“From Fable to Able: What the Mighty Crow Can Teach Us About Innovation”

“In a pinch, a good use of our wits may help us out,” Aesop, the renowned Greek storyteller, wrote sometime before 564 BCE, when he told of a thirsty crow’s search for water amidst a dry spell. The bird spies a pitcher, yet the vessel is too tall, its neck too thin, and the water […]

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"Hyacinth Macaw" by SCAD alumna Claire Rosen (B.F.A., photography, 2006)
"Hyacinth Macaw" by SCAD alumna Claire Rosen (B.F.A., photography, 2006)

“In a pinch, a good use of our wits may help us out,” Aesop, the renowned Greek storyteller, wrote sometime before 564 BCE, when he told of a thirsty crow’s search for water amidst a dry spell. The bird spies a pitcher, yet the vessel is too tall, its neck too thin, and the water within is out of reach. You know the rest of the story: the crow finds pebbles scattered about nearby and, one by one, drops them into the pitcher. The water rises. The crow survives. We readers delight in not one, but two lessons: patience, the ability to calmly and critically assess predicaments, and persistence, the capacity to coolly and confidently create solutions. 

These qualities, plus a pinch of ingenuity, define the crow’s existence—the bird in Aesop’s fable and those that roost above our backyards. From poets to scientists, from artists to novelists, the black bird and its fellow corvid counterparts—ravens and rooks among them—continue to inspire. Truly, the crow is having a moment, and not just because people are misspelling “COVID” in Google searches. (Raise your hand if you’ve accidentally pecked out “CORVID-19.”) As we navigate uncertain times, we should look to unlikely sources of inspiration, like the crow, which has volumes to teach us about collaboration, community, and creativity.

From Twigs to Tools

As SCAD switched to 100% virtual instruction in Spring 2020, we quickly realized our students needed new tools to maximize their learning during the pandemic. So, we unveiled Project V-Lab, which availed to SCAD Bees industry-standard design softwareBluebeam Revu for architecture majors and Katana for animation, for example—housed on SCAD computers that students accessed via remote server. Regardless of their in-home hardware and software, our students had, at their fingertips, the whole of SCAD’s computing power. The project was a game-changer, and it invokes the distinct ecosystem of crows in New Caledonia that build their own tools to catch and eat grubs.

So ingenious are these crows that they can fashion complex, multiple-part tools if a simple twig won’t suffice. And these aren’t the only crows that adapt to their immediate environment. The Hawaiian crow—the alalā, extinct in the wild—is so intelligent that, in conservation settings, it can fashion a stick to rake food inside its cage. Still, for all their resourcefulness, crows ignite creativity in another way: fresh perspective.

Consider the art of Kerry James Marshall, recently profiled in The New York Times for his culturally resonant riff on James Audubon’s Birds of America. Marshall’s paintings reimagine Audubon’s by juxtaposing the crow with cardinals and goldfinches, both part-black birds—a commentary on the pecking order in the U.S., namely the divergent experiences of white and Black Americans. Marshall’s invitation to speak at the Museum of Modern Art parallels the conversations in our SCAD Listening series—the university’s 10-episode dialogue collection that explores new approaches to identity and representation through art and creativity.

From Rook to Roost

Just as cultural reexaminations open our minds to new ideas, heartfelt reflection elevates our understanding of complex characters, like crows—and the associations they create. Try to set aside notions of Hitchcock and appreciate the communal nature of crows in their nightly roosts. Some roosts are a century old and attract hundreds of thousands of birds which gather for warmth and protection. Crows also roost to locate new food sources and find mates. Yes, they make quite a mess and just as much noise—ask members of Indiana’s Terra Haute Crow Patrol, who do their best to discourage raucous roosts—yet their force in numbers is as formidable as it is familial. In the midst of our shared pandemic, consider the power and positivity of crows’ togetherness with safe havens, family support, and shared goals and aspirations.

At SCAD, the security and conviviality of the roost reverberates in SCAD Bee Well, our suite of social, emotional, and physical support services that promote health, wellness, and engagement. While individual students pursue SCAD’s personally tailored academic degrees—even as they’re physically scattered across the world during the pandemic—they congregate at the university’s communal oases, like Bee Well nutritional workshops, SCADfit Pilates and yoga classes, and social support groups; these dynamic engagement opportunities exist in person and digitally. Just as crows warm each other and discover new sustenance, the SCAD family gathers for connection and nourishment, both social and intellectual.   

From Nest to Best

Even when they’re not roosting, crows are highly social creatures. Separate family groups call on each other to defend their territories from owls and hawks; as ornithologist Kevin McGowan noted, “They have a great neighborhood watch system.” They work as a family—both breeding partners and, sometimes, the previous year’s offspring—to build their nests, which sometimes measure more than a foot and a half in diameter and rest near the tops of trees. These nests, of course, hatch the next generation—just as SCAD stands as a launchpad for learning.

SCAD is the preeminent source of knowledge in the disciplines we teach, with more than 40 majors and over 100 degree programs. Indeed, our faculty, students, and alumni work seamlessly to create intra- and cross-disciplinary professional growth through SCADpro assignments. SCADpro, the university’s innovation studio and design consultancy, acts as a crow’s nest, optimally positioned with a panoramic vista of the creative business horizon.

Within SCADpro assignments and throughout the curriculum, SCAD embraces the university’s core values: our Bees are strategic, innovative, positive, collaborative, and transformative. They are also versatile, adaptable, and dynamic. Like crows in a flock flight, SCAD Bees communicate intuitively and inclusively, regardless of their position in an organization or their role on a project. And like other birds—Canadian geese, for example—that fly in V-shaped formations to conserve energy, maximize efficiency, and share leadership responsibilities, SCAD students serve as conscientious contributors who seamlessly assume the lead position to guide their team forward.

In our admiration of nature, we revel in the notion that crows adapt, that twigs become tools. We share with them a parallel language, one of innovation and grit. At SCAD, our capacity to realize meaningful results stems both from our unparalleled degree programs and from our vanguard professional preparation. Most importantly, we teach our Bees to observe and invent. As children, we cherish Aesop’s story; as adults, we celebrate the moral. Wouldn’t you know, some 2,000 years later, that scientists discovered that crows indeed use nearby pebbles to raise the water in a pitcher, and sate their thirst. At SCAD, we drink from the same vessel of knowledge. We look, listen, and learn. We think and invent. We solve life’s thorny problems to create a kinder, smarter, more gracious, more abundant life for everyone.

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