Creative Failure – cr8net 2012


cr8net 2012 at the Royal Institute of Great Britain

Failure is a dirty word. Business leaders won’t stand for it, politicians try to hide it and generally, it’s seen as something to avoid. But it seems, given the talks and discussions today at #cr8net hosted by CIDA, it is essential for creativity. The stories of how creativity has escaped the shackles of prescribed education via playful experimentation with software, and how networking with everyone who will throw a business card at you is critical to success, they sum up the rhetoric of the creative industries for the last 15 years or so. But is failure such a critical part of what constitutes creativity? Does allowing for experiments to fail really aid creative businesses? Or is it more the will to take a creative idea and putting it into practice in a meaningful way?

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Cross-discipline creativity and Steve Jobs

It is perhaps with a little bit of poetic justice that I saw Mark Brittin of Google speak at MediaCityUK two days before Steve Jobs passed away – the message Mark gave was one that Steve had been actively living and preaching pretty much his whole adult life. I’m not going to eulogize about Apple and Jobs here, there are plenty of other blog posts today that will do that (here’s a particularly good one). Instead, I wanted to talk about what that message was, namely the importance of diverse inter-disciplinarity for creativity and innovation.
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Creative Exchange(s)

Having just given a keynote talk at the Creative Exchange (slides above, or if you’re browser isn’t letting you see them, click here), it has been a genuinely invigorating experience to talk to and get feedback from creative industry businesses, entrepreneurs and freelance workers. The talks and Q&A sessions all had stimulating content with tangible repercussions for how creative industry business can collaborate, access finance and reach their audience (whoever that may be). You can relive the day through the twitter stream, #CE11.

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Politics of Creativity or Creative Politics?

It’s taken a bit of time for the dust to settle on the coalition government and already we are seeing them attempting to tackle the chronic economic malaise that we currently suffering from. Public sector cuts seem to be high on the agenda and within that we have already seen the abolishment of major planned cultural projects, such as the £45 million pledge to the  BFI; wider cuts throughout the DCMS have also been outlined. Perhaps of more relevance to the policies surrounding the creative industries is this:

So, what does ‘reviewed and rebuilt’ mean? Clues may have been given to us in Jeremy Hunt’s first speech as Culture Minister. The term ‘creative industries’ has not been completely stripped out of the political rhetoric, but it seems that the cohesiveness that they once purported is ebbing away in favour of a more digitally-orientated taxonomy, one which focuses on infrastructure and local provisioning of content. Since those infamous Mapping Documents of 1998 and 2001, there has been a great deal of debate. This seminar at the Open University a couple of years ago, for me, epitomised these debates, with Jon Newbigin’s talk in particular noting the political drive behind the ‘coalition’ of the creative industries concept (look out for a question by me to Prof. Pratt about 1 hour 5 mins in).

It seems that the 00s was the honeymoon period of the creative industries as a functional concept. I often argued that the ‘siloization’ of the creative industries into subsectors was a vacuous exercise, an attempt to justify the spending on the various councils that exist. But now, it seems that as there is an emphasis now on the delivery of content rather than the production of it, the new government is formulating a politics of individual creativity and the delivery thereof, rather than attempting to herd companies and people together in attempt to statistically justify their spending. This is a positive move. Creative industry activity has always been two or three steps ahead of any policies designed to encourage them, and their mixing of production techniques, their sharing of individuals and their cross-pollination of ideologies, has belied constant labelling and typologies. Now, with a focus on supporting the platforms for this mixing; the more rapid delivery of the content; and the room for innovation; and most importantly a policy for a digital, not analog age; this can only catalyse the productivity of the sector, and provide the financial rewards that the creative industry companies rightly deserve. It would be interesting now to see if any of this is recognised in today’s budget….

Heterophily: Why you should follow people who you disagree with on Twitter

Networks are a crucial component of the social sciences these days. They are theorised about in almost every sub-discipline and constitute the fundamentals of many concepts and prevailing theories of society and space. One of the major works cited is Mark Granovetter’s ‘Strength of Weak Ties’ argument in 1973, revisited in 1983. Essentially, weak ties are those ties ‘outside’ the core connections that any one actor has. Granovetter uses the example of acquaintances and friends, where the former are more structurally crucial to a network than the latter. In other words, if you operate solely within your group of ‘close-knit’ friends, then there is little or no expansion of that network and hence the proliferation of linear thought; a process known as homophily. Heterophily then is when networks are predicated on difference, or by exploration of ‘weaker’ ties to any given individual – a phenomenon which discourages linearity, and embraces rhizomatic thinking.

