I'm Theo Edmonds, the Culture Futurist™
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Over three decades, I have built the practice of a Culture Futurist™.
Fall 2023 was a milestone in my life. A decade ago, the arts organization I co-founded with my husband Josh Miller and led for its first five years, IDEAS xLab, was launched. Though I didn’t realize it in those early days, a small group had launched an artist-led era of radical prototyping that would ultimately become Imaginator Academy / Creativity America (launching 2024) and (Un)Known Project. You can learn much more in our full 10-year report.
Reflecting on my many innovator roles across the last three decades of strategic leadership experience spanning private, public, and nonprofit sectors, I now realize that I was defining the role of Culture Futurist™. Of course, when I first started when I started using the term professionally over a half decade ago, most had no idea what the term meant. Simply put, I identify trends at the intersection of arts, science, and business. I then use these unique insights to support organizations for successfully navigating into the future. In other words, I use the art and science of being human to help companies live out the best stories they can tell. Wonder out loud is a powerful thing.
My expertise lies in seamlessly blending scholarly research and pop culture, traversing diverse scientific disciplines, data analytics, creativity, and cultural well-being in various environments—workplaces, learning institutions, healing spaces, and exploration areas. As the Directing Co-founder of CU Denver’s Imaginator Academy, a hub for cultural analytics, strategy, and futurist innovation, I am dedicated to weaving ideas and scouting global networks. This involves connecting with entrepreneurs, companies, scientists, artists, and innovative changemakers to uncover hidden opportunities.
I specialize in the American cultural context and have a unique line of sight of emergent horizons being shaped by the triple transformations of environmental, technological, and cultural change. I serve on the national board of directors for Americans for the Arts and on the advisory board for the Euro-Mediterranean Economists Association. I’m global co-lead of the creativity infrastructure work group at the Brain Capital Alliance, the lead culture strategist for Energize Colorado’s Small Business Resiliency Index, and board of Advisors for the Business Collaborative for Brain Health - an alliance of private sector partners developing effective solutions to optimize cognitive health throughout the lifespan.
Recognized for my efforts in building industry-university collaborations, my work with long-time collaborators has earned various accolades, including the “Trailblazer” research award from the University of Louisville for culture analytics innovation in a National Science Foundation-sponsored lab, as well as numerous national grants and vision awards in the arts and creative economy sectors.
My personal journey as an artist, poet, and entrepreneur began in southeastern Kentucky, where I was raised in a nine-generation Appalachian family. My professional path has taken me from France to New York, Hawaii, Louisville, and New Orleans, before settling in Denver, Colorado, in 2021. In 2015, Southern Living Magazine honored me as one of "50 People Changing the Face of the South" for my futurist leadership in launching the arts and culture innovation non-profit IDEAS xLab, alongside my husband, Josh Miller.
Currently, I lead cultural well-being and creativity sciences initiatives, working at the crossroads of creative industries, population health, neuroscience, the future of work, and the wide-ranging science of creativity and wonder.
Questions I Get Asked the Most
On LinkedIn, you’re prolific in posting new takes that scramble what people may think they know about something. Is there any formal publishing in your future?
I love LinkedIn for its business and professional focus. It is a great platform for opening a rich, real-time dialogue with many people across different industry sectors.
I am working on three books exploring different facets of creativity and innovation.
The first is with my long-time research partner, Cameron Lister. The book is called Wondervation™ focused on translating cognitive, behavioral, and social brain science into pop culture storytelling to retool their innovation processes for the future of work. It moves beyond applied science to weave “what works” from across research disciplines into narratives for understanding how emotions drive innovation teams in companies and practical advice for executives on measuring and improving innovation ROI through a heightened focus on their employees' and customers' sense of wonder.
The second is a children’s book about urban and rural collaboration across differences in America and uses arts and wellbeing science.
The third is a poetry collection inspired by William Blake’s poem Tyger Tyger. I have been writing it over the past decade or so, reflecting on what America can learn about navigating change from the experience of Gen X over the past half-century.
How do these ideas relate to innovation and team dynamics?
