There is nothing democratic about the sacred, but there is definitely something sacred about democracy.
I felt that sense of the sacred intensely when I witnessed 84% of my country’s electorate turn out to vote in Scotland on Thursday, and I felt it again on Sunday as I witnessed about 40,000 people in London march in solidarity with over 300,000 in New York, and a total of around 600,000 people around the globe, all calling for action on climate change.
You’ll have heard the chant that tends to accompany any major political march of this nature: “Tell me what democracy looks like! – This is what democracy looks like!” Who could fail to be impressed, moved even, by people in unison, embodied, alive, emboldened, speaking truth to power. It was a staggeringly impressive organisational feat, and a much needed shot in the arm for an issue that suffers from lack of public concern and media oxygen.
Look at the image below. Sunday 21st September 2014 might even be marked as the day the world finally ‘woke up’ to climate change.
But it might not.
In fact it almost certainly won’t.
The excitement of any contest depends upon four main elements:
1. The stakes are high.
2. The competitors are fairly evenly matched.
3. You care about who is going to win.
4. The outcome is imminent.
Politics shares much with sport in this regard, which is perhaps why, until very recently, most people outside of Scotland were not particularly engaged in the referendum debate that has been underway for almost two years. Only the first of these four elements initially seemed to apply.
But opinion polls have finally caught up with what Scots have been saying for some time: feelings on this matter have always been somewhat volatile, and the final vote could go either way.
When it comes to words, I’m never quite sure whether I’m the hunter or the hunted.
After four years writing a PhD about ‘wisdom’, I emerged only somewhat the wiser. In my current role I’m often asked to talk or advise people on ‘behaviour change’, but rarely manage to hide my discomfort with the ambiguity of ‘behaviour’ and the maddening vagueness of ‘change’. Now I find myself leading a two year thought leadership project on ‘spirituality‘ – a concept that does strange things to people’s facial expressions. And just when I thought I might finally be emerging into a post-conceptual, keep-it-real adulthood, my employer decided to build a strategic review around a reappraisal of ‘creativity‘.
Many RSA staff are just getting on with it, content with a common-sense understanding of the term, only slightly troubled by the possibility that the epicentre of their organisation’s world view is so contested. For most purposes that’s fine, but for me, a seasoned concept wrestler, I’m looking for a bit more of a fight.
It’s not that I think we need to define creativity, because an over-reliance on definitions is pseudo-intelligent, a pretence at axiomatic logic that denatures living ideas. As Ambrose Bierce’s celebrated ‘Devil’s Dictionary’ puts it:
“Definition: The vivisection tray upon which a word is splayed; while the gist may be clearly labelled with coloured pins, resuscitation becomes problematic.”
There is something lazy about merely defining a term, sweeping the attendant intellectual rubble under your resolutely practical carpet, and thinking that part of your work is done.
There is something lazy about merely defining a term, sweeping the attendant intellectual rubble under your resolutely practical carpet, and thinking that part of your work is done.
There are things you can do to make words tractable that doesn’t involve defining them. By reading, writing, experimenting and talking you can develop a certain intimate familiarity with the concepts that shape your work, which is why my first reaction to creativity taking a central place in RSA’s vision and mission was constructively sceptical if not critical – I didn’t feel that kind of connection and could barely imagine developing it.
But things change. Over the last few months I have been quietly wrestling with creativity, like Jacob with the Angel, and I didn’t want to let go until I could say ‘creativity’ with a better felt sense of what I was talking about.
So here goes. There is no lack of material out there, and it comes from a variety of disciplines, practices and perspectives, so I’m going to be extremely selective here. My main impression is that pre-internet theories of creativity that are predominantly psychological (for instance Howard Gardner, Sternberg or Csikzsenmihalyi) feel a bit kitschy now, while theories of creativity that over-rely on techno-optimism are a bit unreal, and can leave you feeling a bit alienated.
There is missing humanistic part of the story. Where is the body, where is the soul? Where is the perspective that connects cognition, emotions, people, products, relationships and culture at large.