Granovetter’s example of ‘ego’ applies to individuals, however the same process has been applied to businesses and hence a major branch of innovation studies being focused on the importance of the heterophilic associations of companies, rather than the more familiar ties/connections. Another branch of thought of the ‘weak ties’ argument can be appropriated in the arena of social networks, in particular, Twitter. As those of you who follow me will know, I use it far too often than I should, but I find that it has really benefited the readership of my work, as well as aiding my discovery of great new bits of information and knowledge, most notably in relation to my work on cities and urbanism. I have built up a network of friends/followers with the same interest in cities, with the same outlook and similar feelings about how cities should ‘be’ and theorised upon. Much akin to what Mr Collins sang about all those years ago, I have in effect, built up a homophilic network by following those who follow me and vice versa. But, as Granovetter and the subsequent literature on networking suggests, these homophilic networks are not as conducive to innovative practices or simply expanding networks.

But given Twitter’s modus operandi, inevitably, people find themselves following/being followed by those with kindred interests; people with different views are simply ignored. But this is not indicative of a heterophilic network; it has no structural strength in weak ties. Hence, I am finding myself seeking out people with differing views to my own to follow, and no longer ‘unfollowing’ people who’s twitter feed has become either boring or down right offensive. While this can have annoying consequences, surely it is a necessary evil if we are to maintain weak ties on Twitter? As I have blogged elsewhere with regard to cities, diversity is a crucial component of a well-adjusted urban environment, and this is also the case with cities online, i.e. social networking. While indulging with like-minded people is clearly important and necessary (particularly in academic realms – you always need co-authors or simply people to back you up sometimes!), in the every world of twittering, I would argue that having the odd ‘weak tie’ is important for the health of your intellectual, cultural, political and societal inclination (that sounds a lot more bold than I mean it to, but you get what I mean right!?). Homophilic tendencies can have a negative effect in that it creates silos of opinion, which can, through positive feedback systems create over-exaggerated truths which manifest themselves in prejudice in the most inflammatory of cases. While this may seem alarmist, you can see the circulation of negativity on many internet discussion boards (the Enemies of Reason blog often posts on such things). The negativity and in some cases, offensive and hateful comments, are obviously a necessary symptom of a democratic and open society (as Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”), but only through engagement, and discouraging these homophilic tendencies can they be ‘shouted down’ and ‘argued out’ in favour of something altogether more wholesome.

So, the next time you find yourself thinking about unfollowing someone because they said something you disagree with or they have a divergent interest, think twice – you’ll be cutting off your weaker ties. And when you’re looking for people to follow, try seeking out those who you ordinarily wouldn’t – heterophilic networking is an essential catalyst of a democratic society.

Technologies, Local Governance and Community Informatics

The global economic downturn has forced us all to re-evaluate our economic, social and personal assets. A panacea that is often heralded for the general community malaise that is a consequence of the global crisis is community engagement and increased civil participation. This can take many forms, however a key arena is local politics.

The UK government is trying to encourage local people to engage with their local governments in order provide solutions tenable to the local situation. The release of a decentralisation Green Paper by the Conservatives ‘Control Shift‘, released in February 2009, which stated the aim was to give more power to local councils and people, echoed many of the sentiments of the less recent (July 2008) white paper by Government’s Communities and Local Government department (CLG) ‘Communities in control: real people, real power‘, which signaled the governments commitment to “shift[ing] power… away from existing centres [and] into the hands of communities and individual citizens” (CLG report, 2008: page 1).

These reports/papers are a timely contribution as there has been research which suggests that 63 per cent of local residents do not feel they have any influence is decisions made by local councils and governments, and more generally, only one third of people vote in local elections. So there is a distinct sense of apathy which is a barrier that needs to be addressed if the goals in the white paper are to be achieved. That said, community involvement has always been part of the ethos of local government. Councils and boroughs have often engaged with local residents in innovate ways in order to gain their opinions/help in their administrative and bureaucratic processes. From the improvement of services, influencing important budgetary and regeneration issues to running local services; there are a number of ways in which the council can engage with local people. For example, councils already have an obligation to involve their community through the ‘Statements of Community Involvement and Planning Application‘ procedures required for all planning documents. So, there is a sense that the recent white paper(s) is(are being) aimed at building on existing processes by local governments as well as stimulating a fresh impetus, yet there is huge room for improvement.

Because in parallel to this, the increased technological participatory powers of citizens through the Internet and Web 2.0 techniques, has meant that the technological barriers to entry for community or civil engagement have been lowered, and the uptake of information from a variety of sources has intensified. Governments across the world and at various levels (federal, national, state level, local and district) have started to embrace this technology to further their reach and to encourage feedback and participation.

Hence, while the perceived apathy of community engagement in local government decisions is therefore one considerable barrier to entry for some people, techniques such as open-sourced websites, blogs, wikis are all facilitating the way in which information can be fed back from residents to governments, and are relatively inexpensive to implement; shortening the distance between decisions of the collective and the results of those decisions. We have already seen how Web 2.0 techniques were used strategically by Barack Obama’s campaign in the presidential victory of 2008, and now the White House has a specific technological ‘new media’ director to aid in its Web 2.0 capacity.