Innovation, at its core, is about more than just individual brilliance. It's about how teams harness collective wisdom and co-creativity. My work delves into this intersection of creative cognition – aspects like cultural memory, how we focus attention in our “always on” digitally augmented contemporary lives, and cognitive control, which means choosing the right thoughts, feelings, and actions to fit the situation you're in and stopping yourself from doing things that aren't suitable for that moment.
Because these are neuroscience-inspired concepts, we tend to think about them in the context of a single individual. But they intertwine with social processes like curiosity, compassion, and hope. These elements are among the overlooked catalysts that unlock “group creativity.” In business group, creativity looks like a new Apple product or a startup company, like Open AI; in applied science areas like healthcare, it looks like clinical protocols that keep us all safe; in the arts, it might look like Beyoncé’s Rennaissance Tour and subsequent film. To bring all of these into our awareness requires coordinated, collective acts of “group creativity.”
Why do you emphasize the social aspect of creativity so much?
Our brains are inherently social. This wiring is not just for individual benefit but is essential in a collective, team-oriented context. In today's world, focusing solely on individual creativity misses the bigger picture. One way to think about innovation is the applied creativity emerging from the synergy of a group where diverse experiences and ideas coalesce to turn a novel idea, technology, ritual, or language into new value for others.
How does this perspective shift when comparing creativity in children to adults?
There's a common myth that children are inherently more creative than adults. While children are open to new ideas, they need to gain an understanding of the deeper, more structured aspects of creativity that adults possess. Recognizing this shift is crucial in approaching and nurturing creativity as we age.
Why do the arts and storytelling play a significant role in your quantitatively-driven work?
Art and storytelling are not just about entertainment; they are vital in shaping our understanding of the world and ourselves. They are tools that can transform the abstract into the tangible, making complex ideas accessible and relatable. The power of a well-told story can change perceptions and open new avenues for thought and innovation.
What are some of the most overlooked elements needed to foster creativity in entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is fundamentally about taking risks and exploring the unknown. However, a critical aspect often overlooked is the need to de-risk creativity. It's about understanding cultural readiness for innovation and creating an environment where entrepreneurs can thrive. This involves recognizing the importance of emotional intelligence and the need for inclusive, supportive team dynamics.
You often speak about the concepts of time and distance in the context of innovation. How do these concepts influence our approach to innovation?
Transformational innovation fundamentally alters our perception of time and distance. When we innovate, we're not just creating something new but reshaping how we interact with the world and each other. Time and distance are more than measurements – they are vectors that define human experience and relationships.
Consider how every major innovation has changed our relationship with time and distance. The wheel, the airplane, the internet – each of these have drastically shortened distances and altered our perception of time. This reshaping of time and distance has profound implications for connecting, communicating, and creating.
Is cultural readiness a precondition for certain innovations?
Yes. Let's take the development of the telegraph and the transcontinental railroad. These were technological achievements and cultural milestones that prepared society for further innovation. Innovations like the Wright Brothers' first flight didn't just happen in a vacuum. Thanks to the telegraph and railroad, American society had already started embracing a new understanding of time and distance. This, in turn, changed our expectations of what’s possible. So, the rapid development from first flight to the commercial aviation industry was as much a cultural achievement as a scientific one.
There are also important stories that have gone unacknowledged. One example is the history of Black-led aviation that has often gone unacknowledged for patents like Charles Page and Leo Ortego, the Wright Brothers’ relationship with Paul Dunbar, and Lucean Arthur Headen. I believe finding these stories in our shared histories is invaluable in shaping a more collective, shared future. Whether on a cognitive level of our individual brains or the societal level, innovation, and creativity are more grounded in personal and cultural memory than many may realize.
Is there a cyclical relationship between innovation and cultural readiness?
It's a crucial cycle to understand. Innovations reshape our perceptions, making us ready for further innovations. Innovation is more than just creating and introducing new technology, for example, it is often more about how prepared society is to accept and integrate that technology into everyday life, which is the determining factor of its adoption by markets. Nine out of ten startups fail in the U.S., of those that do, over 40% fail because there is no market for their product.
