The strongest metros: the vanguards for change

September 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

 

blog uk growth

The City Growth Commission takes a predominately economic approach. As Jim O’Neill, the chair of the Commission, rightly points out in his foreword of our latest report Powers to Grow: City finance and governance:

“What happens in the likes of Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds and all of the other 15 metros we defined in our first paper will be more important for UK economic growth than what happens in the rest of Scotland combined”

While the Scottish independence referendum has sparked a new debate in government and across the country about the importance of local decision-making and accountability, the focus on economics is vital when talking seriously about devolving powers down from central government, given the risks associated with devolution, particularly in this age of austerity. Read more

Good morning, England

September 10, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise 

About three years ago I was asked by a senior politician ‘what was the biggest issue that politics would face?’ Sure, there’s the economy but there is also the matter of the political expression of Englishness. The politician spontaneously guffawed (though I note that they have since changed their tune). Well, if Scotland votes for independence next week then get ready for the political rebirth of England. And very few in politics are ready for it.

Already there is panicked talk of constitutional conventions, regional parliaments, English Parliaments and English votes for English laws. A devo-max process for Scotland has suddenly appeared like a rabbit out of the hat. Why not a new English constitution? This is a grotesquely incompetent way to go about institutional building. Essentially, our current crop of political leaders, the same ones who have taken us to the precipice of the break-up of the union that few south of the border seem to want, are presenting themselves to us as alchemists. Yet, it is an alchemy born out of desperation- very dangerous in other words.

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Creativity, learning and tigers in the Forest of Imagination

September 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters, Fellowship 

The Forest of Imagination took place in Bath this summer and attracted over 2,000 visitors. It was a 4 day contemporary arts, creativity and learning event organised and led by RSA Fellows and hosted by Bath Spa University. Over the past year I’ve blogged a number of times about the ArtSpace Bath and the Forest of Imagination (from now on Forest) project and I had been involved in many meetings, discussions and communications about it. That said, when the Forest launched I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I discovered was a creative world full of surprises and learning.

foi picThe journey to the site began in the centre of Bath with graffitied paths creating the start of the pilgrimage, when I got to the top of Sion Hill and turned the corner to see the amazing tiger gate I was already sold! Once in the site, I’ll admit it, I got a bit lost, but this was part of the Forest’s allure – discovering places for yourself and learning through uncovering different areas both visual and sensory. The Forest was made up of four action packed days of performances, workshops, installations and exhibitions. It managed to engage new and inter-generational audiences in the city whilst helping to pave the way for a permanent contemporary arts centre in Bath.

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Carl Rogers, Creativity and the RSA

September 9, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.”[1]

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.

Creativity

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.

@Jonathan_Rowson

Whether it’s Yes or No, British politics must change.

September 7, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Adam Lent 

There’s currently a lot of discussion about the constitutional or economic shock of a Yes vote. But if we wake up to an independent Scotland on 19th September the immediate impact will be psychological. And the trauma will take two forms.

The first will be the realisation that the combined effort of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition was not enough to save one of the central institutions of the British state for the last 300 years.  From that point on, the credibility of the most senior leadership of the British political establishment will be probably irrecoverable. The situation will be made worse by the inevitable blame game that will follow and the fact that practically zero preparation has been undertaken for the eventuality of an independent Scotland.

The second longer-term shock will therefore need to be addressed by a new generation of political leaders. Read more

In the 1970s, big government and big business was challenged for the first time in decades. Let’s rekindle that spirit today.

September 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Adam Lent 

The Crowd-funding pitch for my book, Small is Powerful, went live on Friday over at the Unbound site. To my amazement, people have already started handing over hard money - a big thanks to them.

You can pledge anything from one quid (you get your name in the book and access to posts just for supporters in the ‘author’s shed’) to one thousand (all manner of goodies come your way). There’s lots of levels in between which get you things like hardback first editions, invitations to the launch party, even lunch with me at a posh restaurant (or if you prefer: lunch without me at a posh restaurant).