While looking for precisely this kind of perspective, I struck gold in an extraordinary essay published in 1954 called, modestly, “Towards a Theory of Creativity.” by esteemed psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Unfortunately the whole Rogers essay is not freely available online, but I think it’s the best single piece of writing I have come across on creativity.
I was delighted to come across this reference because if anybody can find a way to make creativity feel less like a feel-good nebulous buzzword, and more like a profoundly important part of what it means to be human in a way that is relatively timeless, it is Rogers. If you have never heard of him, imagine somebody with acute insight who believes deeply in people and made a global reputation out of listening extremely well.
Here is what he says about creativity in 1954:
“I maintain that there is a desperate social need for the creative behaviour of creative individuals. It is this which justifies the setting forth of a tentative theory of creativity-the nature of the creative act, the conditions under which it occurs, and the manner in which it may constructively be fostered.”
The essay is striking because it feels fresh 60 years after it was published. Consider, for instance:
“Any of the serious criticisms of our culture and its trends may best be formulated in terms of a dearth of creativity…In education we tend to turn out conformists, stereotypes, individuals whose education is “completed,” rather than freely creative and original thinkers. In our leisure time activities, passive entertainment and regimented group action are overwhelmingly predominant while creative activities are much less in evidence. In the sciences, there is an ample supply of technicians, but the number who can creatively formulate fruitful hypotheses and theories is small indeed. In industry, creation is reserved for the few-the manager, the designer, the head of the research department-while for the many life is devoid of original or creative endeavour.”
So Rogers shares the RSA desire to democratise creativity, and he also seems to share the RSA analysis that creativity is not really optional. And if that was true in 1954, it would appear to be even more so now:
“In a time when knowledge, constructive and destructive, is advancing by the most incredible leaps and bounds into a fantastic atomic age, genuinely creative adaptation seems to represent the only possibility that man can keep abreast of the kaleidoscopic change in his world… a generally passive and culture-bound people cannot cope with the multiplying issues and problems. Unless individuals, groups, and nations can imagine, construct, and creatively revise new ways of relating to these complex changes, the lights will go out. Unless man can make new and original adaptations to his environment as rapidly as his science can change the environment, our culture will perish . Not only individual maladjustment and group tensions, but international annihilation will be the price we pay for a lack of creativity.”
In 1954, the threat of annihilation was mostly about the cold war, but there are similar existential threats today, including forms of ecological collapse that were barely imaginable 60 years ago.
The creative process
Rogers even ventures a definition of creativity, but only after a great deal of discussion:
“My definition, then, of the creative process is that it is the emergence in action of a novel relational product, growing out of the uniqueness of the individual on the one hand, and the materials, events, people, or circumstances of his life on the other.”
What makes the essay so valuable is that Rogers takes care to present creativity as a fundamental human attribute, and clarifies what is required for creativity to be socially valuable rather than merely something instrumental or profit-driven.
“The mainspring of creativity appears to be the same tendency which we discover so deeply as the curative force in psychotherapy-man’s tendency to actualize himself, to become his potentialities. By this I mean the directional trend which is evident in all organic and human life-the urge to expand, extend, develop, mature-the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism, to the extent that such activation enhances the organism or the self.”
I love that line: “The urge to expand, extend, develop, mature-the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism.” I can hardly think of a better description of what the desire to create feels like on the inside. Creativity is about unfolding and flourishing, not just problem solving and impressing. It’s about building, as Roberto Unger puts it, ‘a larger life’.
I love that line: “The urge to expand, extend, develop, mature-the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism.” I can hardly think of a better description of what the desire to create feels like on the inside.
Moreover, the Rogers article of faith in the creativity of the many, not the few, is the a key premise of the RSA worldview: “(Creativity) exists in every individual, and awaits only the proper conditions to be released and expressed. It is this tendency which is the primary motivation for creativity as the organism forms new relationships to the environment in its endeavour most fully to be itself.”
