Big data: “Whether you are reinventing physics or skateboarding, creativity is a core”

Eric Berlow from wethedata at TOA. Berlin
Eric Berlow from wethedata at TOA, Berlin Photo: Nika Kramer

Eric Berlow, co-founder of Vibrant Data, has the aim to use big data for social good. The scientist and ecologist researches networks in order to make complicated processes less complex. The goal behind his work: leverage ethical us of data from people to help them better understand themselves and better develop their human potential. At TOA, we talked about his collaboration with the Red Bull High Performance program and #hackingcreativity.

Interview for MaketechX from Sandra Wickert

Eric, what is the #hackingcreativity project and what is your motivation behind it? 
We all ask ourselves the question: What do great minds of our time have in common and where does creativity come from? To be honest, it is still a mystery. We are trying to understand how creativity works, not just in one person, but by mining data from thousands of people. This is a collaboration with the Red Bull High Performance team and is the largest study of creative styles in history – that’s why we call it “hacking creativity!”

Why is creativity so important to you, as a maybe more logic-orientated scientist?
Whether you are reinventing physics or skateboarding, creativity is a core! It is remarkable that we know so little of the creativity process of amazing people. This is why we are blending big data with traditional research.

How does the research work?
We collect data from thousands of people to see the patterns. We ask 150 questions, like: How often do you nap? What is your ideal setting for creating? Do you write down your dreams? We need to understand how people are similar and how they differ. We then connect people who are similar in their creative footprint. Once you connect many people and add the pieces together, we can start to see the emergence of ‘creative styles’.

Can a big company like Red Bull be trusted with such personal data?
We discussed this a lot with Red Bull, and together we decided to turn this challenge into an opportunity by leveraging what we learned in another project, In that project – which was a collaboration with Intel Labs- we learned that the core challenges to data democracy are data access, digital trust, data literacy, and openness. Red Bull immediately understood the importance of this project being authentic.They realize that it is ultimately most valuable to do something authentically inspiring. You don’t need to mine people’s data for targeted marketing if millions and millions are inspired by what you do.

With this big focus on data, are you not neglecting the uniqueness of people?
Just the opposite. The only way to understand how you are unique, is to see where you fit in the context of many others. The only way to see an outlier is to first find a trend. So with data from many people, we can help people understand both how they are similar to others, and also how they are unique relative to a group or the entire population. We can connect the dots to make a network of people that is much more than just a sum of the parts.

In which way can #hackingcreativity help people to get better in what they do?
In order to be better, the first and foremost is to understand yourself – what are your strengths, and what are your weaknesses. I taught in the university for many years and I found that many students don’t have a sense of what they are good at. With #hackingcreativity, if I can see who is similar and who is different to me – not in what they do but how and why they do it – I can use this as a mirror to better understand myself. For example, if you could see that you share a similar creative style to someone who inspires you, it can open the door to improvement by learning more about their own creative habits. If you can see why others are different from you, it helps you understand how to leverage your own unique strengths.

In which phase is the project at the moment?
At the moment, we have prototyped the survey and analysis on 2,000 people online, and we have successfully passed a full ethical review (IRB) for research involving personal data. We are ready to launch the first phase in early December, which will be invite-only targeting 1,000 selected inspirational people. Then we will open the platform to the world, so anyone can enter their data, see where they land in the mapp of creative style, and see which inspirational people are most similar to (or different from) them.

What is your motivation to be here at TOA today?
I am coming from Oakland/San Francisco – where there is a large community of tech entrepreneurship. It has been really wonderful to see the Berlin flavor of tech entrepreneurship which is doing an amazing job of more deeply integrating art with technology and science. As we are learning with #hackingcreativity – innovation often comes from creative remixing across disciplines. I am a TED Fellow, and the biggest opportunities from that experience have come from meeting artists, technologists, activists and makers who are very different from me. Bringing people together who share very similar values but do very different things is how you spark unique collaborations. This is just awesome.

Eric, Thank you very much for the interview.

What is creativity? Art Piece at TOA, Berlin
What is creativity? Art Piece at TOA, Berlin Photo: Nika Kramer
Artist at TOA Berlin. What is her key to creativity?
Artist at TOA Berlin. What is her key to creativity? Photo: Nika Kramer