Creative Citizens: How can creativity generate value for communities?

A few weeks ago I went to the Creative Citizens conference at the Royal College of Art. It was two days of keynotes, workshops and findings sessions dedicated to the question of how much value Creative Citizenship can generate for communities.

It was a great couple of days – and it covered a lot of ground but I’m going to try to sum up some of the key themes we covered here.

Innovation happens when things go wrong.

This came up in a few of the sessions – Paola Antonelli (MOMA) and Geoff Mulgan (NESTA) both talked about how innovation and creativity thrive in times of unrest, austerity and conflict.

Geoff Mulgan referenced the recent European Mayor’s Challenge run in partnership with Bloomberg to encourage creativity in local government. Four of the five winning cities are experiencing unrest, hardship or radical change – Barcelona, Athens, Warsaw, Kirklees and Stockholm.UrbanNomadShelter_300

Paola Antonelli talked passionately about how urban spaces – and the need for diverse groups to share those spaces – create opportunities for creative citizenship. She offered the Urban Nomad homeless shelter as a compelling example of a product that was designed as a short term solution to a social problem. But the bright colours also make sure that the problem stays front of mind – unlike many other homeless shelters this one refuses to be ignored.

Creative Citizenship is Hyper Local

The theme of hyper localness at the conference was focused mainly on Hyperlocal publishing but it remains true for other initiatives as well.

It was interesting hearing from the people behind hyper local publications (digital and print) in Brixton and Kentish Town, as well as some of the community projects that were involved in the Creative Citizens’ research programme.

All the publications features had grown out of a need increase a sense of connectedness – either through geography or interest groups.  There was a unanimous feeling that the mainstream media is increasingly irrelevant and that community publications (often run my hobbyists) fulfil a social need.

These publications report on local news and events but also get involved in campaigning on local issues.

It was interesting to hear how the research teams had worked with these hyper-local publications to see “how creative citizenship can add value to communities”. In one of the most successful instances they provided empty pages for readers to fill in themselves and return to the publishers to give the community more of a voice. In another they set up a ‘News Cafe’ where community members could meet to discuss the issues they wanted to hear more about.

Play is a powerful tool

This came up in a few different different areas – from digital storytelling to humour in social media being a tool for creative citizenship

One of the speakers was Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield. They combine open source game design and co-design principles to tackle social issues.  Check out for an example from Southend where people were given the tools and structure to design a computer game representing what they wanted to see for their local community.

I also loved the Story Machine, which was the output from one of the community co-design projects the researchers undertook. Part puppet theatre, part cinema, part film studio the Story Machine allowed a local community centre (The Mill in Walthamstow) to better share the stories of the people who use it with a wider audience. It’s colourful, accessible and a little bit bonkers – and combines readily available technology in new ways.

Everyday creativity

I think this is probably the theme that ran through everything. The most successful of the research interventions were those that were simple to understand, used accessible technology, and kept the needs of the community at the heart of what they were doing.

Creative citizenship isn’t about big statements or radical change.  It’s about giving people practical skills and tools to help them use creativity to effect change – often at a hyper local level.

What did the researchers learn?

At the end of the conference some of the researchers summed up some of their early learnings:

1. Importance of framework // eg time frame, boundaries, ongoing convergence

2. Inclusivity // allowing for different types of creative expression,

3. Time // managing time and people can take over from the creativity

4. Sustainability // engage in a meaningful way but leave the community able to continue alone.