Here’s the synopsis for the book that appears on the Unbound site:

How can we create a wealthier, fairer and more stable world? Politicians tell us that we must rely either on big business or big government or, more often than not, both. This is a terrible failure of imagination that ends up keeping the very people and organisations in charge that delivered the most serious economic crisis in eighty years.

Small is Powerful will reveal how our faith in big business, big government and big culture was manufactured in the 1800′s by a group of powerful business leaders, politicians and thinkers and how it had a forceful grip on our world throughout the twentieth century.

Even if our political leaders are still in thrall to the ‘big consensus’ of the last century, a small revolution is already underway. Millions are choosing to set up their own small business rather than work for a giant corporation. Political and social change is increasingly delivered by many small initiatives and campaigns rather than big parties. And, more than ever, people make their own decisions about how to live their lives rather than accepting the rulings of big religious and civil organisations.

Small is Powerful argues that the small revolution must be embraced. A world where power and resources are shared out much more widely will deliver the fairer, stabler, wealthier world we want.

But it is a revolution under threat. Business, politicians and those who think they know best how we should live are fighting back. Small is Powerful is an impassioned plea for ‘smallists’ everywhere to stand up and be counted.

I’ll be tweeting progress on the book here.

I also wrote a chapter of the book for the pitch. It’s about how the ‘big consensus’ of the twentieth century began to break down in the 1970s. I hope the book will make a small contribution to rekindling the spirit of the campaigners, entrepreneurs and thinkers I cover here. I’ve copied it below but please do go over to the Unbound site to find out more about the book and please pledge to help make it happen. Read more

If you love Academies, set them free

September 4, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Uncategorized 

It is the first week of the new school year and Academy chains are already back in the news.  Last week Ofsted wrote to AET (Academies Enterprise Trust) expressing concern that too many pupils were not receiving a good enough education, and yesterday the House of Commons Education Committee continued their scrutiny of Academies and Free Schools with an evidence session involving representatives of Academy sponsors and local authorities.

For all the controversy Academies are here to stay, irrespective of the outcome of next year’s General Election.  And good news that is too, given the growing body of evidence that some Academy chains are making a positive difference to outcomes for pupils – see for example the Sutton Trust report Chain Effects on the impact of Academy chains on low income students.  That said, yesterday’s Select Committee reminded us of concerns about the Academy programme as currently conceived that just won’t go away: limited local accountability; too much money being diverted from the classroom through top-slices; and signs that some academy chains are failing to provide sufficient support for school improvement.

A reluctance to address these issues risks damaging the Academies sector as a whole.  Three simple changes could improve the system dramatically. Read more

Politics is led by an uncreative class. We need to unite those who deliver change with imagination.

September 2, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Adam Lent 

One of the imperatives of living in creative times is the need to always ask ourselves whether what we are doing will release or stifle the creativity of as many people as possible. It’s a question the most successful organisations in private, public and voluntary sectors now ask themselves as a matter of course. It is not one asked regularly or even at all by our political leaders. Read more

There’s no such thing as a bad idea!

September 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

 Anthony Gerrard is a Scottish Fellow looking to find aspiring entrepreneurs for his project, ‘Bad Idea’.

How do we encourage more young people into self-employment and entrepreneurship? That was the question posed by Glasgow City Council in January 2012. Why? Only 29% of employers will recruit a young person from education, and nearly one in every four 16 to 24 year olds are now classed as not in education, employment or training. The so-called “Lost Generation”. Read more

You can distribute power & wealth or you can concentrate it but you can’t do both. Politicians pretend otherwise.

August 31, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Adam Lent 

As I do the research for my book Small is Powerful, I’m sharing some of my early thoughts through my blog. Here’s the latest.

It is 225 years since the United States Constitution was adopted. One might have thought in that time that our understanding of democracy would have become more sophisticated. But one of the most central insights into the nature of government and society that was commonplace amongst the Founding Fathers has now been largely forgotten. Read more

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