Three key determinants of socially constructive creativity:
But why is it socially valuable? This is a big question: for what reason do we place faith in creativity when it appears, prima facie, to be as likely to be used for selfish destructive ends as generous or generative ones?
Rogers is discerning here, saying that we cannot easily judge whether creativity is constructive because novelty is often inherently subversive at first, and tends to prove its value, or not, over time. So it’s not about immediate public approval, because we don’t always know creative value when we first see it. Indeed, you might say we are built not to.
Nor can we judge it by the intentions of the creator, because something initially created for good reasons can easily be used to destructive effect and vice versa, as is well known from work on, for instance, splitting the atom. My favourite example of an unexpeccted benefit is the telephone which initially appeared to further isolate people who were deaf, but later lead to the internet, which of course is hugely beneficial for the same group of people.
Most of the time, we just don’t know. So what can we put our faith in?
“We must face the fact that the individual creates primarily because it is satisfying to him, because this behaviour is felt to be self-actualising, and we get nowhere trying to differentiate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ purposes in the creative process.”
So it is a normative commitment, an article of faith. We say: there is something about the creative process properly understood that is more likely to do good than harm. Rogers goes on to suggest three key determinants of creativity properly understood.
1. Openness to experience
This idea is really about getting beyond defensive reactions and lazy assumptions, but it requires a certain amount of emotional and intellectual stability.
“Certain experiences are prevented from coming into awareness except in distorted fashion. In a person who is open to experience each stimulus is freely relayed through the nervous system, without being distorted by any process of defensiveness….It means the ability to receive much conflicting information without forcing closure on the situation….The more the individual has available to himself a sensitive awareness of all phases of his experience, the more sure we can be that his creativity will be personally and socially constructive.”
We can cultivate this kind of openness through education and training, but we are only likely to do so when we deeply appreciate its importance.
2. An internal locus of evaluation
This determinant is fascinating for me personally because it sounds a lot like Kegan’s ’4th stage’ of adult development that was a key premise both of the seminal piece for the Social Brain Centre, Transforming Behaviour Change, and of the RSA’s Big Society Report.
Rogers puts it as follows:
“Perhaps the most fundamental condition of creativity is that the source or locus of evaluative judgment is internal. The value of his product is, for the creative person, established not by the praise and criticism of others, but by himself. Have I created something satisfying to me?… If to the person it has the “feel” of being “me in action,” of being an actualization of potentialities in himself which heretofore have not existed and are now emerging into existence, then it is satisfying and creative, and no outside evaluation can change that fundamental fact.”
Rogers couldn’t didn’t make this connection to theories of adult development in 1954, mostly because Piagetian models were still thought to apply almost exclusively to childhood. But it is very clear that Rogers thinks there is a ‘hidden curriculum’ for socially constructive creativity that appears to be developmental in nature. Indeed, by placing ‘an internal locus of evaluation’ as critical to creativity, he unwittinly poses a question to schools working with creativity, becuase this kind of stage of development generally occurs well into adulthood.
That doesn’t mean that younger people cannot be creative of course (they are, for instance, typically more ‘open to experience’ than adults) but there is an interesting tension here that might inform educational and cultural interventions designed to foster ‘the power to create’. Really, we need to think about this. If the guarantor that creativity is socially valuable rather than merely entertaining in some way is a form of development that occurs after school, what follows for how schools ‘teach’ or ‘facilitate’ creativity. I am sure there are good answers, but don’t know what they are yet.
3. The ability to toy with elements and concepts
This is a more routine and familiar feature of creativity, but Rogers believes it is also a habit of mind and action that we can place our trust in and it clearly connects to the openness to experience. A simple example of this kind of ‘toying’, to get beyond functional fixedness is a group of friends on a picnic who find they forgot to bring a knife for the cheese – somebody reached into their wallet, and used a credit card as a knife.
“It is from this spontaneous toying and exploration that there arises the hunch, the creative way of seeing of life in a new and significant way.”