However, as yet, there is still very much a digital divide in the UK with 26 per cent of the UK population unable to receive a digital broadband connection. Lord Carter said in a recent NESTA speech that he wanted a minimum of 2mbps for all homes in the UK, however this has been criticized as not being enough for modern day Internet usage. And at any rate, if the research by Point Topic is anything to go by, then there is still a lot of work to do (particularly in Northern Ireland). Charles Leadbetter has questioned the effectiveness of this policy on the growth of the creative industry sector by suggested that the increase of broadband to the population will only serve to increase user-generated content and therefore decrease the market share/penetration of large media corporations and perhaps stifle the growth of the industry. This may be true, but in terms of creating a platform for local voices to effect local government then this policy is a must. Community Informatics is a burgeoning discipline, but it seems to tie in with the processes of increased technological capabilities of civil society in effecting local policies and change, particularly for disempowered or marginalised (socially, economically and geographically) communities – with the recent papers by the government and its shadow have argued for.

So, it is important to question Lord Carter’s proposal as being too narrow or not enough for the needs of modern creative industries in the UK (which as we are being reminded are the panacea for the world’s current economic turmoil). However, by increasing local engagement with local governance, the broadband roll out, however small in terms of badnwidth,  could be crucial as it seems to be a genuine and achievable option. Both the government and the conservatives have said they want to ‘decentralise’ power, so for all that entails, a digital Britain is crucial.

Collaborative Innovation: Some thoughts

A recent book called ‘The Game Changer‘ by AG Lafley and Ram Charan states that innovation is a social process. This social, and therefore, collaborative innovation is more often than not seen as a source of development and growth for a wide range of societal and economic goals. The quest for innovation and sound innovate practice can sometimes be over-hyped, but it is an accepted truth in academic and political realms at any rate that innovation (and it’s panoptic alter ego, creativity) is an everyday occurrence, but, is in its most harness-able and commercial format when practiced collaboratively. In that book, the authors suggest, and I quote, “innovation is a social process. And this process can only happen when people do that simple, profound thing — connect to share problems, opportunities, and learning. To put it another way, anyone can innovate, but practically no one can innovate alone”. This is a sentiment that has been argued in some quarters, including Ledwith and Coughlan’s paper in 2005 about ‘splendid isolation‘, who argue that networking and ubiquitous collaborative-based solutions should not be seen as a panacea for growth and development problems. However, what cannot be argued is the increased innovate capacity that arises from the mixing and entanglement of (sometimes) vastly different thought patterns.

Collaboration therefore is the name of the game, and throughout the development of the Internet in recent years, we have seen how collaborative behaviour has blossomed. The virtual, global space that is created by Web 2.0 can have liberating effects on personal connectivity which has been used in the most part to create exciting and new directions of economics and entertainment. Twitter is a particularly powerful social tool in this regard. Examples of collaborative software from the film industry (taken from my own work) include the development of web-based (Audio Digital Recording) ADR tools used for film and television products. Also, the (Creative Review Tool) CRT used by Animal Logic for postproduction and their ‘Happy Feet’ feature film that allows the producer and art director to be on other sides of the planet, yet have real-time changes made on complex animation sequences. Eric Von Hippel has written vehemently on the ‘horizontalisation’ of user-innovator networks, which, through the ‘free-revealing‘ of open source software, restricts the ability of innovation manufacturers (as he calls them) to commercialise this realm of user-led innovation.

Virtual, web-based innovation spaces relax the institutional, social and cultural barriers that exist when ‘real life’ collaboration occurs. This ‘placeless’ innovation means that people can work together without the usual social inhibitions that can restrict the (sometimes anarchic) flow of innovate practices. Also, the real world has problems of gentrification. Spiraling rental prices can force the most innovate people (start-up designers and freelance creatives) to move away from the ‘cluster’ or ‘hub’, namely the city centre – problems which web-based collaboration do not share.

What can we do about it? It seems obvious that encouraging web-based collaborations and the usage of open-sourced and free software is the key, however encouraging an ephemeral ubiquitous connectivity can be detrimental. Targeted collaboration though monitoring skills and match-making the desires and wants of specific businesses or individuals with those skills, can help to short-circuit innovative practices by getting the people who need to be together, quicker. Also, as I mentioned, the commercialisation potential of this free-revealing arena is virtually nil, so there is a need to couple the software with complementary goods (the hardware for example), which can provide a way of making money out of an inherently social process.

It has been argued that IP needs to be tightly controlled in such an environment, however it has been also argued that free-revealing can be beneficial in other ways, not just the economic benefits (such as reputational). Trade secrets, copyrights, patents can all ‘out-invented’ so the proliferation of free-revealing, particularly in open source web-based software through the internet has further facilitated the rate of technological innovation.

This is not to say that it will ever, nor should ever replace face-to-face contact (F2F). The economic and urban geography, an creative and cultural industries literature has told me that F2F is crucial in the key economic and creative decisions made on a daily basis, and indeed many innovation procedures have to be conducted in this way, such as performances and physicality. However, the dissemination of information and the facilitation of connectivity that Web 2.0 has proliferated can only aid in what Lafley and Charan call, the ‘social process’, that is innovation. I refer you to the Connect team at NESTA who do some stirling work in this area if you want to know more from people far more qualified than I.