Bem Le Hunte on how we can use creativity to solve problems

Interview with Bem Le Hunte


Douglas Nicol:                  Hello and welcome to Smart Dust, the podcast that helps you stay in touch with the debates and discussions in the world of technology, data and innovation. As always, I’m joined by my esteemed colleague, Mr Nick Abrahams.

Nick Abrahams:               Hi everybody.

Douglas Nicol:                  Joining us today, we’re lucky to have on Smart Dust, Dr Bem Le Hunte who is the course director for the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence at Sydney, Australia based UTS. It is the world’s first proper transdisciplinary degree. Bem has sort of an interesting combination of lives, because not only has she created a new course at UTS that really is truly future-facing preparing graduates for a new world where creativity is truly valued, but she’s also in herself a very creative person because she is a novelist and is about to publish her fourth or fifth novel along the way. So Bem, you are very welcome to Smart Dust.

Bem Le Hunte:                 Thank you.

Douglas Nicol:                  Let’s start with the basics. Now, you head up … you’re the course director for the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence. What is creative intelligence?

Bem Le Hunte:                 So, I like to define it as a combination of intelligences because the degree I run, the bachelor of creative intelligence and innovation often summarized as the BCII combines with 25 different disciplines at UTS. So, combined accelerated degree. So, students come from law, they come from engineering and IT, from business, from design, from communications, from health, from science, and from a plethora of degrees within those faculties.

Bem Le Hunte:                 So, it really is about finding the unity of these disciplines, hence the unity in the university as well as exploring the cutting edges, the unity and the diversity together through the disciplines, but also by looking at the creative impulse that is there in all disciplines and how we can solve problems in a more collaborative way, because we can’t solve problems on our own anymore. Industries are so connected. We have to work together. It’s also about understanding futures. It’s about understanding complexity, because we’re in a more complex world than we ever were and a network dynamic world, and we’ve worked out problems together. It’s about understanding entrepreneurship and changes in the future and social entrepreneurship, how can we make a better world? So it’s really about change-making, which is exciting.

Nick Abrahams:               So, if you’re looking at a problem solver, you’ve got somebody who thinks creatively about how to solve a problem from all these different disciplines, there must be some people who are natural problem solvers. Their brain just is wired to solve problems and think creatively. Then you’ve got some people who aren’t. How much of creativity and problem solving are you born with versus you can actually learn through a course or through applied methodologies?

Bem Le Hunte:                 So, I think one of the problems with solving some of the most complex issues in our world is that people think that they can solve them very quickly. Actually, they’re much more complex. So, one of the things we do is we slow down that creative problem solving process. We give students a stack of different creative methods from across the disciplines to explore and problematize and to problem find, not just problem solve. In that way, they get a far richer experience and they have a truly creative experience. So, they’re able to sit with the discomfort of not knowing. Creative people are really good at that. They need to be good at that. They need to not know in order to discover.

Nick Abrahams:               Bem, it’s interesting. I work with a lot of people who like to know. So, I have effectively 8,000 people around the world, four and a half thousand lawyers. Lawyers need to know everything. They do not like uncertainty. The creative process, I guess to a degree is about being comfortable with the uncertainty and working through it. I always ask a question on talking to a group of lawyers about innovation. I’ll ask the question, who here believes that they are creative in what they do? Less than 20% of people put their hand up. What do you think about that? Is it possible for people who are just “I became a lawyer. I used to be creative. I’m not creative anymore.” until they talk themselves out of creativity or they just not creative and can never be creative?

Bem Le Hunte:                 It’s interesting again, because I read a piece of research some years ago where an oil company in the 70s went out and asked an agency to come up with what makes people more creative. We need more creative managers. They came up with one sentence like an ad agency would after six months or so of thinking. The sentence was people who think they’re creative are and people who don’t think they’re creative aren’t. So, that’s an interesting one, right? It has a lot to do with self-definition. If you can define yourself as creative, if you can open up the possibility that you might be. Interestingly, a lot of our students say that they’re not. Why do they even choose a degree? A lot of them say that they’re not in the beginning. I would say that all of them would say they were by the end because they’d been immersed in the process over the course of four years. So, I’d say you can learn it. You have to be open to learning. Openness is one of those qualities that all creative people have.

