Creativity Workshop

The Numerical Analysis Group at the University of Manchester held a two-day Creativity Workshop at Shrigley Hall in the Cheshire countryside at the end of May 2013. All of the numerical analysis staff, postdocs and PhD students attended, along with two external collaborators from NAG and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

After successfully piloting creativity workshops in 2010 under the Creativity@Home banner, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) now encourages holders of large grants to exploit creativity training.

A creativity workshop is an event in which a group of people tackle questions using a structured approach that encourages innovative ideas to be generated and carefully assessed and developed. It avoids the trap that we readily fall into of evaluating ideas too soon. Such an event needs an experienced facilitator who understands the nature of creativity and can skillfully guide the participants through the steps of tackling problems.

We were fortunate to have as our guide Dennis Sherwood, a leading expert on creativity who has worked with a wide variety of organizations including Manchester United, the National Grid and the European Commission, and who is recommended by EPSRC (indeed Dennis previously led an EPSRC-funded creativity workshop in 2010 that I attended as part of the Manchester CICADA team).

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Dennis provides participants with a day of creativity training before a workshop. He quotes Koestler’s law (from The Act of Creation, 1964):

The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament.
It does not create something out of nothing.
It uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes, already
existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.
The more familiar the parts the more striking the new whole.

He points out a problem with Koestler’s definition: it assumes that the sub-assemblies that are selected, reshuffled, and so on, are already explicitly there. In practice they are usually there within existing patterns, and may not be so obvious. He formulates Sherwood’s Law:

Creativity is the process of forming new patterns from pre-existing
component parts. The more the resulting pattern shows emergent
properties, such as those of beauty, utility, or value,
the more powerful the corresponding idea.

So creativity does not necessarily need new ideas (in any case, we usually don’t know if an idea is novel), but is about taking existing ideas and combining them in new and unanticipated ways. Dennis’s training days and his books 1, 2 explain the principles of creativity and the workshops themselves help put them into practice.

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At our workshop a number of questions were addressed, including “Being a magnet for talent”, “The undergraduate curriculum”, “Software and programming languages”, “The PhD experience”, as well as strategic plans for the group and plans for future research projects and grant proposals.

By the end of an exhausting workshop many ideas had been generated and assessed and the group is now planning the next steps with the help of the detailed 94-page written report produced by Dennis.

Despite some understandable initial skepticism among some attendees new to the creativity workshop concept, everyone participated fully and enjoyed the experience. I thoroughly recommend such a workshop to other research groups.

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Photo credits: Nick Higham (1,4), Dennis Sherwood (2,3).

Footnotes:

1

D. Sherwood, 1998, Unlock Your Mind. A Practical Guide to Deliberate and Systematic Innovation. Gower Publishing Ltd., Aldershot, Hampshire, UK.

2

D. Sherwood, 2001, Smart Things to Know about Innovation and Creativity. Capstone, Oxford, UK.

Gene Golub SIAM Summer School 2013

A two week Gene Golub SIAM summer school on matrix functions and matrix equations was held at Fudan University, Shanghai from July 22 to August 2, 2013, in conjunction with the 3rd International Summer School on Numerical Linear Algebra and the 9th Shanghai Summer School on Analysis and Numerics in Modern Sciences. This was the fourth Golub Summer School and the second devoted to numerical linear algebra.

45 PhD students attended, coming from institutions in 15 countries. The lecturers were me and Marlis Hochbruck (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany) in week 1 and Peter Benner (Max Planck Institute, Magdeburg), Ren-Cang Li (University of Texas, Arlington) and Xiaoye (Sherry) Li (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, USA) in week 2.

My 10 hours of lectures were on matrix functions. The slides and exercises can be downloaded from my website.

The lectures were held in the mornings in the GuangHua Twin Tower – an impressive, marbled 30-storey building on the Fudan campus. Attendees were grateful that the lecture room was air conditioned, as the Shanghai summer was at its peak of temperature and humidity, and on the Friday of the first week a record temperature of 40.6 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit) was reached in the city.

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The GuangHua Twin Tower from my room in the Fuxuan Hotel.

Afternoons contained exercise sessions, 10-minute presentations by the students on their thesis work, and a guest seminar by Hongguo Xu (University of Kansas) in week 1 and Heike Fassbender (TU Braunschweig) in week 2. These were fully attended and it was great to see the students working so enthusiastically together and interacting with the lecturers.

For the lunches and dinners the students and lecturers sat together in randomized positions – an excellent idea on the part of the local organizers which helped ensure that people got to know each other.

Group photos at conferences can be rather shambolic. This one was the most professional I’ve ever seen. When we arrived at the designated spot the photographer had already set up three rows of metal staging and the photo was quickly taken (just as well given the scorching heat even at 8.15 am). Laminated photos were delivered to participants the same afternoon.

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The local organizers are to be congratulated on an excellent job. In particular, Weiguo Gao and Yangfeng Su (Fudan University) and Zhaojun Bai (UC Davis) were busy every day making sure that the event ran smoothly. Daniel Szyld (Temple University) must also be mentioned for his excellent work over the last 5 years in chairing the SIAM committee that manages the Gene Golub SIAM Summer School program.

The school was generously supported by the SIAM Gene Golub Summer School fund, the Shanghai Center for the Mathematical Sciences, ISFMA (Sino French Institute of Applied Mathematics), the NSF (USA) and NAG.

Three things will stand out in my memory from the School. First, the enthusiasm of the students, among whom will no doubt be some of the future leaders of our field. (See the blog post by my PhD student Sam Relton.) Second, sitting in the plush 15th floor cafe of the GuangHua Tower chatting to other participants over a cafe latte with smooth jazz coming over the speakers. Third, the Chinese (motor) cyclists, who carry a wondrous variety of goods on their bikes and ride without any attention to the traffic signals but miraculously seem to avoid accidents. See the photos below taken on the short walk from the hotel to the department!

In summing up I can do no better than to endorse Charlie Van Loan’s words in describing the first Gene Golub Summer School in 2010: “The idea of a summer school for graduate students from around the world is the perfect way to honor Gene’s memory. It is exactly the kind of activity that Gene loved to promote.”

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Professor Tatsien Li making welcoming remarks.
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Marlis Hochbruch.
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PhD student Antti Koskela (Innsbruck).
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Zhaojun Bai addressing the school.
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Morning callisthenics in front of the GuangHua Tower.

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