Conference Interrogates Intersections of Creativity and Mobility

By Phyllis Jeffrey - Did the fact that Darwin wrote it at sea affect his theory of evolution? How will holoportation change the way we interact—and create? The Mobility-Creativity Nexus Conference, hosted by the Temporary Migration Cluster at UC Davis on April 8, 2016, convened to examine such questions.

Following opening remarks by Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Robert Feenstra, David Kyle kicked off the morning session with a presentation entitled “The Mobility-Creativity Nexus in The Age of Creativity.” In his talk, Kyle, professor of sociology and conference co-organizer, explored the historic basis and contemporary dimensions of the relationship between mobility and creativity. 

Indicating the ancient association of movement with the capacity to innovate—the belief that mobility of self is tied to elasticity of mind—Kyle described characters (travellers, scholars, vagabonds, foreigners, merchants) who, in ancient Greece, fell under the protection of the god Mercury. Today, Kyle noted, mobility and creativity dominate economic concerns. He observed both the prevalence of mobility-related matters in the World Economic Forum’s latest ranking of issues (the refugee crisis, climate change, etc.) as well as its forecast for the rise of “creativity” as a top managerial skill by 2020.

The tension between creativity as managerial skill and creativity as action in crisis; the asymmetries in global patterns of mobility and creativity, also influenced by creativity’s measurement as patents and copyright—the contemporary relationship between mobility and creativity, Kyle suggested, is complex.

He also touched on the developing technologies (such as “holoportation,” which enables real-time 3-d virtual interactions) that will allow us to be virtually mobile. How might such technologies re-shape the mobility-creativity nexus—and for whom?

Immigrant innovators

In her talk “Creative License: Political Rights and the Link Between Mobility and Creativity” Associate Professor of Public Policy at New York University Natasha Iskander took up the question of who is seen as an “immigrant innovator.” Rather than attributing the impact of innovations solely to their own qualities, Iskander proposed that what we see as “innovation” depends on congruency with institutional expectations. A new development in software design, for example, is seen as an innovation, while breakthroughs that do not conform to institutional expectations are either (if inventors lack institutional access) obscured from public view or (if they threaten to disrupt the institutional order) viewed as “political.”

In one example from her research, Iskander discussed innovation by Mexican construction workers in Philadelphia in the restoration of the city’s historic row homes. Workers innovated “off-label” use of tools, and novel techniques and skills, but these contributions were lost in the aftermath of the housing crash. This was due to their tacit nature, as well as to legal restrictions on immigrants’ movement that made workers reluctant to reconnect with their creative networks.

Offering a positive example of a case in which the creative work of migrants was incorporated (the case of Morocco, where returned migrants’ innovations helped improve rural electricity provision), Iskander suggested that notions of “high-skilled” and “low-skilled” immigrants are in fact the products of institutional context.

Other talks in this session included:

  • an examination by Jennifer Hunt, James Cullen Chair of Rutgers University in Economics, of the relationship between immigration and innovation as a driver of economic productivity (“Migration and Technological Innovation”);
  • a thought-provoking exploration of the utilization of creative practices of mindfulness in the context of immigrant activism, by Victor Narro, Project Director of the UCLA Labor Center. 

Islands and institutions 

After a rousing lunchtime talk by Saru Jayaraman (co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley) that probed the asymmetrical attribution of “creativity” to certain jobs in the food industry and the impacts on socioeconomic mobility, talks in the conference’s second session took up the question of institutions’ role in linking mobility and creativity.

Mario Biagioli, distinguished professor of law and science and technology studies at UC Davis, began the session with a talk entitled, “The Mobility-Creativity Nexus: Cautionary Tales from Science and Technology Studies.” Biagioli proposed that institutional arrangements may contribute to structuring the creativity that occurs in mobility. In the case of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, Biaogioli observed that the structure of the theory of evolution—written, necessarily, in the spaces between islands—replicated the form of the island-hopping trip.

Biagioli also presented both historic and contemporary examples to show how the institution of patents affects the nexus of creativity and mobility. The pre-1800 offering of patents on the basis of constructed inventions (not ideas on paper), Biagioli argued, helped shape patterns of invention prior to movement. But contemporary modes of mobility and invention—for instance, a university-based scientist who invents while working in a technology firm—pose challenges to current intellectual property law: who gets the patent, the university or firm? Is the “creator” a reified brain that relocates and invents wherever he or she is, or does mobility itself play a role? 

The same session included presentations by:

  • Fred Block, research professor in sociology at UC Davis, whose talk “The Hidden Role of Mobility in the Innovation System” probed the connections between an increased governmental role in technological innovations, and governmental access to recruitment of high-skilled immigrants;
  • Anupam Chander, professor of law at UC Davis, whose talk “H1Bs and International Trade Law”: The Indian Complaint Against the U.S.” explored how international law is being used (here, by India against U.S. discriminatory visa policies) as a tool against non-adherence in the novel arena of liberalization of trade in services;
  • Todd Schulte, president of, on the contemporary politics of immigration reform. 

Creative geography

In “The New Geography of Jobs,” Enrico Morretti, professor of economics at UC Berkeley, examined the growing polarization of U.S. metropolitan areas (as measured in widening wage gaps) over the past thirty years. In Morretti’s argument, part of this polarization can be explained through the economic benefit that the formation of creative hubs (like the technology boom in the San Francisco Bay Area) brings to local economies by spurring the growth of service jobs. In a mostly service economy, cities that find themselves host to the boom of creative industry enjoy indirect benefits that other regions miss out on.

The impacts of skilled immigrants in the new economy, and the implications of a boom in student visas, were explored in depth by Giovanni Peri, professor of economics at UC Davis and director of the Temporary Migration Cluster, in his talk “Foreign Skills, Foreign Students, and the Growth of U.S. Cities.”

UCLA Professor of Public Affairs Michael Storper closed the conference with a talk entitled “Is Migration the Chicken or Egg of Creative Economic Development? Lessons from Los Angeles and San Francisco.” Storper’s research compares these two metropolitan areas to ask why two cities with similar starting-points and patterns of immigration produced such divergent outcomes. What led San Francisco to become a tech hub, while Los Angeles did not? Storper’s answer, which highlights the impact of differing structures of industry in the two locations, forces us again to consider the role of contextual and especially geographical factors in nurturing creativity. 

Learn more about the Temporary Migration Cluster. This event received Major Conference Co-sponsorship from ISS.