It is not immediately clear what follows. Rogers himself suggests his theory is testable in various ways and suggests some experiments for testing his theory, but that’s for another day. For now, I hope those who have doubts about the humanistic and spiritual value of creativity, can see a bit more of themselves in the creative process. I know I can.
I apologise for the intemperate language of the title, and I had to check today wasn’t April 1st before posting, but I wanted to share an idea I came across today in The Economist which involves using our pee to create renewable energy. The article features a new insight on an old idea rather than something completely original, but the upshot is that taking the piss might help to save the world.
Look, we all do it, several times a day, so if it’s good for something other than moderately entertaining sound effects then let’s put it to the best possible use. Contrary to the occassional wacky health fad, it’s probably not very good for you to drink your main liquid waste product, but it turns out that when it comes to creating electricity, urine has a p-value that would be the envy of any good statistician.
Like a child neglected for misbehaving, global warming is curled up in a corner of our collective social consciousness, crying and aching for our attention. Not all passers-by have ignored its plaintive cries (for recent RSA perspectives, see here, here, and here) but personally I know I am guilty for playing deaf most of the time. This week, via a book recommendation by my colleague Dr Jonathan Rowson, I was able to finally take stock, and give the problem the attention it deserves through a 25-hour immersion over the course of 4 days. The following thoughts are a review of an outstanding book, and partly a chronicle of my own personal attempts to face up to climate change.
The climate problem is not what I thought it was…
Love is a fundamental feature of how people seek to create meaning in their lives, but what do we really know about the nature, experience, and history of love; about its breadth and depth and ubiquity? What, if anything, is common to our love of life, love of God and/or love of reason; maternal love, romantic love, love of work, good and bad forms of self-love, love of friends, love of places, love of books, love of ideas, love of RSA public events…
Here are ten of my favourite quotations on love as an appetiser ahead of Thursday’s event at 6pm, What kind of love do we need?, including three from our prospective speakers Devorah Baum, Simon May and Mark Vernon:
The recently released Adonis Review, a key plank of Labour’s emerging policy platform tries to present a comprehensive strategy for national economic renewal without any apparent thought to how this strategy chimes with the other unavoidable story of our time; decarbonisation. Some may have barely noticed this oversight, or think they are completely separate things, but if you are motivated by dealing with climate change as the Labour party still claims to be, this disconnect is little short of embarrasing.
The critique that follows is not directly about The Labour party. Indeed, I felt John Cruddas’s speech at the RSA yesterday was outstanding, even Obamaesque, though again the story of decarbonisation was conspicuous by its absence, as it was, more or less, in IPPR’s condition of Britain report. (What’s going on here?…)
I’m sure the Adonis Review was the product of diligent research and careful political judgment, but I reach for the word ‘embarassing’ because the review is a particularly striking example of policy blindness that should no longer be considered permissable; it is simply not sane to continue presenting economic policy as if it was not also energy and environmental policy.
You know iTunes, and you’ve heard of the the A-Team, but I’m guessing you have never heard of an ‘I-team’; at least not by name.
Definitely not an iTeam…
I’m just back from attending the launch of a major new report by Nesta called I-Teams: The Teams and Funds Making Innovation happen in Government around the world, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
I-Teams (short for innovation teams) are a new institutional form that views ‘policy’ from a radically different perspective to the traditional hierarchical ‘command and control’ approach. They are government units, teams (often small) and funds working on various forms of government innovation, and doing ‘policy’ very differently.
That’s more like it: one of the UK’s finest iTeams: (Some of) The Behavioural Insights Team (image from May 2013)
I-Teams are not yet legion, but there are enough of them for us to know they vary considerably and work at national, regional and city levels. The report helpfully breaks their work down into four main categories (often overlapping in practice).
1) Solutions to specific challenges
2) Citizen, business and charity engagement to find new ideas.
