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Education focuses on learning new answers and ways to find answers to new questions.  In any field, newbies learn that simple answer is usually too crude: if taught to use a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.  At mid levels, people learn of more subtle answers and how to ask questions which identify what is relevant.  At high levels, the challenge is usually that the familiar ideas are known to be flawed but nobody knows where to find the better “more creative” solution.

This challenge is true of the real estate industry, which is often thought to be a mature industry (i.e. it has been around forever) and with little R& D (i.e. nobody is mixing exotic chemicals to produce a smoking mess followed by a shout of “Eureka!”).  But, people need to solve problems every day using practical creativity.  The payoff in the real estate industry is that solving problems improves somebody’s life in where they work, live or play.

As important as this skill is and as often as employers want to see it in the people that they hire, it is difficult to teach creativity directly.  Lots of people offer advice.  (Personally, I find the work by De Bono to be the most useful.)  Traditional education tends to focuses on asking students to answer lots of questions, with the hope that they will apply one of them later (i.e. not true creativity but repetition).

Part of the problem, from the perspective of students, is that real creativity involves taking risks.  As was discussed at a recent workshop that I attended, students “these days” seem so focused on getting the right answer in order to get the high grade in order to get the good job in order to … that they do not learn what they need to learn in order to succeed.

There are hopeful signs.  In my Urban Economics class, I teach the idea of agglomeration economies (about how location can affect productivity and efficiency, e.g. http://martinprosperity.org/).  To make this idea more personal, I asked a question at the end of my last group assignment concerning the students’ use of creativity.  The responses were interesting.

The most insightful comments concerned groups in which the members started with different ideas.  The members need to be smart enough to come up with an idea but discussion and debate help to edit or refine an okay idea into a much better idea.  The groups also wrestled with the challenges of dealing with unknowns: to know whether the unknowns are hidden but obvious (if you think about it long enough), critical or not.

The importance of discussing and debating ideas is not well-understood by students.  Some people seem so surprised to get one answer that they do not consider other, possibly better, answers.  My boss hopes that I know more facts and theories than any one student in my class, but it is a much tougher challenge for me to know more than all of the students combined.  It is often said that the CEO of a company is not necessarily the smartest person in the room but that great CEOs hire a group of people who, individually, know enough and are smart enough to create something which no one of them could have done alone.  That kind of group generates a insightful discussion which reduces the risk associated with a truly creative idea.

The real estate industry is becoming increasingly professional for many reasons and is always looking for better solutions.  In addition to whatever facts and theories and jargon is found in textbooks, it is worth noting that the REH program at the University of Guelph has 20 years of experience of welcoming people willing to discuss, debate and find the next great idea in real estate.