Does this cycle between innovation and cultural readiness present challenges for contemporary innovators?
Today, we are witnessing a similar pattern with digital technology and AI. These innovations are once again changing our relationship with time and distance. The challenge for innovators is not just to create but also to understand and influence the cultural readiness that determines whether an innovation is adopted or rejected.
My work as a Culture Futurist™ is about understanding these patterns and preparing organizations and teams not just to innovate but also to navigate the cultural landscapes that will ultimately determine the success of their innovations. It’s about ensuring their creative endeavors align with society's evolving perceptions and needs.
Advice to leaders looking to innovate in the complex landscape emerging for 2024?
Understanding the historical context of innovation is key. Recognize that your work is part of a larger narrative of human progress. Pay attention to the cultural signals that indicate readiness for change. And most importantly, be prepared to create something new and help shape the cultural understanding that will allow your innovation to thrive.
What are the challenges in nurturing creativity within educational systems and institutions?
Educational institutions, especially universities, face significant challenges in fostering an environment conducive to creativity and innovation. The existing tenure system and other institutional barriers can inadvertently stifle creative impulses. Rethinking these structures and finding ways to incentivize and support innovative thinking within academia is critical. It’s all about finding a balance between the internal needs of the institution while creating an intellectual “third space” for engaging the external cultural trends that are shaping societal thinking about what is possible and valuable.
How do you view the role of cultural readiness and change management in fostering innovation?
Cultural readiness is essential for effective change management. Organizations embracing the situational aspects of change and the psychological demands of transitions have a distinct creative advantage if they know how to identify and use it. Creating a culture that values emotions, encourages open communication, and fosters collaboration across differences is a precise, not a general endeavor. Using a lawnmower to get rid of weeds won’t work. Cultivating environments likely to produce transformational creativity requires leaders to understand how to use the art and science of being human. Wonder, trust, joy, and beauty are important for team creativity because they are among our emotional experiences promoting cognitive engagement, resilience, emotional wellbeing, ethical behavior, and social cohesion.
With the advent of technology and AI, what are your thoughts on their impact on creativity?
Technology, and AI specifically, has a dual impact on creativity. On one hand, they can promote a certain uniformity, a 'sameness' that I don’t see as helpful, but on the other, technology like AI always opens up new possibilities. The key is to balance these technological advancements with nurturing human skills and creativity. We must manage our technological growth alongside our human development to ensure harmony in our progression.
What are the patent system’s unintended consequences that hurt the creative process?
The current patent system can sometimes inhibit the creative process, especially in what economists call creative destruction. Large companies often acquire emerging technologies not to develop them further but to prevent them from challenging established products. This practice can demotivate innovators and entrepreneurs, leading to a stagnation in genuine innovation.
How important is being able to collaborate across differences for creativity?
Transdisciplinary approaches are vital for the future of work. Bringing together fields like cognitive neuroscience, industrial-organizational psychology, arts, and humanities with technologists and engineers opens a fuller understanding of creativity and how to deploy it effectively. Isolating these disciplines limits our perspective and hampers our ability to innovate effectively.
The future of innovation and creativity lies in embracing new approaches and fostering collaborations that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. Regions like the Inter-mountain West, with their unique cultural ethos, could become new hubs for innovation. We need environments that value diversity, encourage risk-taking, and support creative exploration.
Let’s journey together!
In concluding our inaugural journey together here into the realms of culture, creativity, and innovation, I extend a heartfelt invitation to you to join me in this ongoing exploration. Together, let's unravel the intricate art and science of being human as we move America’s innovation mindset from work to wonder. Subscribe to this space for regular insights and join a community of like-minded trailblazers, where each post promises to be a stepping stone towards building America’s Creativity Infrastructure. Your perspectives, experiences, and voices are not just welcome—they are essential. Let's embark on this transformative journey together, shaping the future one post at a time. Subscribe now, and let's cultivate a culture of wonder and discovery, where every story weaves a new possibility for tomorrow.
Thanks for reading Theo’s Substack! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.