Is Data Killing Creativity?

Shantanu_NarayeneditededitedAdobe CEO Shantanu Narayen is in Davos, Switzerland this week, chairing the Media, Entertainment and Information Governors Meeting at the World Economic Forum.  This blog is cross-posted from the Forum Blog.

We are living in a world of “big data”; every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data that flows to and from smartphones, PCs, tablets, TVs and innumerable other connected devices. As chair of the Media, Entertainment and Information (MEI) Governors Meeting in Davos this year, I’ve been reflecting on what this may mean for our society in the future.

We know more, we do more, we’re more connected.  We have real-time access to content and information we never could have imagined.   And yet, I’m concerned that lost in this rising tide of data is the essence of what makes us human:  Creativity.  It goes far beyond the traditional world of art and music.  Creativity is the essence of invention and inspiration, and it is what fuels our economy.

Indeed, global research we conducted in 2012 showed that 8 in 10 people feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth and nearly two-thirds of respondents feel creativity is valuable to society.  But only 1 in 4 people – a strikingly low percentage – believe they are living up to their own creative potential.   Respondents revealed that productivity, not creativity, is what employers currently demand.

creativity infographic

How did productivity trump creativity?   Macroeconomic conditions have certainly created pressure on companies to produce results.  But has more emphasis on technical skills, operational improvements and hard numbers devalued creativity in the workplace?  Or does it start much earlier, in our schools, where the race to improve science, technology and math (STEM) abilities in students has overtaken time once spent on “softer” subjects?  Are we stifling our children’s imagination?

In a follow-up study we conducted in the United States, nearly three-quarters of respondents said creative thinking should be “taught as a course – like math or science.”  We as business leaders should advocate for this type of thinking both in our schools and our companies as we grow our next generation of employees.

Companies like ours who are in the business of content must also take responsibility for encouraging creativity.  All of us in the MEI community need to encourage creativity among our young people and in our enterprises large and small.   Whether it’s investing in small businesses with big ideas, entrepreneur in residence programs or educational scholarships like the Adobe Youth Voices Creativity Scholarship, we must keep creativity front and center.

We live in an extraordinary time where a treasure trove of content—data, photographs, books, music, video—can be made by and shared with the world.  Today, everyone can be a creator.   Everyone can share their creations and gauge the impact of that creativity whether it’s financial, cultural or societal.  What a gift to us all.


  1. Paul Weiskopf

    Good question. I do not believe that data is killing creativity. The volumes of data (most of which comes from individuals producing, distributing and having others engage with their content) being created are but another avenue for innovation. Problems associated with collecting, manging and drawing insights from data at scale are spurring innovation and creative approaches to solving these problems.

    At its root, creativity is about asking questions, being inspired and expressing a point of view. I agree that these skills are critical to the success of businesses and our society at large, and that we can and should do more to encourage the development of these skills at our schools and places of work.

    Data is not the problem. I see it as an area of opportunity and a treasure trove to be mined by inquisitive minds.

  2. Martin Wiedenhoff

    Creativity can be captured (data) and facilitated (Adobe Creative Suite). Historically it cannot be controlled – even in Auschwitz it was impossible to oppress creativity. Big Data makes it possible for talent to be identified faster, content to circle the globe no matter the language and generations to come will have access to their work at a very low cost. Traditional systems like education will have to adapt. Finished are the times where an artist became famous and rewarded for their work after they died. Data does make it complex to follow all the content, but people have never been more engaged and consumed more art, music, literature, politics etc. than today in the digital age. My 5 year old son asked me the other day to show me where Finland was on the map after telling him that Angry Birds was created by a bunch of Finns in a basement. 20 years ago he would never have discovered the game and Monopoly would still be the # 1 game on every kids letter to Santa!

  3. Mrinal Krant

    Data is like God, it always was, it is and will exit in future. Same for “creativity”. Data , whether in triillion terrybites or trillion trillion terrabytes are the same. We all have a fancy thing today called “Big Data” and no CEO wants to risk himself by not talking about it. Same was the case with “Cloud Computing” and will it kill sales of soft-wares and hard-wares. That did not happen but companies like, Amazon, etc got some marketing edge by being the front runners. Adobe is also on the cloud but is feeling the pinch of slow realized revenue as subscription model has it’s own ways of monetization. Good to know, Adobe CEO is thinking about what is missing in company’s way of looking at business, that may be stifling creativity. Interesting to see that the whole creativity is expected out of young and kids! Why not make “Creativity” as corporate goal and see how Senior Execs fare, if at all they agree to become “Sponsors” for creativity programs.

  4. Maureen Mihalik

    Interesting discussion. I completely agree with Paul’s response.

    I also find it interesting that only one in four people feel that they are living up to their creative potential. When is creative potential realized? How can it be measured?

  5. Kyle McCormick

    I don’t think data totally kills creativity. However, I do agree that macroeconomic conditions are forcing companies to look at numbers. I’m finding in my own position that I am wearing more hats everyday and that executives are demanding more reporting to show how things like digital marketing efforts impact revenue. With this taking up my time, it leaves less “free time” for me to think creatively. In order to be creative, one needs time to think ideas through.

  6. Helen Gammons

    Creativity is not about being inspired or expressing a view…in that case we could consider that we were all creative at some point, we are not. It’s like saying we are all as clever as each other, we are not.
    Creatives require time, space and nurture and the tools to be ‘creative’. Many organisations do not stop to think about how they choke creativity, fail to see its potential and then at the same time want results. Ask yourself when was the last time you had a truly creative idea…something new, something original that you or your business or employer could develop (innovation). More often than not creativity is killed unless you have a leader or manager who knows that harnessing creativity is of supreme importance and makes provision for it, including time and energy to fail as well as succeed. Data does not create creativity but is a tool to measure performance in a variety of ways. Using data can help enormously in planning and evaluation but not at the point of conception within the creative moment.

Shantanu Narayen, President and CEO

Preserving the status quo is not a winning strategy. As Adobe CEO, this core belief drove Shantanu and his leadership team’s successful transformation of Adobe, moving its creative software franchise from the desktop to the cloud, while creating and leading the explosive digital marketing category. He is passionate about building and empowering teams to drive product innovation and scale Adobe’s business globally, while advancing the company as a respected global brand and corporate citizen. Originally from Hyderabad, India, Shantanu has an undergraduate degree in electronics engineering, a master’s degree in computer science, and an MBA from UC Berkeley. He is a member of the Pfizer and U.S. President’s Management Advisory Boards and was named one of the world’s best CEOs by Barron’s magazine in 2016.

If Shantanu were not at Adobe, he would be a professional golfer.

Shantanu Narayen, President and CEO