Where do ideas come from? As I tour around the country – yesterday it was Leicester – talking to Fellows this question keeps nagging away at me. (Before those of you who are only reading in the hope I will say something indiscreet about my time working for Mr Tony click on another site, I should say there are some interesting insights to gained from what we are doing here at the RSA.)
The idea of enabling the Fellowship to move from being an inward-looking social club into being an outward-looking network for civic innovation (that beeping sound is your Windows cliché checker) is gaining ground. The forces of conservatism (small ‘c’), as the aforementioned former leader once called them, are in retreat. The question now is not ‘why should we?’ but ‘how do we?’ – which, it turns out, is a much harder question.
It involves creating the right spaces for ideas to emerge (on-line and off-line). It means developing a culture in which bad ideas die elegantly and good ideas thrive. It forces us at HQ to be clear about the kind of backing we can give to emerging ideas.
But where do ideas come from?
Three answers, three implications for how we work. Ideas come from giving creative people in interesting combinations time to work together. The Leicestershire Fellows group I met yesterday told me they wanted ‘to do something about older people’. But, as we talked, it became clear that for some people this was about meeting needs, while for others it meant addressing negative perceptions of ageing. From this disagreement started to emerge the idea that we should meet older people’s needs by drawing on their strengths - a great conversation, but probably only a tenth of the way to developing a good idea. Through creating more enjoyable informal spaces for Fellows to meet and talk, and replicating this on line, we can allow ideas to emerge, evolve and mature.
Ideas come from the urgency and focus provided by a problem. Drawing on its incredible networks, its brand and its national resources, the RSA Fellowship should be able to respond quickly and generously when a need arises that we can meet. We can develop local solutions derived from an international network of experience and expertise. I have a fantasy about a Fellow saying ‘this problem we’ve got in Stoke-on-Trent, well I’ve been sent a really good idea by a Fellow who tackled something similar in New Jersey (or Melbourne, or Paris or New Delhi)’.
Ideas occur to us in the shower. When Fellows have that Eureka moment they should be able to stand shivering and dripping by their computer throwing the idea out to the wider Fellowship. While I’m being watery, the RSA should be a pond into which we can skim our half formed idea pebbles. Most will sink without trace (I have an interesting thought every day and a useful one every month) but some will set off ripples.
Thank you to the Fellows in Manchester and Leicester who got me thinking this way. The transformation of the Fellowship won’t be easy. But whereas before it felt like digging ourselves out of a hole, now it feels like we are trying to climb a mountain - just as hard but much, much more fun.