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Collective Creativity

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Mysterious voices echo from an enormous villa footed in the epicenter of ancient Rome. Well-recognized men—men with status and knowledge—are invited in to what seems to be a very private party. The house is owned by Scipio Aemilianus, a member of one of the most powerful Roman families at the time, and a big Greek literature geek. The predominant voice that bounces off the walls of the decadent chambers belongs to Panaetius of Rhodes, the seventh Stoic scholarch. Among the regular listeners, besides Scipio: Polybius the historian and Publius Rutilius Rufus.

This elitist philosophical club, patronized by Scipio who happily paid the bills, would later be known as The Scipionic Circle. Discussions in The Circle shaped, twisted and formed the future of both the Roman and Greek world, as Scipio’s power grew and eventually even ruled over Greece. Luckily, Panaetius' Stoic influence kept everyone present in the Circle’s meetings mesmerized, filing off any rough personality edges. The Scipionic Cirlce’s influence was no doubt very significant in the ancient world, although historians like to debate how direct its impact was.

Centuries later, at the end of the sixteenth century, similar patterns emerged in Florence. A group of humanists, musicians, poets, politicians and philosophers gathered under the roof of Count Giovanni de’Bardi—yet another wealthy Italian with perhaps too much time on his hands—to discuss, and successfully change, the trends in arts, music and drama. The gathering was known for its famous Florentine guests and would later be known as the Florentine Camerata.

The premise of the Camerata was simple. Music had become boring and corrupt, according to the members. They intended the art form to be restored the way the ancient Greeks had styled it. An open view to the composition and the flow of music was the greatest legacy of the Camerata. Although only indirect influence was attributed to them, without the Florentine Camerata, Bach and Mozart would probably never have composed world class musical pieces that tell a story.

Again centuries later, we turn our attention to Paris and its bustling cafés, at the very end of the 19th century. Tired of the persistent clinging to classicism, a small group of sculptors, art dealers and painters decided to challenge the Paris Salon art curators by giving birth to an endless slew of new art -isms: impressionism, pointillism, cubism, modernism, dadaism. Lively discussions about art and its future were consistently held in cafés, dutifully accompanied by a selection of wine and cigar smoke.

The Parisian avant-garde art movement attracted young talent from within France (Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas) and far beyond it (Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Piet Mondriaan, Wassily Kandinsky). Foreigners like the Dutchman Mondriaan and the Russian Kandinsky would eventually bring back ideas to their homeland to unleash artistic revolutions there, establishing De Stijl and Bauhaus.

Fast forward another century, until the early to mid noughties. This time, we are in London, more specifically inside its plethora of business hubs. These centers took turns hosting the Extreme Tuesday Club. The Club acted as a platform for software developers at the early beginnings of the agile and extreme programming movement, where ideas were proposed and critically evaluated on a weekly basis. Several well-respected software developers would make a guest entry in The Club: Jez Humble, Dan North, Chris Read, Chris Matts. It even proved to be an effective way to recruit competent programmers into ThoughtWorks—another well-known consulting firm.

The Extreme Tuesday Club was a unique and fertile testbed that managed to successfully breed Continuous Integration, Continuous Delivery, DevOps, Kanban and Technical Debt concepts, microservices, mocking techniques, …—the list is, again, endless. Other like-minded people mirrored The Club elsewhere, resulting in The Sillicon Valley Patterns Group, The Portland Patterns Group, The Salt Lake City Round Table, and so forth. The spirit of The Club lives on in innumerable Software Craftsmanship and Testing meetups around the globe.


What is the greatest common divisor between the Scipionic Cirlce, the Camerata, the London Extreme Tuesday Club, and countless of other examples the history books can show us? These gatherings somehow managed to completely change the field they worked in; which, according to Csikszentmihalyi, classifies as genuine creativity. I’d like to take this a step further and call it collective creativity: without a collective, the creativity of each genius partaking in the above meetings would never have reached that far.

The collective not only provided feedback: they provided critical feedback. This prevented the gatherings from becoming an echo chamber where no idea truly managed to break free. The collective not only provided knowledge: they provided diverse knowledge. It was no coincidence that The Scipionic Circle consisted of both philosopher, ruler, and historian. The same is true for The Camerata and others.

Conclusion? Heterogeneous communicating geniuses are better than a bunch of individuals. I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself when working in well-oiled teams, compared to fiddling on your own.

Dream Work Makes The Team Work. Or was it the other way around?

This is part one of my creativity story. Be sure to also read part 2: constraint-based creativity and part 3: creative critical thinking.

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 36 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail. Thanks!

In reply to Collective Creativity by Wouter Groeneveld Interestingly this came up yesterday at the FOSS4G-NL conference I visited, where Amélie A Gagnon talked about scenius as communal genius, a scene that jams together and creates results no singl...

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