Douglas Nicol:                  It’s interesting you were talking about the effort ratio on solving a problem. Quite often we jump to the solution. I think what you were saying just then is that actually you should spend an equal amount of effort defining the problem you’re solving. Do you want to tell us a bit more about that?

Bem Le Hunte:                 Yes. So, problems are complex, right? They’re not just connected to one domain anymore, are they? So, if you think about the problem of health in our society, is health just a medical problem? Is it a social problem? Is it a problem that education should tackle? Is it a problem our chemist should tackle? Is it a problem our politicians should tackle? I mean it’s all of them. So, we need to work together and we need to look at the complexity of the problem space. I think that’s where our students are really good. That’s where we have developed something of an expertise in teaching these skills.

Nick Abrahams:               This leads us into this thought of design thinking and there’s a lot of buzz around this expression of design thinking or human centered design. What exactly is that?

Bem Le Hunte:                 So, I don’t want to be too controversial, but we don’t do design thinking. Some of our industry partners have come along said “We’ll teach human centered design.” and I actually have to stop them and go, “Actually, we’re not privileging design. It’s one of many disciplines that we have evolved over millennia as human beings in our knowledge creation process.” There are places where you can use design as a predominant methodology that is imposed on other disciplines. Say for example at Stanford, you can go on a D school design thinking course if you’re a med student and you can see how design would impose itself on another discipline.

Bem Le Hunte:                 When we’ve had, for example, an industry partner come in and say, “We’ll teach your students human centered design.” I have a few issues. I’ve rewritten that brief and called it human centered everything, given it to our lawyer. Our law academic who went, “Ooh Bem, law isn’t human centered. What are you talking about?”

Nick Abrahams:               Exactly right now dear me.

Bem Le Hunte:                 Then she went away and she did some thinking about it. She said … Well, actually she did the most beautiful piece on when you become a human, when you stop being a human in the law and the legal perspective on being human, which was really thoughtful and contrasted beautifully with the health academic professor of midwifery who talked about patient centered care and why that was so important. All the different disciplines and fields and industries have an equivalence of human centeredness.

Bem Le Hunte:                 One of the things that we also challenge is why everything be about the human. One of the reasons why we’re in a mess in this world is because everything is seen to serve us. The natural world has to serve us. Actually, how about we serve the natural world a little bit more? So, we try … of course we teach human centered design, but it has to go deeper than that.

Nick Abrahams:               I think that picks up on a very important theme that’s going through the corporate world these days, which is no longer can you just think about your stakeholder as being your shareholders or your customers. It’s across the board. It’s not only is it shareholders and customers, but it is the environment and it is social good. We’re not going to be … as you know, people within large organizations, we’re not going to be allowed to just focus on one particular set of stakeholders. I think there’s a holistic approach that’s required.

Douglas Nicol:                  The course you’ve created, it’s been in market for three, four years?

Nick Abrahams:               No, six. We’re now six years.

Douglas Nicol:                  Six years. Okay, six years and it is now a very in demand course, because I think people are starting to wake up to the fact the ability to problem solve, the ability to innovate and collaborate with people of completely different species and background is a key skill of the future. Is this a unique course creative intelligence in the world or is it an emerging very common thing to be taught to graduate?

Bem Le Hunte:                 I’d say it was completely unique. There are hyphenated degrees, double-barrel degrees and there are degrees which are broader than others. I think that this is the first degree with the ambition, radical ambition I’d say to combine students from 25 different disciplines and use their disciplines [inaudible 00:10:50] their disciplines, in the teaching of the degree.

Nick Abrahams:               Bem, is there an example over the last six years that you like to use around a student who sort of came in thinking one way and then their world was turned upside down or they changed the world for the better in any way?

Bem Le Hunte:                 There are so many examples that I would be hard pushed to find one. Really, we’ve had incredible students. I mean my mind goes directly to a student who came as a refugee from Iraq, age 16, to Australia with not very much English and ended up sort of topping out in the degree and working with Google as an industry partner. So, I love those kinds of stories where people have an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Equally, I’ve had students say to me, “I was just a girl from the North shore and my mind’s been blown and I’ll never look at the world again the same way.” I think that’s the key to it really. You can’t unsee what you’ve seen. You can’t undiscover what you’ve discovered, especially about yourself.

