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Principles of Creativity

Alan Webber, Irshad Manji, Roberta Bondar and Joe Berridge make up the first panel of the morning, and Joe begins by setting the tone.

Joe Berridge: Four Principles

So, what is a creative city - would we recognise it if we were in it? Is it simply determined by creative festivals - in which case becoming a creative city is a universal ambition. How can creative cities distinguish themselves in 'the post-Richard Florida world'? Joe suggests that the creative city of the future is a Creative City - where the entire organisation of the city is creatively designed. About 25% of employment in a city is in the public service, which usually is anything bit creative in its operation - so how can creative principles be introduced into the local government environment? The effective achievement of its ambitions combined with creative approaches will set apart the creative city from others, and local government has the greatest potential for creative chance. This is the case in Toronto itself as well, where local government still remains an unreconstructed area of the city, even amidst so many creative projects.

There are core four principles to creativity: flexibility, innovation, risktaking, leadership. Joe now describes how these were addressed in the reinvention of Blackburn, Lancashire, which struggles with its relationship to the close-by metropolis Manchester as it is reinventing itself following the decline of its traditional industries. Public services in Blackburn were moved into a privatised company, which is now able to provide such services not only to the residents of Blackburn but is also able to sell its services to other regional cities, while at the same time improving work ethic and worker satisfaction and loyalty - this demonstrates flexibility.

Stockholm is an example for the second principle - it now generates bio-energy from its waste to energy plants, and is envisaging an eco-cycle society for its new suburbs, removing any dependency on external fuel sources. Sewage disposal and waste management was seen here not as a necessary service, but as an asset which can be used as a ground for innovation.

Risk is the third principle - and indeed there is a huge risk in not taking risks. Joe uses London as an example here: in February 2003, the Greater London Authority introduced the congestion charge to reduce traffic into the city. While everyone predicted disaster, from community groups to business interests, London mayor Ken Livingstone pushed it through, resulting in a 20% reduction in traffic and the generation of some 100 million GBP which is used for further traffic improvements. Charges have been further increased and the area extended, and yet there is now significant support for the congestion charge from all sides. The taking of risks against all odds has clearly been highly successful in this context.

Finally to leadership: each of the three examples demonstrates this, and interestingly in each of the cases it was a left-wing leader who pushed through change (and often against traditional left interests). New York City is a further example as well, though: Mayor Bloomberg has significantly changed public service structures here, and has generated a sense of excitement and possibility within the city administration staff, also appointing a number of key deputy mayors to support him. Successful cities across the board, indeed, are often run by people in their mid-thirties (as are these deputy mayors); further, Bloomberg's office is an open plan, transparent place where the deputy mayors are arranged around the central desk of the mayor, which demonstrates that the traditional management structures in the world are completely irrelevant. The focus here is on outcomes not process, and replaces meeting together with working together; where this can be achieved, success is possible.

Roberta Bondar: Creative Science

Former Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar is next. Her topic is Creative Science - but not in the sense of the creative interpretation of data and results, but in the sense of creatively presenting and applying scientific results and concepts to other fields. Many scientific terms - say, 'escape velocity' -  may be able to be used very creatively and effectively to help people in other fields understand concepts and issues in their area, too.

In improving youth healthcare in the Bronx, for example, a new centre called the Carl Sagan Discovery Center has been developed at a local hospital - not specifically to enable young people to become healthier per se, but to allow them to gain a stronger overall understanding of the world around them in order to thereby help them understand how science affects every part of their life, including their health. Hospitals themselves, through this approach, become less dehumanising, and a better, positive, and educational experience.

Creative application of science also opens up new perspectives, and Roberta offers a number of examples and images which demonstrate the way in which changes in perspective enable new understandings of natural and artificial phenomena. Further, of course, science also enables new artistic opportunities in the presentation of scientific results and the use of scientific imagery for non-scientific purposes.

Irshad Manji: Questioning Received Wisdom

She explores a concept of creativity which emerges out of Islam, but begins by talking to her recent book, The Trouble with Islam Today. The trouble, she says, is literalism - the incarceration of interpretation. Such literalism exists in all religions, of course, but only in Islam is literalism mainstream on a worldwide scale. Because the Koran comes after the Torah and Bible, it is seen as the final statement, and so even moderate muslims see the Koran as a kind of 'God 3.0'. Such a 'supremacy complex', however, is dangerous in empowering the fundamentalist fringe and preventing a questioning of religious beliefs by moderates. However, as Irshad's book suggests, it is permissible to question the Koran, and the tradition of independent thinking in Islam is ijtihad - Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking and creative reasoning. It is a struggle (the 'jihad' part) to comprehend the world with one's mind and one's soul.

