Why getting our hands busy can help us solve climate change

Dr Belinda Wade Dr Belinda Wade
Principal, Sustainability & Climate Change
7 June 2022
6 min read

In 2016, a 5-year-old girl from the US went home to her mum crying because her teacher prohibited her from counting on her fingers during maths class. Apparently, for many teachers it's no longer acceptable for children her age to count on their fingers, as computing maths problems on our hands rather than our heads is seen as a cognitive weakness. But does using our hands to solve problems mean we're not as smart? Definitely not.

While we have been raised and trained to think that our intelligent behaviour comes from the brain alone, neuroscientific evidence shows that our thinking and decision making is heavily influenced by our physical experiences and environment. According to a study by Kingston University researchers Gaëlle and Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, using and engaging tools and objects helps humans by stimulating more creative ideas and solutions. "If you give people something to interact with, they think in a different way," Gaëlle explains.

However, in the digital era, we've stopped getting our hands as dirty as before. Designers work on tablets instead of drafting tables; engineers mock-up ideas on Miro rather than scribbling on a whiteboard.

In a time filled with volatility and uncertainty, challenges brought on by climate change continue to pile up. It begs the question: is it time for us to drop our thinking hats and start working with our hands to solve some of the world's biggest problems?

The strength of thinking with your hands

Doing or making something with your hands means you're activating parts of your brain that aren't normally accessed by thinking and speaking. The nerves in our hands are wired into a whopping 70-80 per cent of our brain. Doing something with your hands – be that gardening, knitting, chopping vegetables, playing computer games, using screwdrivers, or washing the car – allows us to connect into stores of information and knowledge within our unconscious minds. New ideas, processes and neural connections are generated to help conceive novel ideas and perspectives.

This very concept was demonstrated brilliantly via a two-stage experiment at the University of Queensland, which found the use of Creative Play Method involving hands an effective tool to teach scenario planning around sustainability.

In the first stage, students were given various tasks to complete with Lego, ranging from who could build the tallest freestanding sculpture to building structures that addressed various sustainability challenges such as providing water to remote villages in a developing nation. In the second stage, teams were assigned company case studies and guided through a four-step process to construct scenarios for the company's sustainable future.

Students who were taught scenario planning using the Creative Play Method identified more comprehensive and less obvious factors, and more novel critical events when constructing scenarios than students who were not exposed to the Creative Play Method.

Further, in a follow-up survey of the students who engaged in the Creative Play Method, 64 per cent felt that their creativity had increased through the process, and crucially 75 per cent reported using the skills gained in the scenario planning exercise in their further studies or employment.

Creativity is essential to solve the climate crisis

There's a reason why creativity is so important to helping solve the climate change crisis. Climate change is all about uncertainty and creativity is required to prepare for the unexpected. Scenario planning relies on people thinking outside the box to gather ideas around possible scenarios/issues/topics – and all of the associated financial, social, political, technological and geographical challenges – to really test different frameworks.

We instinctively have built-in biases about our future and expectations that it will be similar to our past experience: the extent of changes, the elements it comprises, and forthcoming developments. This bias, however, can be dangerous. In scenario planning, scenarios that are not developed with creative thinking and are largely based on predictable elements are useless for stress testing strategy. If we're planning for the future and not building creativity into our potential scenarios, we can't fully test the potential impact on company performance.

Who would have imagined 10 years ago that the world would be in lockdown for months to over a year? Or that three years of floods and fires could have contributed to widespread political changes? If we are to think 30 to 50 years into the future, we will have to overcome our biases and step out of our comfort zones and be a little crazy about what we should brace for.

More importantly, to look into the future, we also have to look at any biases that we have inherited from the past. Successes from the past are unlikely to work in the future, and failures may finally turn into triumphs later on. Just look at how Kodak's success faded when digital cameras came or how Google Glass made a comeback for professional use.

As much as we root for solar panels or wind turbines and other renewable energies today, we have to ask ourselves how will they perform in the future? Will their efficiency drop through altered weather patterns? How will we manage their end-of-life recycling requirements under increasing demands for circularity?

Embedding this further

So, how can we integrate more hands-on play into our day-to-day practices? Many organisations have created spaces for their people to make things with their hands: IDEO's office in Palo Alto is filled with toys, gadgets and prototypes of past projects for people to tangibly touch and play with in an attempt to trigger creativity. Google provides video games and wall climbing to keep creativity peaking. Is it any wonder the stereotype exists of creative agencies always having a foosball or ping pong table?

We might not work for Google, but all companies can promote experiential interactions and space for creativity by providing opportunities for employees to get away from their desks into new spaces. This can be as simple as providing areas for direct interactions between individuals with the old fashioned whiteboard and pens to assist in idea generation, to the provision of tools such as Lego in meeting rooms, and utilising variations in interior design elements to surprise.

Companies can also provide opportunities for employees to interact outside the office including via sport or creative classes such as language or cooking. Although promoting action and environments aligned with creativity are key parts to the challenge, a supportive corporate culture is also needed for a company to truly benefit from these investments.

In addition to designing and creating workplaces that facilitate this kind of play, we need to spread the word about the importance of play within teams. There is a reason we say 'experience is the best teacher.' There is nothing compared to being in the moment, feeling the energy and power of creativity at the tips of our fingers – counting, building, writing, holding, feeling, connecting bricks and solving problems one at a time.

Dr Belinda Wade
Written by
Dr Belinda Wade

Belinda loves walking in nature, baking and playing boardgames. Her favourite weekend activity is exploring inner city Brisbane for new breakfast spots with her husband, dog Ollie and (if awake) her three kids.

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