It is now ten days since my annual lecture on the Power to Create. Writing a set piece speech can be a bit like preparing a big meal. You spend ages on it but it is consumed very quickly with little but some temporarily satiated appetite to show for your efforts. So I am very grateful for the positive feedback I am still receiving.
The full lecture is on the RSA website. But if twenty five minutes viewing is too big an ask, here – thanks in large part to my excellent researcher Carys Roberts - is a reduced and amended version of the speech which you should be able to speed read in five.
The Power to Create
Creativity is often seen as an attribute of certain activities and industries. Fourteen industries such as architecture, fashion and publishing comprise a creative sector that in 2012 contributed £71.4billion to the UK economy and employed 1.68 million British people. This sector has achieved the fastest growth of any UK sector in 2012. Our status as world-leaders in design, arts and television formats brings clear economic benefits as well as being a cause for celebration in its own right. Indeed, the RSA argues strongly for the links between cultural flourishing and social and economic progress.
Yet by focusing on creativity in a growing but discrete section of the economy, we can lose sight of another account of creativity – one that is more universal and democratic. The RSA is starting to explore how the creative life, too often confined to an elite or a sector, should be fostered throughout the economy and society. We are striving to realise the promise of mass creativity. We refer to this idea as the ‘Power to Create’.
At the heart of the Power to Create is a philosophical commitment to the ideal that everyone should be the author of their own lives. As Amartya Sen has put it, 'the freedom to determine the nature of our lives is one of the valued aspects of living that we have reason to treasure'. While the first aspect of a creative life is individual freedom to think our own thoughts and make our own decisions, it also requires positive freedom and resources to pursue our choices; not just hard resources, but the capabilities and knowledge to be free.
The aspiration of a creative life also requires recognition of our inherently social nature. Our creations, whether performances, products or ideas, are grounded in and find meaning in the social relationships of which we are a part. Thus to prize creativity as a substantive virtue urges our commitment to a society in which this prize is realistically attainable not just for ourselves but for our fellow citizens. The progressive mission is for what Roberto Unger describes as a ‘larger life’ to be available for all.
A creativity tipping point?
Is there any reason to believe the Power to Create is anything other than a distant aspiration? I believe there is. We are reaching a point at which the possibility of, and the need for, a creative citizenry looms before us and presents us with urgent choices.
An increasing supply of creativity
The first changes are around human capability and appetite. In less than two generations we have gone from under 10% to almost half of young people experiencing higher education. While we might lag behind other countries in some areas, our young people are in the top quartile of developed nations when it comes to problem solving ability. RSA research shows more young people than ever before wanting the autonomy of owning their own business even though the returns and security are often lower than a traditional job, and among those opting for employment a growing proportion say they make decisions influenced by the values and ethical practices of employers. Around the developed world more people are making their life goal what the Word Values Survey calls 'self-expression'.
Technology is the second great engine of change. The internet has led to a step change in affordable easy access to key tools of creativity: learning, communicating, trading and collaborating. In music, films, photographs, blogs, apps and social networks hundreds of millions of people have generated content. Inexpensive platforms such as Etsy and Kickstarter have released waves of human creativity, entrepreneurial aspiration and collaborative endeavour. Peer to peer and sharing economy platforms whether social enterprises like Streetbank or commercial like AirBnB enable anyone to trade, blurring the boundaries between buyer and seller. Human trust and reciprocity are as important as digital algorithms to the success of these platforms.
Technology can reduce autonomy and dull creativity and as it becomes ever more central to our identities we need to have an explicitly political debate about who controls it and for what purpose. Nevertheless, in aggregate, across a wide spectrum of human activity, greater creativity is being enabled and encouraged. And as the rise of music festivals and the makers’ movement show, while the relationship between creativity on and off line is unpredictable, it is also largely positive.
An increasing demand for creativity
The third trend is the increasing demand for a creative citizenry in all sectors. Various factors including the accelerating pace of change in markets, the need for continuous innovation, the expectation of more personalised service and the growing appetite for authenticity and emotional connection in products and services, all increase the premium on the capacity of employees to be creative and self-motivated.
Increasingly the Government too wants creative citizens. In the face of complex problems and the impact of austerity forward thinking public agencies are recognising that their citizens and communities need to be seen as potential assets not just bundles of needs. As Simon Stevens head of NHS England said in June 'achieving change in the NHS is not merely a techno-rationalist activity, it's health as a social movement'. Methods of service co-design and co-delivery are being pursued, again blurring the boundary between producer and consumer. Initiatives like Homeshare are modern examples of an old ideal - reciprocal civic relationships offering an alternative or adjunct to public services. Of course, huge challenges like caring for an ageing population, tackling inequality or responding to climate change require concerted action at national, local and international level, but our strategies will also require an adaptive and creative citizenry with the skills and confidence to develop its own solutions.
The barriers to a creative society
In our culture the idea that everyone can and should live creatively is not yet accepted as an aspiration let alone a practical imperative. 43% of the workforce, thirteen million people in the UK report that they are not using their skills at work. In assessing the value of education and employment we still give a relatively low priority to autonomy, engagement and motivation.
