More and more organisations are coming to realise the importance of creative work and want to get people with different experience and competence to meet. But how can we work to produce a successful creative environment? Emma Ewadotter, Karin Jangert and Jon Svensson are a few of the key individuals who keep HUMlab’s activities running and who work with these questions every day.
Emma Ewadotter (EE) works as an art history and visual studies researcher at HUMlab. She is also responsible for many visits and events in the labs and works with research support.
Karin Jangert (KJ) coordinates activities at HUMlab-X, the lab on the Umeå Arts campus.
Jon Svensson (JS) is responsible for support at HUMlab and has worked at the lab since 2002.
One of Emma, Karin or Jon is likely to be the first person that researchers, companies or organisations will come into contact with when wishing to cooperate with HUMlab. They manage projects or are contact persons in all kinds of collaborative projects and work to develop HUMlab as a living, creative environment.
JS: An important part of our work at HUMlab is to look after people’s ideas and develop them. To create collaborations between ideas, technology and humans who would not otherwise have met. Our role is therefore to be mediators and translators. We are of necessity not experts in a particular subject or a particular technology; our strength lies principally in our interdisciplinary competence, that we have basic skills in all of the humanities, art and technology and can thereby develop new methods of research and artistically creative work. We are experts in what takes place between these traditionally separated areas.
KJ: For a project at HUMlab to be meaningful, researchers or others who come to us for collaborations must be active themselves and move their projects forward together with HUMlab. We are not a consultant from whom a technical solution can be ordered, but rather we seek and support collaborations where we feel that the work is stimulating for all parties and that it challenges boundaries as regards both the humanities and technology.
What do you consider are the most important factors for successful creative work?
KJ: It is easy to take for granted that technology is the most important factor in creative work taking place in an environment like HUMlab. In my experience, it is rather people who create a successful creative environment. Technology and an exciting environment are important aids in creating creativity, but without inquisitive people who work actively to create opportunities for encounters, it does not matter what advanced infrastructure you have.
EE: Another thing that it is important to work with is to try to get people to meet even if they have different roles and tasks. At HUMlab we try to work non-hierarchically between, for example, technical staff and researchers. We are not so naïve as to believe that we can eliminate hierarchies, but on the other hand we believe that it is important to be aware of the hierarchies and power structures that exist.
What do you think is important to bear in mind when building creative environments?
EE: One thing that I think it is important to remember is that flexibility is not something neutral. A totally flexible environment easily becomes too sterile, a place that must suit everyone and for that reason suits no one. No one understands who can use such a place. May I sit here? Can I leave my things here? Who is in charge of the place? At HUMlab it is therefore important that it is permitted to leave tracks. People at HUMlab are not unimportant bystanders; they are there to create the environment. By allowing them to leave tracks, allowing them to rearrange the environment in the ways they need to, that is how HUMlab becomes more than just premises.
KJ: The physical environment is important but not necessarily because of its advanced equipment. I think creativity has much to do with how comfortable people feel in a place. To create successful creative places, we need to look at what goes on when people use the environment and then create the place with that as the starting point. I don’t think it’s possible to build creativity out of the infrastructure alone. We also need to study how people take advantage of the opportunities that exist at a certain place, how to make that place one’s own and how people choose to collaborate with each other. That is after all the most exciting aspect, that people seldom do what was planned to begin with!
JS: One mistake I think we can make is not defining what we mean by creativity, or thinking that creativity must be something big and bombastic. The very fact that we are in an environment like HUMlab, with different kinds of people, adds something in itself, even if we are not always actively meeting up and collaborating. Not being in a enclosed space, like a classroom for example, also means that we have an opportunity to be influenced by others. I think that kind of enabling, both small-scale and large-scale, is an important foundation for a functioning creative environment.
How are creative environments created?
KJ: When I first came to HUMlab as a student, I knew nothing about technology or what it was to be used for, and to be honest it didn’t interest me in the least to begin with. I like HUMlab because I have always felt welcome, the atmosphere was tremendous and I often met interesting people. That is why I came back — not for the technical infrastructure or the physical environment.
JS: Creative work doesn’t just happen because we have somewhere nice to work. It takes a great deal of effort by committed people. Well-planned events like conferences, workshops and student activities that can inspire and show us opportunities are important, but we also need to actively question our own structures and work methods. Activities in a creative environment must chafe a little and contradict themselves, otherwise everything will stagnate fairly quickly.