But the seriousness of the subject is undeniable, as the “Irene moments” of history, from floods to hunger to illness, make joltingly clear. Those who step up to the plate at such times have existed since before “imagination” was a word acceptable in polite society: from Hippocrates to Pasteur, the line is unbroken.

Just a few days ago, the New York Times reported on another result of creative thinking born out of necessity in a poor country: household vinegar used as a substitute for the Pap smear in testing the women of Thailand for cervical cancer. And read how Joshua Silver, an atomic physicist described as having “a penchant for tinkering,” came to the aid of those in developing countries who need glasses by creating self-adjustable eyeglass lenses.

Let us close this rumination on imagination and creativity as practical, usable tools, with what is surely one of the most poignant examples. The example also brings along an intriguing proposition: that you can innovate by stepping away from the most advanced theory and going backwards, toward the simple guidance of nature. In 1978, in Bogota, Colombia, Dr. Edgar Rey Sanabria implemented so-called “kangaroo care” for premature and low-weight newborns. The necessity was quite real: due to the lack of both technology and qualified health-care workers in the cash-strapped country, the mortality rate of these babies had risen to desperate levels. Seeking inspiration in the natural world, Dr. Sanabria had one of the finest “idea light bulbs” of the century: he suggested that physical closeness between the premature newborn and the parent, direct skin-to-skin contact, might substitute for the absence of professional care. In fact, the idea did much more than that. It has been ascertained that premature babies thrive psychologically as a result of physical bonding (for that matter, so do all other babies), and maintain a stable body temperature more securely than they do in incubators. In kangaroo care, breastfeeding is allowed exclusively. Pre-term infants weighing less than 1500 grams who are in kangaroo care tend to be less prone to apnea and bradycardia.

Thirty-odd years after Dr. Sanabria’s flight of imagination, a survey finds that a large percent of neonatal intensive care units in the technologically advanced United States offer kangaroo care.

Quite a testimony to imagination in action.

*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

One Response

  1. […] Imagination: The Greatest Problem Solver Blog: Imagination Now “When hurricane Irene hit, we instinctively looked to the individuals and organizations whom we admire for their imaginative strength to do something practical, something that would instantly come to the aid of those in need, without speeches, without philosophical observations, without ideological investment in the future. Something practical—now.” […]

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