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What are platforms for collaboration and why are they important? Building upon the insights generated at the recent RSA roundtable, Platforms for Collaboration, RSA Associate Jocelyn Cunningham considers why creativity and collaboration are necessary bedfellows. What would it take to develop culture change so that collaboration across services, across communities and hierarchies, across differences in perspectives might be genuine?

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day reflecting on creativity and community development at an Economic and Social Research Council event in Sheffield entitled Ways of Knowing in Neighbourhood Working. Refreshingly including policy-makers, academics, artists and community activists, the event asked the question:  What kind of policy initiative would encourage new kinds of community development? What if the question was the other way around and was instead: What kind of community development might encourage new kinds of policy development?

We tend to treat community as a fixed concept, thinking it is just about finding the policies and initiatives that can unlock innovative action and build collaborative working. What if the notion of community was more of a mixed up kind of idea, which included people who live in a place, people who work within the services that serve that place and those who need to make decisions about that place. Not a particularly radical or new idea but somehow, when it comes to problem solving, we divide ourselves into groups that I suspect only make it much harder. However, mixing us up, cutting across sectors, hierarchies and all the other areas that are encompassed by the concept of diversity is hugely challenging. Where are the platforms for collaborative working that purposefully work with difference; where this includes both decision makers and citizens and what are the conditions and environments that might help such collaboration thrive and develop?

What does a ‘collaborative community’ mean and who is in such a thing? A recent RSA blog explored the advantages of collaborative working in public services; working with communities rather than for them.  A few weeks ago, the RSA hosted a workshop entitled Platforms for Collaboration that specifically addressed what this might look like if decision-makers, staff in public services and people in communities explored ideas openly together, not simply as within the frame of consultation. What would be the conditions necessary for a different kind of conversation; one not rooted in the culture of complaint and defense? Such a change would need to be systemic.

Cultural historian, Robert Hewison identified the singular importance of the role of creativity in thinking about how systems work at a conference late last year: ‘It is the reconfiguration of relationships that gives a system its essential characteristics…Creativity comes from being at a point of exchange.’

It is this ‘point of exchange’ that is particularly exciting. Part of our work in Wiltshire has worked with the model of Creative Gatherings that directly addresses this. We wanted to interrogate this and other similar approaches with a range of participants from a broad cross section of professional backgrounds. A rich breadth of sectors were represented; from local authorities (Lambeth, Oldham and Wiltshire Councils), from health, community engagement from the private sector (BIDS and Serco) and from research and the arts. Some were curious and intrigued to try different approaches, many were keen to learn how to break out of familiar patterns of interaction that result in the same ineffective solutions for complex problems being replicated again and again with little to no opportunity to reflect. As Atif Shafique pointed out in his latest blog, there is widespread recognition that connectivity between citizens and the services they use as well as across public services and institutions must be genuine and not just lip service. Planning for the future is often based upon assumptions that are constrained by existing models and patterns of thinking and behaving. So how can we break the traditional patterns of behaviour that lead to isolation and fragmented communities as well as siloed service delivery? Gillian Tett’s new book, The Silo Effect examines how silos and fragmentation are at the core of our global economic crisis and stresses the need to pay attention to the cultural and organisational patterns that shape our behaviour. What would it take to develop culture change so that collaboration across services, across communities and hierarchies, across differences in perspectives might be genuine? My response to this question is to build upon the existing work from across the socially engaged creative sector and learn from the principles and conditions necessary for good creative work that crosses traditional boundaries between people.

Professor Geoffrey Crossick pointed out the profound need ‘for a system to create spaces in which something can happen’ in an RSA lecture over 10 years ago in Leeds.  But those spaces must cross sectors and levels of hierarchy, not in one off projects but as a continual process that values the learning and embeds it. So taking some of these core ideas above: Crossick’s spaces of possibility that are embedded within systems and places, Hewison’s notion of creativity being at the point of exchange and the need for collaboration to embrace difference and influence culture change, it could be that a model like Creative Gatherings might be the kind of structure that would realise these concepts.

I want to touch upon the importance for this model to be rooted in creativity - to see collaboration and creativity as natural bedfellows. Creativity enables us to imagine and experience differently and within models like Creative Gatherings, this is purposefully done with others who are not a part of ‘your group’. Building trust requires going beyond a rational interaction and recognising the complexity of how we interact, the role of our own emotions and the importance of empathy. There are several components to a Creative Gathering that are distinctive in helping to make this happen:

  • Enquiry led: Considering what you wish to find out shifts oppositional and entrenched stances. Broadening and deepening enquiry is a useful way to suspend reactive habits. What are the questions that participants want to investigate, not only the questions that the organising body wishes to address? Creative practices can help to reveal underlying issues and dynamics that can generate new and more effective questions for enabling change.
  • Experiencing difference: it takes patience and courage to escape ‘business as usual’ and the appreciation of what is required to operate differently. Creative practices offer unfamiliar activities and processes that refresh mindsets and attitudes. Not only are the experiences ‘different’ but also the breadth of people we are doing them with. It reconfigures relationships through enabling us to perceive each other differently and the effectiveness of such changes of perception cannot be underestimated.
  • Metaphor: working with metaphor is a thread through creative practices, which enables alternate lenses to be applied to experiences and encourages the capacity to come at things indirectly. Not only is there a need for us to develop the capacity to ‘imagine the world otherwise’ but to recognise the patterns and metaphors that we enact in everyday life. In Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson suggest that ‘metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.’ They stress the need to discover new metaphors that we live and work by. We seek out metaphors to highlight and make coherent what we have in common with someone else (mutual understanding) or metaphors that make sense of our own pasts, experiences and dreams (self-understanding).
  • The value of doing: all the characteristics of Creative Gatherings lead to the fact that this methodology is about shared experiences that go well beyond the talking about experiences. Not only are these experiences about self expression but also about collective expression. Participants discover new ways of relating to each other and new perspectives. They change their minds; they break and reinvent the rules of engagement. Working cultures shift.

Sculpting with silver paper at Platforms for Collaboration

Atif Shafique outlined principles for this kind of approach in his blog, such as the need for neutral spaces that can enable flat landscapes, and the importance of sharing food. I would add further the need for such spaces to be ‘safe’ enough for dissent.

Creative practice can be excellent in holding tensions and opposing views, and perceiving complex concepts that are not easily expressed.

The RSA has been trying out this model of Creative Gatherings in Wiltshire as well as in Peterborough, both in Citizen Power (case study) and in the Innovation Forum. There are many platforms for creative cross sector collaboration. It would be great to hear of other examples of similar durational and creative approaches as a means of developing collaborative working, in any sector, nationally or internationally.

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Jocelyn founded a social enterprise called Arts and Society in 2013, after her role as Director of Arts and Society at the RSA in which she led the Arts and Social Change programme within the Citizen Power in Peterborough, amongst other programmes.

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