Nick Abrahams:               Douglas, you’re from the North shore?

Douglas Nicol:                  Absolutely. I’ve seen the light.

Nick Abrahams:               So, you got 25 different degrees and you can sort of append creative intelligence to those. Has there been any area, and you can … this is anything from finance to journalism to law. You name it, a whole load of different things. Have you struggled ever to link this idea of creative intelligence with a particular degree or other degrees that you can append it to or is everyone needs that?

Bem Le Hunte:                 No, everybody could do it. Everyone needs it. Everyone needs it and it’s not just me who’s saying this. The students say, “Why have we waited 13 years to have an experience like this in education that’s radically different from being just taught content? Why doesn’t my core degree have this kind of approach to teaching?” Then I’ve had people from industry says, “Oh very well Bem that you’re future proofing this fantastic cohort of students, but what about the mature age workforce?” Then I’ve had school teachers say, “How about you back map what you’re doing there and make it available in our high schools and primary schools even?”

Nick Abrahams:               You support that thought of …

Bem Le Hunte:                 Of course.

Nick Abrahams:               Yeah, yeah.

Bem Le Hunte:                 There is an imperative when you see something working to upscale it on some level and there is … we have created a beautiful prototype. So, how do we allow this to grow and to have impact beyond a university beyond the country is the next big question beyond even education.

Nick Abrahams:               Because I would’ve thought it fuels entrepreneurship. There’s great economic argument for actually people being up-skilled in creative intelligence. Do you think government gets this?

Bem Le Hunte:                 Well, it’s interesting because government has creativity in its educational curriculum. It’s embedded there as an attribute that should be across the curriculum. Unfortunately, I don’t think that they quite know what that means yet. It hasn’t been articulated properly. So for example, my son was in a science class doing something on genetics or GM, I think that’s right. He was told to, “Oh, and by the way, while you’re studying this make a little diagram or a little badge decorator badge on it.” That is seen as creative integration. I think of that as very unintegrated approach.

Nick Abrahams:               Maybe if we can unpack the creative process for a moment and particularly, around like I said, how do we get creative, how do you generate good ideas? Maybe that’s a place to start.

Bem Le Hunte:                 So, the ideation phase is one phase of a creative process and depending on what discipline you’re doing, and is the most creative phase for a scientist, let’s say the experimental design phase. It’s not just coming up with the ideas. I think in creative industries it’s very easy to think that’s what the creative work is. So, I think a lot of it is the way we approach it in our degree is we give students a lot of frameworks that they have to organize their projects into. So frameworks that already exist, but also we get them to imagine their own frameworks because there’s so many different projects that they’re doing. It’s not easy to confine it to one process. So, we just give them touch points in the fourth year, for example. They need to evidence that they’ve had a scanning phase, evidence that they’ve had a generative phase or an ideation phase, evidence of an experimental phase, evidence of an iterative phase and evidence of an analytical faith, for example.

Nick Abrahams:               Right. They’re working on a particular project [crosstalk 00:16:09]?

Bem Le Hunte:                 Yes, that’s right. They have … no, by the time they’ve got over a hundred creative methods from across disciplines that they’re using at different points in their discovery journey, that they’ve plotted themselves and mapped out to suit each project.

Nick Abrahams:               So, it’s not just brainstorming and post it notes?

Bem Le Hunte:                 No, brainstorming is one of many, many, many …

Nick Abrahams:               Sorry. Am I coming from the 80s?

Bem Le Hunte:                 One of many methods where you do use a lot more than just that, which is … and there are many ways to brainstorm even, many different methods within that.

Nick Abrahams:               We quite often brainstorm in a very poor way in that it becomes a competitive sport almost. It’s not necessarily about supporting other people’s ideas. It’s about your idea winning and being the most popular idea. Are there other problems with just getting in a room and just brainstorming? Where do you go wrong with a brainstorming?

