The Workers of the Imagination Age are the Workers of the Future

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Edited by: Alyssa Erin Telecky


In today’s business world, companies look for the technology advantage: a technological solution, product, or services that will allow them to lead in their domains.

Henry Ford pioneered the linear approach, structured environment, and a de-skilled, disciplined workforce, and the age of the automobile was initiated. Since then, it has been assumed that the business advantage can be found among individuals with business, engineering, and software experience. Of course, those profiles are essential for technology and technology is necessary. Of course, the linear, analytical, and structured business methods is crucial for the survival of any company. However, it is not enough.

As developments speed up, the roles of the human workforce are changing accordingly. In the technology sector as well. What is considered to be the secure job space –  is not anymore. The rise of artificial intelligence created challenges for the basic jobs of technology: coding, data analysis, and number crunching. Jobs we thought are protected. But if progress continues in this direction, with machines becoming better, faster and more accurate in their tasks, what roles might humans need to take? What is our next era?

Well, welcome to the “imagination age,” an era in which creativity and imagination will become the primary creators of economic value.

Charlie Magee, an illustrator, designer, and animator wrote about the imagination age in 1993. Since Magee worked in the creative world, he understood early on that what will eventually lead our economies is one of the artist’s most important skills – the imagination.

Business Managers Don’t Like Imagination

Business managers don’t like imagination. It is hard for them to discuss it. Imagination is something that is hard to estimate and hard to grasp, and in a world of “if you cant measure it, you can’t manage it” it seems nearly useless.

Then how can we speak about an “imagination age” for the business world to understand?

It is easier for us to define our periods by the “products” we produce: if it is agriculture, then we live in “the Agricultural Age.” Is it industry products? Then we live in “The Industrial Age.” Maybe it is computers and data products? Then we are in “The Information Age.” However, as the imagination age comes into view, what “products and services” will characterize it?

The central aspect of this age will be the reflection of the human spirit in products and services. The things that inspire us, engage us, relate to our values. Those are not the regular topics you find in an MBA class. But this is where the art and artists can help. All those human spirit aspects are the elements we tend to associate with art. This intuitive understanding of humans is an ability that is rooted in the world of art.

But art is not only understanding human spirit. It is based on imagination. The need to imagine a different world, while coming up with new products and services that will match this future, is becoming increasingly important.

Build “Something With Feelings.”

Snap is a good example. Evan Spiegel, the founder of the popular communication app, knows little code. His way of leading is through vision and design. As an art high-school graduate, Spiegel’s mission was to build “something with feelings.” It is not a coincidence, then, that Snapchat was the first to hone in on vertical video because that is how people naturally hold their phones. It was counter to the horizontal way video was supposed to be filmed. This was not so much a technological discovery as it was based on practical observation, and thought into the rising trends of everyday life.

Far more than technological resources, it is imagination that will make the difference between entrepreneurs in the 21st century and those of the past. We need to make sure we have imaginative people to help us progress: their part in the population should be increasingly valued and acknowledged.

The current generation of management earned their stripes in the information age, while millennials earn theirs in the imagination age. Management in these two areas has diverged in two largely incompatible directions. Managers who refuse to adapt to working with more creative people and choose not to foster a more imaginative environment will not survive in the job markets, much less remain leaders in their field.

It is time for managers to look beyond the traditional career fairs of MBA programs: imagination employees probably are not in abundance in these environments. The search for employees should be expanded to other schools – creative schools, like art and design. Do you want one example? Go to see what talented engineers and other creatives do at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. This is a place to find talent for your company. I believe it is the artists and creative entrepreneurs that can be of much help to the business world. They are needed to help foster this environment, stimulate it, and balance it.

Business managers might be surprised by how much the creative world can teach them. Especially in sectors where innovation drives competition. The world is increasingly giving importance to the individual’s experience, and the creative world is exemplary of a space where unique personalized experiences are delivered. If in the past it was the “knowledge” workers that were key to the future, now it is the imagination workers. The people who have the ability, capacity, and will to explore different spaces. The people that imagine different realities, and then create them.

Want to prepare yourself for the imagination age? One suggestion would be to embrace a more artistic mindset. I wrote about this idea in a previous post; it refers to your ability to keep an open mind, observe, question and come up with new ideas. Exercise this artistic mindset to develop your creative skills. It is not pointless, even though you may not be able to analyze it in the same way as other practices. Research shows that the ability to apply techniques and skills from one industry to an entirely different one is what leads to breakthrough and innovation. Realizing the importance of cultivating a creative mindset is the first step toward success. If you are in a managerial position, do not be afraid to hire creative people from other disciplines. They will definitely enhance your business in unique and progressive ways.

Maybe it’s time to base our decisions on a more up-to-date approach – on what might be, rather than on what is. We act as if the same processes and specialization we inherited from the industrial age approach are the “right” and only methods. Breaking a 250-year habit is not easy, I understand it. Many of us still think that we must decide between being imaginative and creative or being linear and analytical, I know I thought that way. We have failed to understand and act upon the fact that technology is developing at a rapid pace that questions our roles in the world, and may involve both creativity and information.

Picasso lived in an era where new technology was taking over – the camera. Seeing the camera, he asked, “if the camera can create a better reflection of reality, what is my role as an artist?.” By so doing, Picasso broke 500 years of tradition, ignoring the linear perspective, the typical colors, the representation. We all know how profoundly the Cubism movement by Picasso influenced 20th-century art. It took a different way of looking, a brave way of questioning what was considered “normal,” to change the human experience of art.

Now, who will challenge the way we think about business?


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