Cultivating Creativity in Conservation Science

“Creativity is a learned trait, rather than an innate skill. It can be actively developed at both the individual and institutional levels . . .”

Programs like Lynchpin and Living Data seek to harness the communicative energy of the arts to tell important science in new ways. The following article embraces many of the challenges we face in creatively making science accessible – and collaboratively moving beyond traditional approaches to do so.

∗Conservation Education and Science Department, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ 85743, U.S.A.
†Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, U.S.A.
‡School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, U.S.A.
§Earth 2 Ocean Research Group, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6, Canada
∗∗Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA 98225, U.S.A.
††Botany Department, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706, U.S.A.
‡‡National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Washington, DC 20013, U.S.A.
Journal Conservation Biology

Abstract: Conservation practitioners and scientists are often faced with seemingly intractable problems in which traditional approaches fail. While other sectors (e.g., business) frequently emphasize creative thinking to overcome complex challenges, creativity is rarely identified as an essential skill for conservationists. Yet more creative approaches are urgently needed in the effort to sustain Earth’s biodiversity. We identified 4 strategies to develop skills in creative thinking and discuss underlying research and examples supporting each strategy.

First, by breaking down barriers between disciplines and surrounding oneself with unfamiliar people, concepts, and perspectives, one can expand base knowledge and experiences and increase the potential for new combinations of ideas.

Second, by meeting people where they are (both literally and figuratively), one exposes oneself to new environments and perspectives, which again broadens experiences and increases ability to communicate effectively with stakeholders.

Third, by embracing risk responsibly, one is more likely to develop new, nontraditional solutions and be open to high-impact outcomes.

Finally, by following a cycle of learning, struggle, and reflection, one can trigger neurophysiological changes that allow the brain to become more creative.

Creativity is a learned trait, rather than an innate skill. It can be actively developed at both the individual and institutional levels, and learning to navigate the relevant social and practical barriers is key to the process. To maximize the success of conservation in the face of escalating challenges, one must take advantage of what has been learned from other disciplines and foster creativity as both a professional skill and an essential component of career training and individual development.