This points to the fact that much of history is significantly influenced by muslim thought and knowledge, of course, especially as it connected with European culture before the Spanish reconquista - much of which was fuelled by ijtihad. The revival of ijtihad must begin by finding the will and courage to ask questions out loud - and Irshad now shows excerpts from an interview she conducted with the leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Dr Al Hindi, where she asks him to show where in the Kuran suicide bombings are sanctioned and called for; it takes him some 25 minutes to find an even remotely relevant sura, which still doesn't legitimise suicide bombings for specific causes, though. What's interesting here is that Al Hindi consented to the interview at all, even though he has no clear material to back up his claims - demonstrating the lack of appropriate questioning (especially from the mainstream media) in his usual interviews.

There is now a clear need in the Islamic world for such questioning, and a strong hunger for ideas which back up these questions - Irshad received a great deal of enquiries on when her book would be released in an Arabic translation, for example (and while publisher wouldn't touch it, she released it as a PDF through her Website, Some 50,000 downloads later, many underground discussion clubs based on the idea of ijtihad have now been set up in muslim communities. One theme has emerged in the process, however: the need for physical spaces where face-to-face networking between interested participants is possible (even though clearly the Net is seen as a highly important tool for distributing information in the first place). Nothing replaces human-to-human contact in order to explore and experience creativity - and Irshad has now developed a foundation called Project Ijtihad to support such spaces (which will also release translations of the book in Urdu and Farsi, for the Pakistani and Iranian markets).

Alan Webber: Past, Present, and Future Challenges

Fast Company's Alan Webber begins by backtracking to discuss how we got to the current point. His own history begins in the local administration of Portland, Oregon, drafting memos on how to develop disincentives to automobile culture. In the process, Portland developed a dramatic urban strategy which made it a showcase for urban planning; it identified the city as a living organism, requiring a population strategy which attracts the right mix of residents through a coordinated combination of strategies across all parts of local government.

What emerged later down the track, he continues, was a digital revolution, a global revolution, and a revolution of diversity in the late 80s, introducing a new way of thinking about work and business which brought new meaning into people's lives - overthrowing the life of the man in the grey flannel suit, the organisation man: the world was changing business, and business was changing the world. Loving such change, Alan suggests, means embracing weirdness - which can mean identifying the 'positive deviants': those who deviate from the existing norms in a positive direction. Embracing these phenomena can be described as amplifying the positive deviants. Berridge also suggests a form of 'grassroots leadership': the job of the leader is to see the organisation through the eyes of the team, and to embrace the team's ideas in improving the organisation.

Today, then, the pace of change is again accelerating. The world of revolution in ideas is again changing the global economy, and new economic powerhouses such as China are coming on line. Industry lines are blurring through the advent of new technologies, and the stakes are higher than ever before because the stakeholder, audience or user response has become far more immediate than ever before. Connectivity has become even more pronounced and crucial. There is a revolution in business work and value creation, but also a cultural, political, and religious revolution. Sometimes this breeds hostility and war rather than compassion and understanding, however. There is also a revolution in art and self-expression, of course, and a revolution in meaning -in the search for understanding and identity. We are present at the creation of the future, and we have to be mindful of our role and task.

Alan suggests that it is context, not content, that is now king. It is also important to build community and make personal connections between like-minded individuals. Further, it is necessary to create conversations, and finally it is important to recognise patterns and make connections in concepts and ideas. The job of a leader, then, is not to make decisions, but to make meaning.

Some key principles follow from this:

  • design is a universal language, a DNA that we all share;
  • open systems beat closed systems;
  • none of us is as smart as all of us;
  • and the hard stuff is the soft stuff: it's always about people and talent;
  • and it is crucial to ask the right questions.

To follow these principles we must get out of our own comfort zones, and create our own stories as much as listen to those of others; we must venture beyond the boundaries of our own expertise and solve the dialectic problems that tend to divide us. This process has both personal and community elements. As individuals, we must make sure we talk about what really matters rather than the standard topics of shareholder returns; and as a community we must develop a manifesto of what really matters, and how we can pursue it.

Well, that's it for this first session - in part it received even a standing ovation! Very interesting...