New Report! The Power of Curiosity

June 14, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

(If you are just too curious to see the actual RSA report to read this blog, go here, now, and come back and tell us what you think…)

Curiosity is the very basis of education, and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly. - Arnold Edinborough

Tomorrow Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, will visit the Eco Technology Show in Brighton - a national showcase of the latest technologies designed to protect the environment and make our daily business and home lives more efficient. No doubt there will be lots of great gadgets on show, and most of them will have arisen from forms of innovation that we urgently need to address our future energy challenges.

Urgent seems to be the right word. A combination of high levels of economic growth in developing countries, the perceived imperative of economic growth in developed countries, and a rise in global population means that, short of a radical overhaul of the
entire world economic and political system, the world’s energy needs will continue to grow. And yet research at the Stockholm resilience centre suggests we have already harmed the planet beyond repair in certain ways (biodiversity loss and
disturbances to the nitrogen cycle) and, on our current trajectory, are likely to continue to do so to an increasingly damaging extent, particularly in relation to the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Our working definition of curiosity is “a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know.” 

We need more energy, but we are running out of planet. In this context, while political (e.g. meaningful emissions targets) economic (e.g. viable carbon markets) and technological (e.g. more productive renewable energy) solutions are important, any progress on these fronts need to be supported by reductions in energy demand and improved energy efficiency. Moreover, progress on these fronts should not be viewed as additive, but as inextricably linked. We need technology to enhance society, but technological design relies on human insight.

Unfortunately, the recent social attitudes survey, and various market surveys suggest that people are developing a kind of ‘green fatigue’, and part of the urgency has to be finding ways to reconnect people with the energy they rely on, but never think about when they boil four cups of water for one cup of tea or pre-heat the oven for twenty minutes instead of ten. Despite rising energy prices, we don’t seem to behave as if we understood that energy is scarce.

In fact we take many extraordinary things for granted. Clean running water, functional plug points, vanishing rubbish bags, warm white radiators, reliable car pedals, predictable light switches, safe gas hobs, and enormous metallic vehicles that somehow fly through the sky. We get used to such things, and learn how to live with them and through them. But is something lost when we cease to be curious about the things we rely on? In what ways might it help to be more curious, and what kinds of curiosity might currently be most needful?

In our report, launched today: The Power of Curiosity: How Linking Inquisitiveness to Innovation could help to address our energy challenges we explore these questions in detail.

we take many extraordinary things for granted. Clean running water, functional plug points, vanishing rubbish bags, warm white radiators, reliable car pedals, predictable light switches, safe gas hobs, and enormous metallic vehicles that somehow fly through the sky. 

Our working definition of curiosity is “a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know.” However, the first chapter probes existing definitions, measures and dimensions of curiosity in more detail, and we attempt to create an empirical measure of curiosity based on six questions adapted from the existing psychometric literature. The survey was used to gauge existing levels of curiosity throughout the UK.

One result in need of further analysis is that Scotland appears to be the least curious part of the UK, and Wales the most curious. We don’t really know why yet, which has made my job rather difficult today because on regional and national radio stations the presenters all want a clear explanation for that result(in itself an example of the information gap theory of curiosity that we mention the report). “What’s wrong with Scotland?”, was in fact the opening question of my interview with BBC Radio Scotland this morning. “Nothing!” was my reflex response, being Scottish myself, but they kept digging- could it be about education? confidence? I’m not sure, though I managed to slip in one of my favourite questions as a way of suggesting it might be ‘contentment’ : “If ignorance is bliss, why do we seek knowledge?”

I hope you can read the report, but if you want the jist, here is an extract from our conclusion:

Understanding curiosity can help to create more effective feedback on home energy consumption, improve how we communicate environmental messages, and develop more sophisticated strategies to change behaviours that are habitual in nature.

Our research indicates that curiosity may play an important part in stimulating innovation in ways that we urgently need to meet energy challenges in Britain. Understanding curiosity can help to create more effective feedback on home energy consumption, improve how we communicate environmental messages, and develop more sophisticated strategies to change behaviours that are habitual in nature. We also explore several ways that we could try to build on the natural curiosity of young people in educational settings.

If there is an overarching impression worth ending on, it is that curiosity may have been hollowed out in some sense. 

If there is an overarching impression worth ending on, it is that curiosity may have been hollowed out in some sense. Shallow curiosity can now be quickly satiated through Google or similar devices, but deep curiosity that arises from sustained focus and engagement is arguably not supported and protected in the culture at large as much as it could be. Creating a truly sustainable economy is an issue worthy of deep and sustained engagement from all of us, and it is hoped that a deeper appraisal of curiosity in all its forms may help to achieve this.

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