A concrete symbol of limited commitment toward the ideal of creative lives for all is the persistence of educational privilege and inter-generational inequality (‘the past devouring the future’ in Thomas Piketty’s memorable phrase). The point is not inequality per se, but that the concentration of wealth and opportunity means key resources that foster creative aspirations and choices are not distributed in the way most likely to maximise the benefits to society as a whole. If we judge social progress by the scale of human creativity extreme inequality is deeply inefficient.
Not only is capital concentrated in certain strata of the population, it is concentrated in assets – like London house values - that do little to expand people's creative possibilities. Access to relatively small amounts of capital can have a much greater impact on people’s sense of efficacy and opportunity than increases in income, yet a quarter of our adult population effectively have no capital. Some of the first casualties of austerity were initiatives – the child trust fund and the savings gateway – explicitly designed to address this deficit.
The idea that one class is simply by its nature bound to rule another is seen as reactionary and even offensive but the assumption that only a certain strata of people, of learners, of workers, of places can be expected to be creative endures. So long and so deep has that assumption held sway it is deeply inscribed into our society's institutions.
In the workplace, we assume that only a certain number of roles within the institution can be creative and that an essential role of management systems is to sort posts and people into a pyramidal structure with the most creative jobs at or near the top. Institutions often allocate each individual a role and separate this from the other multiple roles they occupy. We talk about the different interests of teachers, health workers and police officers on the one hand and parents, patients and citizens on the other, but most teachers are parents, all of us will need care at some time and we are all citizens. And institutions too often lose sight of substantive and ethical goals instead prioritising organisational self-interest or - in the public sector - risk avoidance. As John Kay argues, when companies replace the goal of producing great products with maximising share value they easily lose their way. When the only way to cope at work is to leave your identity, values and human sympathies at home in the morning it is not surprising that many people feel demoralised and jaded.
Most large organisations are trying to grapple with these institutional habits and their impact on their capacity to recruit, retain and motivate creative employees. Frederick Laloux cites Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processing company, as an example of how these barriers can be overcome even in a capital-intensive business working to exacting standards in a traditional industry. Up to 2,400 employees each year run the company entirely on self-managing principles, according to which any ‘colleague’ can make creative decisions, and rather than operating within a hierarchical pyramid colleagues agree to honour commitments to each other. The best schools aren't just good at getting children through exams, they are intelligent communities.
The role of the state
As a goal, democratic creativity leads to a profound reconsideration of the role and working methods of the state. In some areas the state would do more than at present, in others less.
Greater activism is needed in shaping the market and its outcomes. The creative state would ensure open markets with low barriers of entry and diverse forms of ownership: encourage and enforce permissive intellectual property regimes, demand that utilities and essential services – including the global internet giants - are run to with the public interest at heart, invest in tomorrow’s infrastructure (including new institutions which foster and grow innovation). As Eric Beinhocker and Nick Hanauer have recently argued, the greatest achievements of capitalism lie less in economic growth or profit but in helping find solutions to problems that matter to us. The answer is not reams of flawed regulation (which tends to become outdated as soon as it is implemented) but a new partnership between modern Government and enlightened business based on a shared commitment to a creative economy.
But as well as being more active in markets, the governors of the state – particularly the central state - need to be aware that its scale, complexity and accountability often make it badly suited to human scale interventions. Today's citizens, aspiring to greater self-determination, want a government that enables them to feel self-reliant not one which creates and reinforces dependency. The creative society would seek to devolve power to the lowest effective level not just because the centre is too distant but because we would encourage different places to do things in substantively different ways, not just experiments in service delivery but experiments in place shaping, indeed experiments in living.
More profoundly the values and analysis behind the Power to Create encourages a questioning of the very idea of traditional policy making. A new policy-making process that fostered mass creativity would see leaders articulating a clear vision as teachers and convenors, not as people who make decisions on our behalf. When it comes to social policy, politicians and managers need to replace the blunt tools of policy making with those of design, in which continuous experimentation, learning by failing, co-producing with consumers and users is the norm.
In the face of the economic stagnation and crises of the 1970s a powerful neo-liberal critique seemed to win the argument that state intervention and the pursuit of social justice and expanding public provision were incompatible with economic dynamism. In response, in the nineties, modernisers like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhardt Schroeder developed the argument the goals of social justice were compatible with, indeed complementary to, a successful market economy and that, in turn, a dynamic economy enabled investment in measures to promote justice. Although intellectually more subtle, in practice this approach encouraged a view that as long as the economy was delivering growth the method by which it did so and consequences of that method were largely irrelevant. Thus the rise of speculative finance and the growth of market generated inequality were largely ignored as long as the tax receipts kept rolling in.
Following the 2008 credit crunch there was strong feeling that the nature of the economy itself required re-examining. The power of financial capitalism and the scale of extreme inequality were seen although critical problems although not ones with ready solutions. The big question is whether it is possible to envisage an inclusive, sustainable, economy which contributes to progressive values not just through generating taxable surpluses but through its very mode of operation. Partly spurred by austerity there is also a recognition that social programmes cannot succeed unless in they too – built in to their operating system – enable citizens to grow their individual and collective resilience and problem solving capacity. Furthermore our traditional ways of thinking about politics, policy and social change are proving increasingly inadequate in the face of an ever faster moving and more complex world.
The ‘Power to Create’ moves beyond an instrumental view of the economy, a paternalistic view of social policy and a mechanical model of policy. The radical reform of our economic, social and political institutions must be premised on the historical possibility, and the ethical imperative, of creative lives for all.