The power of play to fuel innovation
Innovation is one of those buzzwords people have had a love/hate relationship with for a long time. It was everywhere at this year’s SXSW, even inspiring an Onion article making fun of how many times the word innovate was used at the interactive conference. This past year I jumped on the innovation bandwagon, embracing human-centered design thinking and experimenting with doing things differently at the Ad Council. So I made it my SX theme, attending as many sessions with the “I” word as I could find, including one called Burning Man: From Free Play to Innovation Science. I’ve never been to Burning Man, but after this panel, I was ready to grab some goggles and hit the Playa. Here’s what I learned:
Play is not just “taking a break”
Real play has specific characteristics according to Stuart Brown, who is the founder of the National Institutes of Play and has been researching the importance of play for decades. Play is voluntary; it allows you to have an experience for experience’s sake, absent of a need for a specific outcome; it allows for a diminished consciousness of self; and it offers freedom from a sense of time.
Because if you don’t play ever, you might hurt someone. Really. Brown talked about how play deprivation leads to rigid thinking, lack of resilience and antisocial behavior. What play does is strengthen our ability to adapt to uncertainty, be creative, trust and bond with others. It also builds more tolerance for risk, which is an inherent part of play (you might fall off those monkey bars!). Alas, the connection between play and many of the traits needed to innovate is clear.
I also learned that we’ve been playing for a long, long time. All the way back to our hunter gatherer days where we spent 20 percent of our days just playing. We actually created festivals before we created cities. The best way to get back to our primal play selves? Have a feast – ideally with food, friends and fire. Throw in some dancing and costumes. Or just go to Burning Man.