Creativity is intrinsic to humanity. The ability to creatively adapt to and adapt our environment lies at the core of our genetic success (or at least the success of our genes.) We can’t help ourselves. We make, we compose and play, we organise in new ways, we invent new institutions and adapt old ones, we research and discover, invent and improve, we apply knowledge to material and systems in new ways developing new technologies in the process and so it goes on. It’s a mystery how an attribute so basic to human character has been sectioned off and made into an exclusive trait found in ‘creatives’, the ‘creative class’, the ‘creative economy’. We don’t have the ‘language elite’, the ‘language class’ (other than in language schools!) or the ‘language economy’. Yet creativity is just as strong a part of who and what we are as language.
If we accept that more creativity is not only a desirable thing but a necessary thing also, as my colleague Adam Lent argues in his invigorating new year blog, then it’s important that we understand its true nature. If it is intrinsic to our humanity, then it must be a democratic rather than elitist concept. This then raises the questions: why don’t we see more of it? Why are we all not exploiting our creative potential to the full? Could it be that we aren’t powerful enough?
For 2014, the RSA is focusing on a discussion around the ‘power to create’. If we accept that ‘to create’ is a democratic rather than elitist concept then our eyes inevitably become drawn to the ‘power’ part of the equation. If it were an elitist concept, we’d just need to devise efficient means by which we could identify those blessed with powers of creativity then set them off. Education, academia, the creative arts, technology, entrepreneuriship become an exercise in panning for gold. Those who glitter would get the prizes. That sounds a bit better than the current situation where those who have luck, access to networks or family wealth get to explore their ‘creativity’ and rest get to download their outputs for £0.79 at a time. But what if creativity is a more universal blessing? Then we have a grossly unjust world where only a few get to express their talents.
So for any ‘power to create’ to be real, when the potential to create is dispersed amongst us, we need to talk about power. Now, power comes in many forms. In can be about coercive force and domination. That is hard power and nothing is more inimical to creativity than that. It can also be about reciprocal influence. Gaia Marcus discusses the basic place of mutual support and aid and its impact on the freedom of individuals to be creative participants in communities in her take on ‘power to create’. This soft or connected power absolutely has to be part of any empowered and distributed individual creativity. That is a constructive form of power.
I would venture another form of power that would be needed alongside the type of support Marcus describes. It is a foundational power of support. My RSA colleagues in the Social Brain team are often heard talking about ‘bandwidth scarcity’ . This essentially is where decision-making is impaired because individuals do not have enough, money, time, comfort, support. When we are lacking, we freeze up. When we are frozen, we are unlikely to be creative. If we don’t have access to luck, networks or wealth then what do we need? We need constant support and the knowledge that there is only so far we fall and we then will be able to get up again. It’s easy to take risks when you know that your potential losses are limited. This is why creativity in young people is associated with a loving and supportive yet open and accepting environment at home.
We all need that foundational power to take risks, experiment, explore and create. That comes from community and it comes from the collective institutions – democratic, legal, economic, social, and educational – that we create.
Stability and innovation, though vastly different dynamics, are co-dependent. It’s similar to security and liberty. What are seen as opposite poles emerge as mutually supportive. A democratic creativity relies on a degree of security and stability. Those families with access to more ‘bandwidth’ are better able to nurture children with the power to create. There are notable exceptions as those who observe the link between childhood trauma and life success for some have noted. These are the exceptions that prove the rule.
In the latest edition of the New Yorker, the link between good institutions and creativity is explored by Evgeny Morozov. The spread of the ‘maker movement’, access to technology and education is noted and yet enormous reservoirs of concentrated power are swelling in the form of global tech companies and state surveillance. He puts it as follows:
“The hackers won their fight against I.B.M.—only to lose it to Facebook and Google. And the spooks at the National Security Agency must be surprised to learn that gadgets were supposed to usher in the “de-institutionalization of society.”
Moisés Naim ,who will give a talk at the RSA next week, argues that we are facing the ‘end of power’ (though as ever with ‘end of’ books he doesn’t quite mean it). Big states, parties, companies are facing increasing resistance from micro-power: networks of terror, interest, protest, and resistance. Naim and Morozov are probably both right. ‘Power’ in this sense - authority and the ability to coerce - is becoming both too concentrated and too diffuse.
This is a utility of the ‘power to create’. It alerts us to authority flowing to wrong places and rather than enhancing the foundational or soft power to create. Al Qaeda may have some power but ‘power to create’ it most definitely is not. Other forms of micro-power or traditional power structures will also have to stand up to this test: how does this individual, network or institution having hard power enhance human ability to create? If it does not, then let’s challenge it.
Morozov argues that the nature of political community matters. The institutional structure matters if you want the power to create to be really dispersed rather than concentrated. That’s why we need to talk about power, its form, the ethos that seeks to deploy it, and its purpose: our purpose as individuals who wish, need, and should create.
Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His latest book is ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ .