CHAPTER – this is the second ‘scratch’ chapter of a book I am writing called Everyday Uses for Creativity in Public Life – Nov 1st 2019
The idea of this book is to explore a role for our creativity in transforming public life. How could our political, health and education systems be improved if they were to become more creative systems?
If you would like to read last month’s introductory blog, you can find it here.
A health warning about this month’s chapter – it is dense, much less entertaining and needs completely re-writing. Now there’s an encouragement to read on.
This is the embarrassing bit about Scratch – sharing something when you are still working out what the hell it is – and when none of it seems to make sense.
But I am determined to stick to my rule to post something on the first of each month to progress the idea of the book.
So here’s where I’m at…I don’t think that my original idea for the structure of each chapter is working. Originally, I thought each chapter could:
1. explore an everyday creative trait to identify the creative capacity we all possess. (Things like listening, going for a walk, playing etc.)
2. then explore what is valuable about these creative ways of thinking;
3. then I thought each chapter could conclude by seeking to apply that value to a specific area of public life – to explore how we might shape a more creative system.
So in the chapter I have written for November, I began to follow this structure by:
1. exploring the idea of having a conversation by going for a walk
2. exploring the value of our creativity in this instance
3. applying that value to our political system to explore how we might do things differently
But having started to write this – I no longer think this approach works!
This is because my feelings of being a fraud (for writing about areas of public life for which I have limited experience) have increased – which specifically relates to section 3 of each chapter.
I am in danger of making loose generalisations about areas of our public life which are unlikely to be helpful to anyone. So this has made me think about an alternative approach…
I think I should go ahead and write chapters on creative listening, walking, playing etc. – to explore the value of our creativity. But then I think I should connect with colleagues who work in different sectors or areas of public life – and invite them to respond to what I have written about creativity.
I think it would be interesting to ask them to consider what it might mean for their sector – to see what they come up with – and I could then respond to their ideas.
This approach feels more co-created to me – and is therefore likely to be more useful.
It means there would be a 3 section structure to the book:
Section one – I explore ways in which we are all creative and the value of our shared creativity
Section two – Colleagues working in different areas of public life reflect on how this might change the system in which they work
Section three – I respond to their contributions and draw some wider conclusions on what this might mean for a creative transformation of public life
Of course whether I write section three depends on whether colleagues in section two think that the stuff I have written in section one has any relevance to their sector!
But that jeopardy/risk feels real and is therefore useful.
However, the chapter below is written in the old structure! And is therefore, in true Scratch tradition, impressively shit at this stage.
If you have the time to read it and let me know what you think I’d be very grateful. But 100% understand that this might only be a handful of people – if just one – thanks Allegra!
Feedback can come in whatever form suits you: an email to me (mrdavidjubb at gmail.com] or blog comment or tweet.
Any reflections on core subject matter of the book would be very useful. (I had some very helpful feedback last month which I have asked to quote in future chapters)
Also welcome are any links or recommended reading – or indeed interesting people working in government, education, health or civil society
Many thanks, David
SCRATCH CHAPTER – Going for a walk is a creative ‘way’ to have a conversation
Humans have known it for thousands of years: from the 3rd Century BC when Aristotle is reputed to have taught while walking; to the ‘walking meetings’ of the tech sector in the early 21st Century, epitomised by Steve Jobs brainstorming new ideas for Apple while on the move.
If we are in search of inspiration, or we need to have what promises to be a challenging conversation, our instinct tells us that going for a walk might help. Perhaps the most obvious example of our affection for walking and talking can be found in the billions of lovers who have imagined their futures together while going for a walk. While some have used the same method to split up!
But despite a modest study in 2014 at Stanford University which illustrates that walking increases our ability to think creatively, there is remarkably little formal research on the benefits to human conversation of going for a walk.
These are two of humankind’s primal activities. Yet we spend very little time considering why we choose to combine them – and what we might learn from this.
This apparent lack of concern for the ‘way’ we choose to do something is part of a wider pattern. We prefer to focus on the ‘what’: what did you talk about?; what is the solution?; what are you going to do next? We often prefer to focus on things which have a definitive answer – or at least things that we like to think have a definitive answer and so we frame our questions accordingly.
But when we reflect on the ‘way’ we do stuff we are more likely to open up a creative train of thought. This is because by thinking about different ways to do something we literally begin to imagine how we might do them. And the more we use our imagination the more we access a creative way of thinking. We begin to open up possibilities that we had not previously considered or that might not even have existed before we imagined them.
I want to better understand this value of our own creative thinking and our creative potential. I do not think we spend enough time harnessing and putting our creativity to good use in our political, education and health systems. Or in the way civil society operates. And I think there could be a direct link between our own personal resources of creativity and the way we work together to design a more effective public life.
This first chapter of Everyday Uses for Creativity in Public Life will attempt to look at a direct example of this and will explore three main questions:
- Can going for a walk enhance our conversation?
- What does this teach us about our creativity?
- Could this help us improve public life in the 21st century?
That sounds like a lot. So at this point I encourage you to enjoy a chorus of It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. It invariably lightens my day and is one of the few examples in popular culture which cites the importance of the ‘way’ we do things.
We urgently need to reimagine the ‘way’ we conduct our public life because if we fail to increase levels of public participation and trust then we are likely to struggle to tackle some of the seismic challenges we face in the coming decades such as climate change and issues of social justice.
One of the things that all areas of our public life have one in common is that they are complex. There is no single right answer for the way in which they should operate. They could be described as “wicked problems”.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Horst Rittel and others, set out to define the idea of “wicked problems” as ones which cannot be solved with a right answer. They were distinct from “tame problems” which could be solved with a simple mathematical or knowledge-based answer.
Conversely, a wicked problem has an unlimited number of solutions. Rittel said that “every wicked problem is essentially unique” and that its solutions cannot be described as “true-or-false”. Instead they should be thought of as “good-or-bad”.
Rittel was specifically concerned with “wicked problems” in relation to social policy in which he argued “policy problems cannot be definitively described” because there are always multiple stakeholders with different views.
This is similar to our political, health, education and civil systems; which are fiendishly complex with multiple stakeholders. If we recognise that there is no simple answer to improve these systems, then it follows that our imagination and creativity are essential tools to help us test out different approaches to reform, which consider multiple stakeholders and perspectives. To reconsider the ‘way’ in which they operate.
Our creativity is a tool which can enable us to explore different answers to reform and to keep reforming and adapting as the world continues to change. Instead of thinking about “what is the solution to improve our public life?” and reducing ourselves to a single answer we should start thinking about all the ways we go about our public life, and begin to open up and invent new ways of co-operating together.
In this chapter we will start by thinking about what happens when we go for a walk with someone…
Can going for a walk enhance our conversation?
When we decide to have a conversation by going for a walk together, we will, to a greater or lesser extent, embark on a number of shared experiences.
These may not all be spoken about or even consciously experienced. But they will all be happening and therefore will have an impact on our conversation.
– we invent a process together –
As we negotiate our route together, especially if we haven’t decided this from the outset, we form a sort of temporary partnership. We are connected by a task that is ours and for which we share responsibility. As part of our conversation, or underpinning our conversation, we have to invent a process, however simple, for deciding which path we take. It is a process which gives us a level of agency and control over our actions, as we make decisions together and define the direction, pace and destination of our walk. This is also a physical metaphor for what we might want to achieve in our conversation.
– we reflect on what each other are saying –
If we sit facing each other to have our conversation we often become complicit in a shared performance: we instantaneously react to each other’s experiences, ideas or news. We can end up offering a series of well-intentioned exclamations as we busy ourselves, signalling our understanding to (and appreciation of) each other. Whereas going for a walk, alongside each other, we liberate ourselves from this obligation. Instead we can give our energy and attention to reflect on what is being said, finding more space for our attention to simply hear what’s said before we respond. Silences in our conversation can be less awkward as they’re filled with the sounds or sights around us, giving time for our imagination to be more playful and less restrained by a face-to-face exchange.
