Sometimes all it takes is a moment of incongruity. It happened to me last month. As I rushed into Valletta, my legs doing all the thinking as I rushed to join the vigil for Daphne Caruana Galizia, out of the corner of my eye I saw Edward de Bono, the 86-year-old creative thinking guru, moving in the opposite direction.
My legs didn’t stop. But as my mind was thinking of the assassination’s second anniversary, it occurred to me that a 50th anniversary this year had come and gone unnoticed: the publication of de Bono’s The Mechanism of Mind, which provides the basic sketch of how the mind works and, consequently, the tools needed to subvert the ways it insulates itself from creative solutions to everyday problems.
It’s a book that makes much of the creative power of random juxtaposition. Which is why, perhaps, I moved quickly to thinking that some of Malta’s cultural problems, evident in the aftermath of the assassination, could do with taking seriously, as a country, the thinking techniques developed by de Bono.
One reason we haven’t is because too many believe that all de Bono has done is codify ‘Maltese thinking’ – fondly thought of as systemic, subversive bypassing of all rules. Anyone who thinks that hasn’t read him. It could be that Malta gave de Bono his prejudices (not least his suspicion of the claims of language and identity). But his techniques codify the twists of the human mind, not any particular ethnic one.
Another reason stems from the vicissitudes of de Bono’s public reputation in the UK, which has influenced another segment of people in Malta. The success of his works on lateral thinking was probably also built on a partial misunderstanding.
The first books were published at the height of the 1960s counterculture and were assimilated to it. The emphasis on creativity, and challenging what went without saying, was in the air. The books, with their emphasis on children’s creativity, and rethinking education, seemed part of the moment.
But in many ways, de Bono’s ideas challenged the assumptions of the counterculture. The latter conflated madness, spontaneity and creativity. It exalted transcendence and the opening of the mind, even with the aid of hallucinogens.
But de Bono, a generation older, upended all these assumptions. He emphasised rules and methods to generate ideas to order. He didn’t want to embrace madness. He built a model of creativity based on how sanity worked. He rejected having profound visions as the quintessential manifestation of the mind. He gave pride of place to jokes and how they bypass cliched thinking.
In time, this business-like approach to creativity was adopted by, well, business. His name became associated with corporations. In the era of Thatcher, and later Blair, he was popular with new administrators ready to challenge how governments should run things.
The book reviewers, jobbing journalists trained in the very arts suffering cuts in government funding, found his books an easy target. If the governments they detested were fad-driven and snake-oil merchants, they took it out on a writer that government departments and captains of industry had sometimes turned to. So they focused on the quantity of padding in the books; on the language of his instruction manuals, aimed at a low level of literacy; and on his self-publicity and occasionally silly statements.
Edward de Bono’s The Mechanism of Mind provides the basic sketch of how the mind works and the tools needed to subvert the ways it insulates itself from creative solutions to everyday problems
But at the core of the books was a set of varied techniques that have yielded results in a wide variety of contexts – from the boardroom to the classroom, from South Africa to Singapore, and from Australia to China and India.
It is true that leading creativity researchers, like Robert Sternberg, have stated that there is little experimental confirmation of the methods. My personal experience, in my own thinking and university teaching, is that the techniques are not only helpful; they have uses that de Bono himself does not envisage.
He is not as visible now as he was even 10 years ago. But three developments in recent years call for a new understanding of his techniques and serious consideration to how they may be made part of everyday practices in our institutions.
First, computing has revolutionised note-taking by anyone involved in thinking and drafting reports and proposals. Tags, keywords, hypertext, random searches – these permit recall of notes that may have been forgotten or not considered within the active framework.
De Bono’s lateral thinking techniques – like the random entry, the ‘intermediate impossible’, and the ‘filament’ methods – can be used to maximise the ease with which real value can be extracted from surprises. Cloud-computing permits the externalisation of the results of thinking as a self-organising system (rather than as a library-style catalogue) – the very features of the mind for which de Bono has developed an extensive tool-box.
Second, it is clear that the future of thought is not based on human minds competing against AI, anymore than the future of transport is based on training humans to outrun cars, or even move like them. Developments in restricted fields like chess have shown that the future lies in human-AI interface.
The main challenge will be how to make the human contribution within reach of any school-leaver. It doesn’t mean making everyone a creative genius. It means demystifying creativity, making it a skill like driving a car, writing a report, or coding a basic programme. The aim is to turn information flows from a problem to a resource – in a society whose basic irony is that it’s based on knowledge whose value is unstable and elusive.
Finally, there are the political implications of the instability of our societies, due to the fundamental transformations of which mass migration, climate change and job losses are a symptom. The current politics of identity is based on clashing visions and warring values.
But the de Bono techniques of ‘design thinking’ chart a way in which the creation of new values and reconciliation can be taken out of the hands of saints and placed into the hands of trained functionaries.
The methods teach systems, not desirable outcomes. It’s the most robust way of facing the future. And much of it can be taught using only pen and paper.