Bem Le Hunte:                 No, that’s really interesting because I come from creative industries. I’ve worked through three decades in creative industries before I ever went into teaching. When you teach, you have to actually unpack your creative process so that you can share it, right? You can’t just keep it to yourself and then you have to learn more about how other people do it. Then you have to learn the theoretical side of what improves it. You get to learn more methods. You get to learn more frameworks. You get to learn more theories. It’s an interesting proposition going back to creative industries again and just doing brainstorming, which is what I used to do. A lot of things that I did subconsciously without that analytical part of my brain. I was probably doing a lot of that in the brainstorming process, but I’ve learned so much more since then. Yeah, I think it can go very wrong if there are egos involved in idea ownership. I think this younger generation is pretty good at collaborating what we’ve seen. Yeah.

Nick Abrahams:               Do you think that this creative process because it sounds like there’s various processes that you can go through to come up with it. Is there a risk that we end up with some of the criticism that might be leveled at say Hollywood movie making where they learnt that the three act structure worked really well and the hero’s journey and then you saw … you can effectively watch every Disney movie and it’s the same template just replayed with slightly different characters. You actually end up by teaching creativity by numbers in some respect. You could end up actually just creating people doing the same thing over and over.

Bem Le Hunte:                 Well, I think it’s really important not to do it by numbers. I am not a fan of the template driven approach to innovation that innovation consultancies come up with. Like here, you do this sheet here first and that stage one and then you’ll do stage two and then you’ll go onto stage three. Suddenly you’re in a machine, you’re in some sort of factory that’s spitting out generic product. What you’re talking about in terms of the Hollywood three act structure, that was beautiful work that went into that. There was the beautiful work of Joseph Campbell’s and then Christopher Vogler’s whole articulation of that as structure.

Bem Le Hunte:                 I think that creative people have always worked well with constraints and it’s good to have those constraints. It’s good to know those rules, but it’s also good to play around with them. So, we don’t say to students, “You will do design thinking. You’ll do this, you’ll do that. You’ll use this creative method.” We give them a smorgasbord and then we challenge them to say, “You’re not just consumers of knowledge, you’re going to be producers of knowledge now. We want you to come up with your own creative method for ideation or for critical thinking or for any part of that creative process. Come up with your own method and then show us how it would be used in solving a brief.”

Nick Abrahams:               I’m interested in your other life. You’re a novelist and you’ve published five or six different novels and you’ve got a new one coming out. In that time, you’ve really learned a lot about creativity and creative intelligence. How has that changed the way you write as an author? Has it changed the development of … have you looked at it more left brain? Is it a more creative processes? Is it a richer process? How has it changed?

Bem Le Hunte:                 So, I have led a very inspiring life over the past six years in creating this degree and I’ve learned a huge amount. I think one of the things that I’ve really learned is futures thinking. I ran a course subject called past, present, future of innovation, which was a fabulous subject, secondary subject in my degree for several years. One of the things that has really inspired me to think deeply is what on earth are we going to take into this great big future of us that we have awaiting us and what and who do we leave behind? So, those have become important questions that kind of guided the writing of my fourth novel, which is about to come out next February called Elephants with Headlights.

Bem Le Hunte:                 It starts off with a character who’s bringing the driverless car to India. Now, India is a country with ancient beliefs and chaos on the streets and people who are begging on the streets and people who are doing circus acts on the streets and elephants on the streets. They’ve just made a rule that elephants have to wear headlights. So, they’re bringing along the driverless car. So, what on earth is that going to look like and what will this country, this juggernaut of a country going into the future at great speeds have to leave behind in order to go there? That’s one of the central questions and it’s very inspired by the work I’ve been doing and a sabbatical I was able to take whilst working.

Nick Abrahams:               Do you fear a homogenized world where things like technology just make everything the same? Is that a concern?

Bem Le Hunte:                 Not in this novel, but there is that danger. There’s also all kinds of dangers that are very well discussed in academic circles and in the media too around algorithms, having to be held accountable because they’re not neutral. They always embed values and all sorts of questions around data, big data and machine learning. How are we going to record our data? Who’s going to have access to it in the future? Then of course the big question. I was in a debate the other day around around CI versus AI, creative intelligence versus artificial intelligence and what exactly is the human going to be able to do. I think that creative thinking is one of the most important skills that we have.

