DH Lawrence once wrote of Walt Whitman as “pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life.” When Theodore Edmonds first read that line, he was intrigued, hooked, to say the least. It led him down a path of engaging life as a Culture Futurist™. An artist, cultural analytics entrepreneur and public health researcher, Theo currently is the Associate Dean for Transdisciplinary Research and Innovation at the University of Colorado, Denver’s College of Arts and Media.
So what is a Culture Futurist? Theo explained that he tries to make sense of the cultural trends in the present, and then use science to model what possibilities can emerge from those trends. “Culture is vital to defining, creating, and measuring wellbeing, innovation, and other elements across diverse communities,” he said. “Stories change the world. Data turns stories into an investable strategy. So combining and expanding the scope of the creative industries to co-create culturally responsive approaches to innovation and wellbeing has never been more important.” In so doing, he is deeply committed to the role of artists in society.
“I think about the artist as an analyst,” he told Sonophilia, “someone who identifies cultural opportunities for evolving population health and wellbeing impact agendas for innovation across the spectrum. I think about the artist as an entrepreneur, someone who develops unique value propositions from a lifetime of deep listening and paying attention to how the world is working, and then trying to use that to translate it through their art… Someone has to be a catalyst for that, and I think artists are a bridge for bringing a lot of that activity together.”
While he believes it is extremely important, Theo admitted he’s not so much focused on helping individual people locate their inner creativity. Mostly, he focuses on how arts, media and creative industries are already leading to novel, valuable innovation and connecting those insights into new market opportunities for humanizing the future of work. By investigating the intersection of culture, creativity and wellbeing, he has developed a sense for finding new opportunities in unexpected places and then using science and business methods to unlock and scale that work. He currently is taking deep dives into three bodies of research that share commonalities and intersections related to creativity: deaths of despair, brain capital, and the future of work.
“Technology acceleration, pandemics, social and environmental movements, are culture shocks and shifts that have broken the hard sod and soften the soil for new ways of thinking about deeply entrenched challenges. Whenever old mental models start to break down at the societal level, that’s an opportunity for innovation,” he said. “I know many artists and art historians beginning to work with data scientists and health scientists, for example. These transdisciplinary approaches deploy a transformational kind of creative activity with the potential to optimize and leverage the best of all the collaborators’ disciplines.”
Creativity, to Theo, is a leadership model. In the contexts of novelty and value creation, he believes creativity emerges from both divergent and convergent thinking processes. In essence, he reflects on what creativity itself predicts, rather than the other way around. This impression ties back into his commitment to the emerging role of the artist in the world, as a creativity-based leader in fields both within and outside of the arts.
Alongside a National Science Foundation-sponsored research team of artists, data scientists, and health professionals, Theo helped create what is known as the Cultural Wellbeing Index. This endeavor initially began as a diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation which focused on understanding cultural change management and innovation output as an interconnected organizational strategy. The aim was to build a bridge between the two and observe how they function together from a leadership perspective. They managed to leverage wellbeing and public health research and find a proxy measurement for inclusion, which included the constructs of hope, trust, and belonging.
“Ultimately,” Theo noted, “it was a holistic, inclusive, evidence-based index. So we can measure the organizational culture on employee wellbeing, and thereby have a proxy measure metric for inclusion, and trying to understand the inclusion of wellbeing as an innovation play within organizations instead of a risk management part of HR.”
More recently, Theo and his research/business partner, Cameron Lister, led Colorado leaders in developing a Small Business Resiliency Index which used different but similar approaches.
Creativity is a constant for Theo. It’s always happening, whether or not it’s acknowledged. “Humanity is always innovating. Where we see it and how we value it at a systems level, I think, is the more important question. Our hierarchical management systems of the old industrial economy are designed around a one-size-fits-all model. This results in some deep naivete and blind spots to the world that is emerging. We’re missing an awful lot right now, by just investing in one version of a solution because the person that came up with that solution may look like the investor or be coming from a field with a credential that says that they have the best insights.”
Theo’s role with the Sonophilia Foundation will see him working on a creativity factbook and collaborating on a sizable dataset that looks at the relationship between culture, wellbeing, creativity, and personal identity. He will also help put together a Creativity Congress in Salzburg next spring, which will then set the precedent for the Imaginator Summit on the future of creativity, planned for July 2022 in Denver, Colorado. This will bring together scientists, artists, business leaders, STEM professionals, and physicians for a three-day convening to explore the application of creativity and science through the data on the future of work, healthcare, and education.
“There are so many incredibly generous and brilliant people that are part of this group,” he said. “It’s been a great privilege to be able to learn from and with many of them… All of those [projects] have been made possible in some shape, form, or fashion because of the incredible relationships and intellectual, capital, and generosity of spirit from my fellow Sonophilians.”