By Samantha Papadakis. A version of this post originally appeared on Making Noise

In late October, deep in the woods of Maine, a brain surgeon, a world-class skateboarder, a human-centered artist, an improv actor, a behavioral psychologist, a data scientist, a social entrepreneur, and a humanitarian (among others) gathered.

What, you might wonder, did these divergent thinkers and practitioners have in common?

And what business did a marketer like myself have at such a conference?

The answer was more obvious than what you might expect: everyone there had a vested interest in using creative problem solving to push the limits of innovation in order to make the world a better place. The goal of the conference, aptly named Sparks of Brilliance, was to use creativity—in all its amorphous and unquantifiable glory—to solve for some of the world’s most pressing problems. From a lack of access to critical resources like financing, energy, and health care, to combating deadly and degenerative diseases and mitigating climate change, the problems at hand were anything but insignificant.

The first part of this discussion made sense to me. As a marketer, I am by definition tasked with creative and innovative thinking to capture the imaginations of consumers. Part one: check.

But I do so as a means to sell more product, increase awareness, acquire new customers, build brand equity, and so forth. Few in the marketing world would argue that the primary use of our marketing skills—those we apply to multi-national corporations, technology enterprises, and consumer packaged goods companies—is to make the world a better place.

Connecting the Dots

This is precisely why I found myself at PopTech. I approached the conference with a critical curiosity, eager to learn how some of the country’s most innovative and divergent minds think creatively, especially when it comes to how they'll use that creativity to solve the pressing problems of our time. 

Helen Marriage of Artichoke spoke of mounting a 2,000+ pound electronic spider up the windows of buildings and through the streets of Paris, and shutting down traffic throughout all of London as a larger-than-life elephant paraded towards Buckingham Palace. In a world that’s hell bent on quantifying every action, she reminded us of the importance of pushing the boundaries of creativity for the express purpose of sheer humor, delight, and joy.

Brain surgeon Dr. Jim Olson spoke of his discovery of a unique peptide in the Israeli Deathstalker scorpion. When injected into the brain, this peptide can detect cancer cells with a level of accuracy that rivals the most advanced technologies and machines available today. He’s used this outside-the-box diagnostic technique to save the lives of countless young children from what otherwise would be incurable cancers and tumors.

Social entrepreneurs looked at the existing lay of the land throughout the developing world and married today’s technologies with imaginative thinking to connect people that previously were off the grid. They electrified cities in rural Philippines and provided healthcare access to the most remote and neglected villages in parts of Africa using nothing more than cell phones, batteries, solar power, and the participation of local community members.

Incredible? Yes. Related to marketing or what I do professionally by day? It’s a stretch, you might think. But as I sat through presentation after presentation, the dots connected: they all shared a commitment to the “end user” and a passion for solving problems that addressed the needs of their respective audiences.

A Passion for Problem Solving

Sure, the goals of these artists, doctors, and entrepreneurs differ from what I face with my work, but we all use creativity as a means to push the boundaries of our thinking so that we can deliver better experiences to our beneficiaries, whomever they might be. We use imagination to reshape our context, to approach problems from new angles, and to consider solutions that had yet to be considered.

Rather than letting constraints limit thinking, they force us to think creatively about how to do more with less. Brainstorming within constraints isn't always the glamorous side of innovation, but it's often when we stand to learn the most. In a world of constantly shifting budgets, new technologies changing the landscape daily, and evolving consumer expectations, this was a lesson that resonated more than most. I walked away with a new appreciation for constraints, and an ability to think differently about how to use them as an advantage.

The Future of Doing Good

By the end of the conference, it was clear that the creative problem solving practices of marketers aligned quite seamlessly with those of entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, and artists. This was a refreshing professional discovery—the applications of creative problem solving are endless! As a marketer mindful of solving problems, and a global citizens mindful of doing good, it was profoundly rewarding to see these world converge. 

In the end, whether you’re innovating solutions to eradicate illness, lift people from poverty, mitigate climate change, or market a product, it all starts with a deep understanding of human needs. Combined with a passion to translate that into groundbreaking ways of connecting with people, the power of marketing takes on a whole new meaning, and leaves me excited about what’s next.

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