From the ‘Power to Create’ to ‘Socially Productive Places’
When I first heard the term ‘power to create’ I was more than a little lost as to where it was coming from and, perhaps more to the point, where it was going. It was my first day at the RSA and I mainly put this down to my own ignorance. I didn’t manage to make Matthew Taylor’s recent talk but I downloaded it and listened to it later. The key moment for me was when he quoted AI Wei Wei – “Creativity is the power to act”.
In this sense the power to create is the power to manifest change, to act and to have impact in the world – in short, to have agency. Agency is a commonly used word in Sociology and Anthropology, where there has been a constant theoretical discussion on the role of individual choice (agency) and social determinism (structure). Recent work with systems theory has its own solution to the debate and one that understands structure and agency together. Systems theory, originally developed in the 50s, was heavily criticised for being too focused on equilibrium and structural determinism, but since then the theory has been greatly developed and one of the most important aspects of the theory now lies in its analysis of the relationships between parts and how those parts can manifest change to the system as a whole. More recently, systems theorists have coined the term ‘complex adaptive systems’ (CAS) to explain loosely connected parts whose relationships cannot be explained purely through reduction to the parts alone but instead form a system that demonstrates highly adaptable behaviour at both the individual and collective levels. Within systems theory, if we say that a system is adaptable we mean that the parts of the system have the ability to affect the resilience of the system as a whole. Here is where agency, or the power to create, comes in.
As you may have seen from my earlier posts, recent understanding of people, organisations and even cities as complex systems leads people to use the term ‘resilient’, and to be truly resilient we must be able to change – to make novel connections. The ‘power to create’, for me, appears to embody this – it states that the RSA will be driven by the goal to empower people to act within the world, to make a difference and to do so through their own methods and with their own goals. In short the ‘power to create’ is about facilitating adaptation. It is the power to manifest meaning in the world, to affect change and therefore to change the world. This appears far removed from any elitist goal regarding the art of how one ‘ought to be’ and instead drives this progressive organisation forward towards diversity and emergence.
There is a caveat to all this appreciation of Matthew’s words. Creation, however ubiquitous the need, however common the possibilities, appears elevated as something that is somehow inherently right. Part of the power to create, as Matthew stated, is the possibility of learning from mistakes – trying and failing – and it should be recognised that such failure is just as fundamental. Within the adaptive cycle comes with the making of novel connections but this comes after the destruction, the letting go of, old connections. Being adaptable is about being about to change in response to one’s environment and this is both a constructive, creative, process and a destructive ‘letting go’.
Recently I adapted this kind of approach to explore places as CAS that interact, and co-produce, at multiple scales. I drew analytical parallels, of process and connectivity, from the level of individuals to that of communities, market places, and then to housing estates and even cities. Presenting at the ISA World Congress of Sociology I used this approach to argue that development of places requires an appreciation of change, flexibility and the re-distribution of power. By adapting an understanding of process and connectivity, provided by a systems analysis of place making, we can more clearly see the mechanisms of place attachment, and adaptation that demonstrate how people and places are co-constructive. Further, how such scaled activity of construction is shaped by, and also shapes, the surrounding built environment. The key ideas of re-distribution of power and the need for flexibility in the design of public places were widely evident across many talks at the congress and particularly within the Research Committee on Urban and Regional Development.
The RSA’s focus on the ‘Power to Create’ will be reflected in tomorrow launch of the report on ‘Developing Socially Productive Places’ that will present, and develop on, ideas from the conference held in April this year. It is expected to echo much of this thinking in terms of supporting local community engagement with development, increasing communities’ ability to adapt and ultimately empowering people to help create the very places they live and work.