– we are more physically aware of each other –
As we walk we often synchronise our walking patterns; illustrating our physical awareness of one another. If we have different approaches to going for a walk, for example we use wheelchairs or other walking aids, then we can find other creative ways to synchronise, connect and share our experience. The differences of our approach to going for a walk together can offer us a greater physical awareness of each other. By being more physically aware of each other, by doing something physical together, we can cultivate cooperation and open up a mutual space for thinking.
– we see ourselves in context –
Our surroundings provide the scenery to our conversation. We experience each other’s words while the stuff of everyday life fades in and out of our consciousness: the multi-sensory layers of our environment infiltrate the world of our chat. We feel the ground through our feet or through our seat if we use a wheelchair; we connect to our surroundings by feeling the air on our skin and in our lungs. We experience our vicinity and we begin to see ourselves and our conversation in a bigger picture and in a wider context.
– we create our own drama –
By going for a walk we can create our own narrative. This time, these surroundings, this conversation all gift us a common experience of being in this moment together. We create our own shared story, like a scene in a film or a chapter in a book, in which our changing environment stimulates and activates different parts of our conversation. Together we can create a story, our own mini epic. Good, bad or indifferent, it is ours to write and produce together.
As a ‘way’ of having a conversation ‘going for a walk’ is more likely to tap in to creative ways of thinking rather than sitting face-to-face. This is because it opens up possibilities and potential which might not be otherwise be there. Arguably, by being side-by-side, rather than face-to-face, there is more opportunity to think about each other, the words the other person is saying and how to respond. By not looking in to each other’s eyes, we are able to gain a different perspective on our relationship and the possibilities of our conversation expand.
Those billions of lovers were on to something.
And this only scratches the surface of the creative potential of going for a walk in order to have a conversation.
In addition to the way we do things (and bear with me on this) there is also the way we do the way we do things. In other words, in this example, it is useful to think about the ‘way’ we go for a walk…
- What pace do we set together?
- Do we meander, drift and ponder?
- Or do we push ahead and find ourselves out of breath?
- Where shall we go for a walk together?
- Do we surround ourselves by people and buildings?
- Or do we find a park or somewhere more full of nature to explore?
- Do we know where we are going?
- Have we set a time limit for our conversation?
- Or are we wandering without direction or destination?
And so on and so on.
To take the idea of these questions one step further, do we even go for a walk at all? Or do we stay exactly where we are? We could sit together, side-by-side, and describe an imaginary walk, and our surroundings, and the events of our walk, as an accompaniment to our conversation, creating a simple set of rules to keep us on track. I suspect that this imaginary way of going for a walk would still offer many of the creative benefits of physically going for a walk together, that I have described above, even though we don’t actually go anywhere.
Thinking about the ‘way’ we do the way we do things taps more directly in to creative ways of thinking. It forces us to use our imaginations as we embark on a thought process about the way we behave, the way we relate to others and way we choose to make decisions.
It makes us think about own conduct and the conduct of those around us – and what might happen if we change one or more aspects of our approach.
As a result, going for a walk to have conversation has the potential to develop, enrich and even transform our conversation. It is no wonder people have been doing it for thousands of years.
What does this teach us about our creativity?
I think it reminds us that we can all tap in to creative ways of thinking through something as simple as going for a walk to have a conversation; by thinking more about the way we do something we trigger our imagination in to action.
When lovers choose to go for a walk to talk about their future it is because it helps them individually and collectively tap in to their creativity to imagine their future together. When two people who have had an argument decide to walk and talk together it is in hope that their creativity will help them work it out. When families go for a walk together it is because they know it creates space, time and an opportunity to respond to one another more creatively. We have been doing this for millennia.
But I think there is something about these portraits which does not ring true. The language of creativity is not something which is likely to be part of these everyday occurrences in the way I have described. Our lovers are more likely to refer to the romance of going for a walk. The two people who have had an argument or our family might simply talk about the desire to get some air together.