Nick Abrahams:               You’ve really challenged the status quo in terms of university life and so forth. Could you give us a sense of, I guess, how do you think universities are responding to this challenge? Obviously UTS has picked it up, but do you think universities equipping our people for the future?

Bem Le Hunte:                 I think that they have to because they’re under pressure to now more than ever before and they’re having to reframe their offering so they’re having to think of lifelong learning, not just the three years that they offer because everyone is going to need to reskill and upskill all the time because they’re going to be going through an incredibly large number of career challenges and lose their jobs and have to upskill and find new things to work on and new interests and passions.

Nick Abrahams:               With the lifelong learning thing, so it’s not something necessarily that people have been drawn to naturally. If you look at the average human existence, it hasn’t embraced lifelong learning necessarily. We get to a certain state and we get very comfortable and then relax. We are going to be driven to lifelong learning effectively because of the nature of the job market and [inaudible 00:24:48]. Do you think that is going to be a comfortable experience for people? Are people ready for that level of tumult in their lives?

Bem Le Hunte:                 I think that it has to be presented in such a way that it’s an enticement and an inspiration, not a threat, because if we feel threatened, we’re not performing at our maximum level are we? So, it does require big shift in thinking of what education could be. I don’t think that all universities are doing it. There is the dead hand at the past in the university system and there is this feeling that we’ve been doing things right all this time, and there’s also this feeling that yes, we have to innovate and innovation is usually done with a little I rather than a big I or it’s, “Okay, we have to innovate that means we need to go first to technology. Technology is going to save us as this technological triumphalism. Technology will save our species and we’re going to be okay. It will save education. We can do more for less and we can upscale what we’re doing.” I think that presence learning is still going to be really important.

Nick Abrahams:               Can you talk a little bit about present learning?

Bem Le Hunte:                 I think that it’s a very good way to be authentic as a learner if there are people in front of you who are real. There are benefits in online learning. Often introverts are able to contribute a lot more. That’s what the research shows. You talk to people like Matthew Brimer who’s set up General Assembly and was entrepreneur in residence in Sydney recently. He said after all the big shift towards online learning, the big takeout was that actually it has to be face to face too. Hence the physical centers.

Nick Abrahams:               I think that’s an interesting area because I think we are so used now to engaging with people online. We talk about social media and the adverse impacts, but at some stage they must be that reversion back to the human contact and as humans, we crave that need to be together with people in whatever environment.

Bem Le Hunte:                 I think that’s really important. Certainly, it is in our environments.

Nick Abrahams:               A final question from me is, do you think employers value creativity? Is that yet recognized as a core reason why you would employ someone?

Bem Le Hunte:                 Well, yes. I’d say that they do. Just before we started this degree in 2010, IBM did that famous survey where they cited creativity is the most important trait that companies around the world are seeking. CEOs around the world are seeking in their CEO survey. More recently, the World Economic Forum has listed the top skills for 2020 and creativity is right up there in the top three along with problem solving and thinking complexly is going to become even more important than it is now. So, what we’ve been doing for last six years is kind of predicted this shift that the world is going through I guess, and the demands that are coming from industries and employers. Yeah, students are pretty much in demand.

Nick Abrahams:               Yeah. Fantastic. Now Bem, just to finish off on the new book, so Elephants with Headlights. I assume the elephant, it sort of feels like it’s an autonomous vehicle as well one would assume. It has its own will surely. So, when’s that due out?

Bem Le Hunte:                 That’s due out in February.

Nick Abrahams:               Terrific. Well best of luck with that, Bem, and thank you very much for coming and joining us here on Smart Dust.

Bem Le Hunte:                 Thank you.

Douglas Nicol:                  If you want to find out more about Bem, visit our website, That wraps it up for this episode. There are as always links and notes to peruse for this episode in the iTunes program notes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please rate us on your podcast platform of choice and indeed go crazy and subscribe to Smart Dust. So for me, Douglas Nicol …

Nick Abrahams:               And, Nick Abrahams.

Douglas Nicol:                  Bem, thank you very much.

Bem Le Hunte:                 Thank you.

Douglas Nicol:                  Thanks everyone. Goodbye.


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