Press Play ▶️ On Innovation


In this blog, N8 Research Partnership’s director Dr Annette Bramley explores the importance of play to research outcomes…


“A better research culture should also lead to more research excellence- who ever had a great idea when they were miserable, bullied or afraid about what they will do when their contract runs out?”

I made this remark during the Wellcome Reimagine Research Culture Festival, and judging by the reaction of researchers on social media- this seems to have struck a chord.  In contrast, a survey that I put out recently, asking about interest in Imaginative Collaboration has so far met with what I might best describe as a ‘lukewarm’ response, with one respondent commenting, “I’m not sure how creative thinking and collaboration would help my career.”

I started wondering when creativity and imagination became second-class research citizens to careers, striving and stress.  I thought that perhaps it was down to Thomas Edison, who famously said that, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”.  But then I also found out that the same Thomas Edison also said that, “I never did a day’s work in all my life- it was all fun,” and, “To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk”.  I can’t lay it all at his door then after all.

My children, when they were younger, used to channel their inner Thomas Edison with their imaginations and piles of junk being turned into all sorts of new and exciting toy innovations.  They would be absorbed for ages, creating, imagining and playing.  Children’s play is hugely important for their learning and development[1]. It’s so important in fact that the right to play is enshrined within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But play is not just vital for children, in recent years it has been shown to be valuable for adults too.  The work of Stuart Brown, for example, has shown that play is as critical to our wellbeing as sleep.  He says that ‘the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression”[2].  We might well conclude from the responses to Wellcome’s 2018 report What Researchers Think About Research Culture[3], that there is an overwhelming sense of despondency in our universities.  Bringing more playfulness into our research and our collaborations might help lift our spirits, generate more creative and inventive approaches and build stronger, more resilient teams.


Play and Creativity

Play is, in some way, mentally removed from the real world.  When we are creative, we ‘play around’ with ideas.  We go and see ‘plays’ at the theatre.  ‘Playing’ is a process, not a destination.

Being able to let go of the need to have the solution, and to enjoy the process of creating the solution, literally takes the pressure off.  And when we are under less pressure, we can silence the voice of our inner critics and explore audacious options before we would ever have to take them out into the real world.  Being under less stress also broadens our horizons as we can take time to explore the problem from different perspectives without jumping to solutions.  Playing can be combining ideas in new and different ways just to see what happens.

Play can also provide a time and a space to challenge strongly held views and beliefs.  Play is inherently temporary, at least as an adult, so we can try out new perspectives and convictions without committing to hold on to them forever.  It can enable us to walk in someone else’s shoes and imagine what it might be like to see a situation from a different angle, or with different resources available to us.

Another way to challenge limiting beliefs about how a problem can be solved is to generate crazy, outlandish options, not because you want to use these solutions but because these can contain the nugget of a brilliant innovation if tamed or redirected.  As a facilitator, I’ve often encountered resistance to these types of activities in workshops with academics, because people often:

  • want to jump to ‘the’ answer;
  • feel that these kinds of activities are contrived;
  • are self-conscious or feel that the environment is not sufficiently supportive for risk-taking (also known as looking silly).

Creativity, though, is about engaging the imagination, stretching beyond the possible and taking some risks.  A playful approach can help, as can the support of a facilitator in setting up and holding a ‘psychologically safe’ space.  As a facilitator, I want people I am working with to feel that they will be ‘OK’ if they come up with a wacky idea, or ask naive questions, etc. and so can drop some of their inhibitions and stop self-censoring their imaginations, thereby setting their creativity free.  I want people I am working with to be able to ‘play around’ with their ideas, to build them up and then maybe knock them down deliberately and rebuild them again joining different bits of junk together with imagination.  I know that by playing they will be able to think of something that no-one has ever thought of before.  Playing with ideas can take our minds off actual research problems for a bit, silence our inner critics, and even help to relieve stress.

If you want any further evidence of the importance of play in research, you don’t have to look any further than two physicists at the University of Manchester that played around with a lump of Graphite and some Scotch tape.  Those two scientists were Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov, and their ‘Friday night experiments’ led to them being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the isolation of Graphene.

The question is not whether we can afford to make play part of research careers, but whether we can afford not to.  To press play for innovation, we need to invest in play and the players, and create cultures and environments where both play and the players can thrive.

This is Part I of a series of blogs about play and research culture.


Further reading/Links:


[1] A recent episode of the Cheerful Podcast- Reasons to be Playful is worth a listen if you’re interested in this