How often have you had a great idea whilst out walking? Famous fans of walking as a way to improve creative thought include Steve Jobs, Charles Dickens, Aristotle and Freud. There is a technique called a dérive – literally drifting – which is a deliberate way to use walking as a way to stimulate new and creative thoughts. I was introduced to the dérive – “one of the basic situationist practices is the derive – a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences” on the very first day of study on the Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership at City University, London. Professor Clive Holtham, of Cass Business School London, is a big exponent of the practice and has developed a business dérive for his ongoing research.
A dérive is a way to enable a person to make time to allow for visually-orientated reflection, to allow for getting lost and engage curiosity as a way to find answers. There’s scientific research too which backs up the creative benefits of walking from Stanford University. All of this very much chimes with historian Simon Sharma who recently said we have become the “look down” generation – he says we frequently lower our gaze to interact with our phone or tablet and that this is leading us to be more disconnected from the real world and creativity.
On our induction session to the MA we were put into groups with fellow students (people we didn’t yet know) and Clive asked to find “innovation, creativity and leadership” by walking through an area of London for 2 hours. We were given no further information and told to interpret the challenge as we liked. We were to feedback to the rest of the group later that day using our observations and reflections as well as any photographs we wanted to take.
So, take a walk with a group of 3 strangers, in an unknown area and come back with insights for everyone else? No pressure then! So we set off, armed with our cameras. All 4 members of the team dealt with the lack of detailed instruction in different ways. I felt completely absorbed and immersed in the task in a state that Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow’, or the psychology of optimal experience. He observed that artists would essentially get lost in their work to the extent that they did not eat or sleep. He links this state to the capacity for happiness. The potential for distraction was vast yet I was deeply engaged for over an hour. Letting go of assumptions and behaviours was a stated aim of the dérive and I tried to actively embrace it. I didn’t experience the internal conflict I expected.
As a group we all appeared to embrace the ambiguity of the challenge and no-one verbally expressed anxiety or disquiet at the outset. The group contributed fairly equally although balancing contributions was challenging at times as we were attracted to different stimuli. The main benefit of the dérive for me personally was to connect the seemingly unconnected to make observations and that in itself was a positive creative learning experience. We all moved quickly from clichéd or obvious observations to more thoughtful and creative connections.
We made many useful observations and connections with things we saw. The picture at the top shows an abandoned child’s creativity centre that we found right at the end of our dérive – a totally apt find and metaphor for the experience and the task in hand.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” so said Anaïs Nin and this seemed relevant to our dérive experience. We run Creative Safaris in London if you fancy exploring the city and trying our take on the dérive for yourself.