3) Transforming government skills, culture and processes
4) Achieving wider policy and systems change
Examples and Reflections:
The Nesta report examines 20 of these iTeams in depth, four of which are highlighted by one of the authors of the report, Ruth Puttick, and copied below (with my hyperlinks, which may not be optimal matches).
- The Behavioural Insights Team designs trials to test policy ideas, and achieved government savings of around 22 times the cost of the team in the first two years of operation.
- MindLab is a Danish unit using human centred design as a way to identify problems and develop policy recommendations. One project helped businesses to find the right industry code for registrations and demonstrated a 21:1 return on investment in savings to government and businesses.
- New Orleans Innovation Delivery Team is based in city hall and is tasked with solving mayoral challenges. Their public safety efforts led to a 20% reduction in the number of murders in 2013 compared to the previous year.
- PS21 encourages staff to find better ways of improving Singaporean public services. An evaluation of PS21 estimated that over a year it generated 520,000 suggestions from staff, of which approximately 60 per cent were implemented, leading to savings of around £55 million. – See more at: http://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/launch-i-teams#sthash.7C1NB2YO.dpuf
Many believe these iTeams are a critical institutional form to promote government innovation, and the Nesta report and today’s event are a way of trying to map their emergence across the world, and learn from early indicators of when they work well, and when they don’t.
I haven’t yet read the whole report, but here are my initial impressions:
First, I wonder whether the fourth manifestation of these iTeams – major systems change across government with commensurate impact in the real world- is really part of the story at this point, or whether that is merely part of the aspiration.
There are huge forces of inertia in Government machines, and iTeams currently tend to go round that inertia rather than going through it. The iTeam I know best, The Behavioural Insights Team, has been hugely successful with 1,2 and to some extent 3 on the list above, but much less so with 4 – wider policy and systems chance- and personally I find it hard to imagine how they ever could be with their current methodologies. If I’m right about that, I wonder if this is a fundamental feature of iTeams, or merely a function of them being relatively nascent and small in number at this moment in time.
Secondly, in today’s discussions, I was struck by the prevalence of relatively emotional, even spiritual language in the context of what might have been assumed to be a relatively technocratic discussion.
Nesta’s Helen Goulden spoke of the need for ‘non-attachment’ and being ‘Buddhist-like’ with respect to ideas, given that many of the ideas we love and want to work don’t work in practice. MindLab’s Christian Bason spoke of the core capabilities of people in iTeams in terms of the ‘higher meaning’ they are motivated by, and also the need for people who have ambition not just for their own ends, but ‘ambition on behalf of the systems they are working with’. Douglas McGowen from Memphis spoke of the need for ‘passion’ for the work and sounded like he meant it, and Geoff Mulgan, the chair of the event, spoke of the role of iTeams in putting ‘human experience’ back at the heart of the policy-making process, contrasting it with the bygone days of experts writing long policy analysis reports that would somehow, magically, trickle down to the betterment of human experience.
Thirdly, the event got me thinking about what cultural theory would say about iTeams, which tend to be data-driven and nimble, but also appear to be predisposed to being ‘clumsy’ rather than ‘elegant’ in their approach, in a good way.
In the way they work, iTeams typically include aspects of hierarchy(e.g. support from national government), solidarity(work closely with communities involved) and individualism(often working with profit-motive) and are interested in what works in a given instance, measured empirically, rather than ideological loyalty to any given theory of change.
I may feel differently after reading the report, but the analysis of iTeams feels like an important development for anybody who cares about making government more effective.
Saying “thank you” feels good. And not just for the person on the receiving end (when there is one), but also for the person doing the thanking: it seems that practicing gratitude can help people to focus on the positive and improve wellbeing. While researching aspects of financial capability for one of our upcoming papers, I came across a new study showing that the benefits of gratitude may extend even further.
I wanted to share three excellent pieces I read this morning which are all calls to action in different ways; why the charge of hypocrisy is typically facile and obtuse, what it might take to overcome despair at global politics, and what stops us realising that climate change really has very little to do with ‘the scientific consensus’: