The Creative Citizen

I recently joined my local Town Team, a collection of residents, business owners and others seeking to improve their neighbourhood in north London. At our inaugural meeting, we were presented data about how people use the high street – footfall, purchases, preferences etc. Whilst interesting, this data was limited – it didn’t tell us what these people really needed and wanted from the high street.

What to do?

I proposed to run a co-creation exercise with my fellow citizens to discover needs and create ideas to re-imagine the neighbourhood. After all, after air traffic control and Europe-wide food traceability systems, how hard can it be?

The Town Team agreed. We ran short creativity workshops with different groups of people who produced simple mood boards, removed constraints to open up spaces of new ideas, and generated concepts to increase the convenience of the town centre, and people’s connections with and participation in it. We also undertook table-top walkthroughs allowing people to describe how they used the high street, problems they’ve experienced and ideas that they have. We even set up a web-based tool to encourage asynchronous idea generation.

Fortunately for us, people engaged in the co-creation process, and exploited a chance for proper consultation.

But what took me so by surprise was the range and novelty of the ideas that all of these people generated using just a few simple creativity techniques. Ideas about the architecture and the street layout, about the amenities and their information needs, and about all forms of new service that they needed.

I was struck. Empowering citizens with even simple techniques and tools seemed to lead to a step increase in creative outcomes.

And whilst I’m under no illusions about some of the challenges ahead to innovate and implement these ideas, the potential to be creative during this innovation process is clear.

All of this got me thinking. What could the creative citizen achieve more widely if empowered with just a few, simple creativity techniques? Why should these techniques be the preserve of designers and consultants? And how could everyone learn and adopt a few techniques?

I wonder if what we need is Martini-creativity? Creativity that is anytime, anyplace, anywhere – made possible through simple to learn, quick to use techniques and tools, available to all?

Imagine if everyone can use simple creative techniques to resolve everyday issues. Now that really is something worth pursuing.Image

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Creativity is a Feeling

Have you read Making is Connecting by David Gauntlett? It’s a great book about creative collaboration and how this enhances creativity, creates a sense of community and improves individual happiness. If you are interested in creativity, collaboration and change I’d recommend you read it.

In one part of the book Gauntlett challenges current perceptions of creativity. He says,

  • we often think of creativity as an activity that delivers a ‘product’ or ‘outcome’
  • we evaluate how creative the ‘product’ is
  • and we use this as a measure of whether the activity was ‘successful’ or not

His challenge is that the value of creativity doesn’t just lie in the products that are created. Creativity is a process and the value we get from creativity also comes from the process of creating something. He says that creativity is a feeling.

Creativity is something that you feel

Creativity gives you the internal sense:

  • that you’re going somewhere
  • that you’re doing something you’re not done before
  • a positive perception of yourself

And, when you are being creative in a group, creativity gives you a powerful sense of connectedness to like-minded people. It works in the real world or in the virtual world of Web 2.0.

Creativity gives us a sense of wellbeing, connectedness to others and is one of the central aspects of being human, says Gauntlett.

I can buy into that, can you?

Stephen Clulow is studying the Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership at City University, London. His dissertation research is investigating what motivates people to share creative work online for others to reuse and remix. This post was originally posted on Stephen’s Action for Innovation blog.

(Note: Stephen has no commercial or financial interests in the Making is Connecting book. He just thinks it’s a great book).

Image courtesy of charliecurve. Used under a Creative Commons License.

 

Is language & jargon a barrier to innovation?

“If you cannot explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein

I remember as a student in my first year of uni being told that my degree would prepare me to be the bridge between IT and business. At the time I didn’t understand why this would be needed. But it did sound very exciting.

These days my role is to elicit, discover and invent requirements for both large scale European projects and small knowledge transfer projects. Put very simply, I’m the person who figures out what new systems that involve both humans and technology should do. I’m the link in the chain of developing new systems that works to understand the needs of the people in the system and communicates this to those who will build the technology part of the system.

This takes me into a variety of domains, from dementia care to food chains, which I need to become familiar with over a relatively short amount of time in order to discover requirements, redesign work and social processes, then help to invent new ways for technology to support these. In each domain the biggest learning curve is getting to grips with the language shared by the professionals in that domain.

This learning curve can be a barrier to collaboration and creativity between professionals from different domains. We are so used to thinking that using big words and jargon makes us look clever, like we know what we’re talking about. Some even use jargon as a way of excluding those not in the know from understanding the conversation, but more often than not it is just a habit. One we need to get out of when we come together to work creatively.

Teams made up of people from many different areas of an organisation can be a fantastic resource for identifying and creating opportunities, though only if they can communicate their ideas on a level that is understood by everyone in the room. In the book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap: How smart companies turn knowledge into action”, Robert Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer argue that “Simple talk is valuable because it is more likely to lead to action. It is less possible to second guess or dispute simple, direct ideas. One may disagree with a simple idea or a simple philosophy, but that is transparent at the outset. Second guessing and finger pointing are largely precluded when the organisation operates on the basis of simple, straightforward ideas and language.” They’ve got a point, don’t you think?

I spend a fair amount of my time in projects acting as a translator. I have to wonder how much further we could get if we all just used simple talk?

The Role of Advocacy in Making Innovation Happen

Dragons Den

How do you successfully pitch ideas to this lot?

How many potentially successful business ventures fail to obtain the funding needed based on the way the idea is pitched? And how many employees with bright ideas to improve their organisation’s business have their ideas rejected because they did not get the pitch right when presenting the idea to management?

Artful advocacy can be applied to many professional practices, as most professionals find themselves in situations where they have to argue their case to an audience of decision makers, whether it is in interviews, pitching to a client or leading a team of people. However, there is one area of making innovation happen where the art of advocacy can really make a difference – i.e. when seeking investment to get a new idea/product/service off the ground. It applies whether the innovator is an entrepreneur seeking investment from venture capitalists or an employee seeking permission to pursue an idea from internal decision makers.

The advocate in a court of law needs to prepare their argument, learn the facts of the case of by heart and understand the (legal) context in which the facts are being presented. They need to research previous case decisions that apply. This can be a useful process for advocates presenting a new idea/invention/innovation to decision makers who will decide whether to invest. The advocate in this case should prepare their argument with the facts, exploring both the strengths and weaknesses of their idea and be prepared to discuss these. They should understand the context in which the idea is being pitched, i.e. the potential market, how it fits the vision/strategy of the organisation/investor and research previous projects/ideas that the organisation/investor has invested in as well as the background and outcomes of these.

The scenario for pitching for funding shares similarities with a court room.

  • One or more ‘judges’ who will make final judgement based on the facts presented
  • A limited time in which to make your case.
  • Dreams and wishes will not do, the investor, like the judge, is looking for facts.
  • You are not the only one competing for the decision maker to “rule” in your favour. Others are arguing their case for investment too, and in a world of limited funding you need to make a stronger case than the competition.

Similar context may also apply for employees of an organisation who seeks permission from decision makers to pursue a new idea they believe could be beneficial for the organisation. The success of an idea will so often come down to the skill of its advocate, yet many inventors and innovators are not skilled in the art of advocacy.

The advocate needs to be practiced in their case, be able to recite facts on request and be prepared to answer difficult questions. They need to be aware of their body language,
appearance and how they are perceived by their audience. But above all they need to get the right mix between being confident and honest. The audience need to feel they can trust the advocate. They need to feel able to believe in the messenger before they will believe in the message.

So can entrepreneurs and would be innovators learn from the advocacy used in law when it comes to presenting their ideas? Making the case for a new idea, especially one that is ground breaking, is difficult. E.g. imagine explaining to potential investors that a service that let users publicly broadcast short updates of 140 characters, and allows people to follow complete strangers and users can choose to remain anonymous. How do you convince investors to take a punt on an idea that sounds farfetched and for which it may not be obvious where your revenue will come from? Twitter is of course one of the most successful social media companies today, but was it an easy sell when it was just starting out?

Today anyone can invent the next big thing. You don’t need to be a big company to create big step change. The difference between getting your idea to market and not is often getting investment. The difference between a successful start-up and a flop is so often how well you perform in that dragons den situation. Entrepreneurs and innovators seeking success for their idea would do well to learn the art of the advocate in the way they prepare and present their case to the investor/decision maker. Like those stepping in to the Dragons’ Den, anyone seeking investment in their idea, needs to present a confident and convincing case based on facts. Often the biggest barrier to making innovation happen is that the advocate defending the innovation is not able to play their role well.

Innovators would do well to learn the art of the advocate.

Building Better Roads

Sfalassa BridgeAs my Twitter followers will know, I’ve been traveling through Sicily, returning to some places for the first time in a decade. One change that really stands out over this period is the investment in the road system. A great new network of tunnels, bridges and motorways has spread out across the island from Palermo, making it quicker and safer to get from place to place.

One can only wonder at the cost of these engineering feats. Most were completed before 2008. Alas, I fear that solving our everyday travel problems with such large infrastructure solutions will not be possible in the austerity-ridden Europe of 2012.

Which got me thinking, as I glided across another beautiful new bridge: how will Europe be able to solve its future problems in our new, more constrained world? What do these Sicilian motorists need to do to continue to ensure economic growth on their island?

One answer is challenge assumptions about how things are done. New economic realities mean that many of these assumptions are out-dated.

However, most people have yet to realise this. Clearly, just telling people that they’ve living in the past is not a good idea.

So what to do? One option is to help people to think more creatively about what can be done if we simply challenge the old ways of doing things. Now, this is easier send than done. Our assumptions about how things are done are often deep-rooted. They are rarely talked about because, well, they simply describe how things have been done for a long time.

Build a bridge to cross a valley, use the car to get to work, use established forms of labour to earn a living. Challenging such assumptions can be difficult.

But I think that people are more likely to challenge such assumptions if they can glimpse a more positive future. Empowering people to think creatively in order to generate and own that future can overcome natural reticence to change.

There is an important role for creative facilitators here. Europe, more than ever, needs our skills in order to challenge out-dated assumptions in creative ways. The stakes are high. And the time is now.

The role of imagination in dementia care

Happy Elderly WomanImagination is often defined as an ability to envision something that is not present in reality – a fundamental part of creative processes that subsequently may lead to innovation. Author J.K. Rowling proposes that imagination could be understood in a broader sense, as a power to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. Uniquely, imagination can allow us to learn and understand without having experienced. How can we employ this information resource in the best way?

It is important to choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless, in order to understand the world in its full spectrum of colours. My mind cross-referenced this thought with a quote from F.S. Fitzgerald’s famous novel The Great Gatsby that I often try to recall when facing a challenging behaviour of any sort:

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

In the world of dementia care, which is the application domain of my PhD research in creativity and play – one who cares for a person with impaired memory is often faced with strange and bizarre situations classified as challenging. I believe the key to resolutions in these situations is to reveal its causes with empathy, and I am building games to enable this kind of creative, imaginative understanding. The idea is to enable carer’s imagination to act like a detective, pick up the clues to gradually uncover the reasons that lie behind behaviours and emotions of an individual with dementia.

What could be the impact of such an application of imagination? Another quote from J.K. Rowling, I believe, reflects very well the issue of importance of understanding (not only in dementia care) that I am trying to address with my research:

Many people prefer never to exercise their imagination at all and never wonder how it would have been to be other than how they are. They can close their minds and hearts to any sufferings that do not touch them personally. They can refuse to know. Choosing to live in such narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia… Willfully unimaginative see more monsters, they are often more afraid.

We are therefore going to play hard-to-forget at my talk at ICLCity 2012, organised by Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice, taking place at City in June. Looking forward to seeing you there.

Also, I would like to encourage you to put your imagination into action today. Many who suffer from dementia live in care homes. Join the Big Care Home Conversation brainstorming campaign, that is tackling the question: What makes life good in care homes now, what could make them better – and how might we get there?

How Can Businesses and Universities Solve Business Problems More Effectively?

People collaborating around a tableThere are ways that businesses and universities communicate and collaborate.  Yet, perhaps we should ask ourselves:

  • Are our current approaches fit for the future?
  • Will they meet the needs of 21st century businesses?
  • How can we innovate the business-university interfaces to solve the challenges that entrepreneurs face?

New approaches would help universities and businesses.

Universities would be able to make their research, consultancy and enterprise activities more useful to today’s businesses. Universities could reinvent themselves and develop totally new capabilities that will help drive business growth.

Businesses would benefit from knowing they could turn to academics who understand their needs and offer services that will help solve the challenges they face. Improved collaborations between business and universities could improve revenues, reduce costs, add new capabilities to existing companies or create more start ups.

We’d really like to know your ideas:

How can businesses and universities solve business problems more effectively ?

Join our workshop at the Digital Shoreditch Festival on Tuesday 21st May to innovate how businesses and universities can work together to solve businesses challenges. It will be an enjoyable, interactive experience and you’ll be helping universities and businesses achieve more. There’s more information here.

If you can’t wait to tell us your ideas, or if you can’t join us in London on the 21st, you can join in the discussion online by posting a reply. We’d like to know your ideas.

 Dr Sara Jones, Dr Stephen Clulow