The Calculated Creative

Can We Measure Creativity?

Just because creativity has an aspect mystery or unpredictability does not automatically mean it cannot or should not be measured.

Creativity has long been considered a nebulous, unpredictable, and entirely subjective human quality.

The romantic notion persists across cultures that creative genius is some ineffable lightning bolt from the heavens that cannot be contained or understood by rational systems of measurement.

But I argue that creativity can and should be measured, analyzed, and understood quantitatively. Here's why:

The Strong Case for Quantitative Metrics

Creativity is not some idle hobby - it drives progress and innovation in business, technology, science, arts, and culture. It is the root source of tremendous economic and social value in the modern world. As such, if creativity is important, we should measure it, map it, dissect it, and seek to comprehensively understand it. Measurement focuses efforts. With quantitative tracking and benchmarking, individuals and organizations can better set goals for self-improvement and nurture creativity over time.

Just because something seems subjective or qualitatively nuanced does not mean it cannot or should not be quantified. After all, phenomena like intelligence, emotions, aesthetics, ethics have subjective and unpredictable aspects but we vigorously quantify them with IQ tests, sentiment analysis algorithms, beauty ratings, integrity metrics and so on. Concerted effort has unlocked many insights hidden in the seeming chaos. Creativity does not easily lend itself to measurement - but that resistance is all the more reason we should develop quantitative metrics. With sufficient data and analytical rigor, we can better advocate for the importance of creativity policymaking, shape better incentives and systems to spark more creative output across societies.

Understanding the patterns and ranges in human creative thinking through quantification can also have positive social impacts. It can inspire new generations to see creativity as an acquirable skill rather than some magical gift. It can democratize access to tools and techniques to nurture individual creativity. In aggregate across communities, it can lead to greater collective creativity.

Four Promising Approaches to Quantify Creativity

Tracking Creative Output - This simple longitudinal approach quantifies creativity by tracking the discrete artifacts and accomplishments over time - e.g. patents filed, research papers published, artistic works completed, innovative consumer products launched, design projects executed. The volume, variety, consistency and trendlines demonstrated by an individual or organization on these creativity indicators indicate quantitatively how creative they are. Establishing category-specific benchmarks allows more contextual interpretation.

Divergent Thinking Tests - This psychology-inspired approach presents open-ended and ambiguous prompt and captures quantitative metrics around the ideas generated in response in a short time. For example, participants may be asked to name “alternative uses for a brick” and evaluators would count the total number of different categories of realistic uses they can generate. Generating more varied responses reflects higher divergent thinking ability, indicating creativity. Such divergent thinking test performance can be compared over time and across individuals.

Expert Evaluation - This qualitative approach relies on quantification of subjective assessments of creativity by panels of domain experts evaluating creative products or outputs. For example, a panel of artists, photographers and architects can rate a piece of art or a building design on various dimensions like novelty, usefulness, complexity, stylistic diversity and aesthetic appeal. Aggregating such numerical ratings or scores from multiple experts evaluating the same work quantifies its creativity in a structured way. Works can thus be compared within and across domains on comprehensive creativity benchmarks.

Computational Creativity Metrics - This emerging digital approach involves quantifying signals and patterns in the informational and semantic content of creative works using a variety of computational techniques - e.g. lexical analysis metrics of textual works identifying unusual choices or combinations of phrases, metrics assessing the novelty, diversity and divergence of ideas or topics covered, even information theory metrics assessing levels of unpredictability and complexity embodied. Such algorithms can unlock new signals and insights into creativity which even human experts may miss.

Responding to the Skeptics

I understand the skepticism towards quantifying something as profound as creativity. It seems demeaning to the magic or dignity of human creativity to be reduced numbers and charts. Such skepticism is valid - the famous saying goes “not everything that counts can be counted”. However, it is also true that in modern societies we are already effectively quantifying many abstract facets in the contexts like psychology, economics, aesthetics and so on that past generations would have considered unquantifiable - happiness, intelligence, beauty, risk and so on now commonly reduced to scores, indexes and ratings.


The Takeaway

Just because creativity has an aspect mystery or unpredictability does not automatically mean it cannot or should not be measured.

With an open, nuanced and contrarian mindset, we can uncover wholly new insights through quantification.

Hidden patterns may emerge that provide keys to nurturing creativity across educational, organizational and societal realms.

Rather than defensively uphold outdated tropes of ineffable creative genius, I invite you to join me on this intellectual adventure of trying to shed more light on this foundational cornerstone of progress and innovation using the tools of measurement and analytics.

We may never fully capture or simulate the entirely of creativity with data and systems - but even to move our holistic understanding a few steps forward is a laudable goal.

The seeds of creativity themselves were planted in humanity's innate curiosity to understand realities by gathering data.

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