“Tapping in to our creativity” is not on the tip of our tongue when it comes to our day to day social exchanges. Neither, I would argue, is a well-articulated understanding of our creative capabilities and how we can apply them when going for a walk. Our creativity is not something we often articulate with comfort or ease and there are multiple reasons for this.
Perhaps most significantly, creativity is not comprehensively taught in schools. So we don’t learn to identify our creative ways of thinking or behaving; and we don’t learn a language to help us describe them when they occur. In terms of human progress, creativity has been as important to us as good health, knowledge, logic and reasoning – but because our current education system does not teach creativity we have not learnt to identify, describe or even necessarily cultivate it.
But despite not being taught about our own creativity, I think we still share an understanding of its potential. We can still call on it, even if we don’t call it by its name. By choosing to go for a walk to have a conversation, I have suggested that we engage in a number of shared pursuits: we invent a process together, we reflect on what each other are saying, we are more physically aware of each other, we see ourselves in a wider context and that we can create our own shared narrative. I have also suggested that if we go further and think about the ‘way’ we go for a walk, that the kinds of questions we might then ask will lead to a further single question – what does the person who I am with think about all this?
I think by considering the ‘way’ we go for a walk to have a conversation, we open up a creative train of thought which can help us to see things differently and find stronger ways of connecting with one another. But I think this example also highlights that one of the key things about our creativity, in a social setting, is that it can help us to think more deeply about our own conduct and to build empathy with the person or people we are with.
I think that by tapping in to creative ways of thinking, in a social setting, we are more likely to explore a generous train of thought; encouraging us to also think about the person we are with, and what they’re thinking, rather than simply to define what we think and what we want.
One of the things which is encourages us to do this, on a walk together, is the intimacy we experience together. Would we access our generosity and empathy in quite the same way if we are walking in a group of twenty? I think there is something about the intimacy of one-to-one contact which helps us to be more generous and more open.
And the example of achieving all this by going for a walk, illustrates just how simple it is, in an everyday sense, to access our imaginations and our creativity in this way. This is a universal power available to every single one of us regardless of whether it is something we feel comfortable articulating or not.
Our creativity enables us to think laterally and act flexibly. It is how we generate ideas or views which we have not had before. It is how we open ourselves up to other people’s views and perspectives. It is how we imagine our future together or the future of something which we are trying to create.
Could this help us improve public life in the 21st century?
Our political life needs to be reimagined. MPs continue to be the least trusted profession in the UK with many facing verbal and physical assaults from members of the public. Regardless of your views on a topic such as Brexit, can we say that we have made significant progress on the big issues of our time over the last three years? (Including Brexit.) The way we do politics isn’t working.
Instead of tribal allegiances which focus almost exclusively on what you believe and which side you are on, what if the democratic processes we used spent more time and energy seeking to develop an understanding of each other’s perspectives and views? What if we spent more time thinking about the way we do politics?
I am not suggesting that a programme of creative walks should be instantly introduced as the new dominant approach of British politics! Having said that, there probably are many instances when going for a walk together could have a positive and interesting impact.
As well as face-to-face surgeries with constituents, what if an MP committed to regularly walking around their constituency, both with citizens who voted for and against them at the previous election? What might happen if political interviews were sometimes conducted on a half-hour coastal walk? What might happen if one of the main approaches to policy development was a series of walks led by citizens around their local community accompanied by policy makers?
But rather than simply suggest that a few nice walks could be a more creative way to do politics, I am interested in how we might apply what we have learnt about our creativity, by thinking about walking and talking, to the way we do politics.
To the way we debate. To the way we make policy decisions. To the way we conduct elections.
The way we debate
The architecture of our core political debate in the House of Commons is tribal and hierarchical. Two sets of benches face each other. On one side are the people in charge and on the other are the people who oppose. This structure is echoed in the way the media reports on our politics and in the way mainstream broadcasters arrange public political debates such as Question Time. There is little effort to think about the way public debate is conducted, instead we mimic the tribal behaviour of the House of Commons.
There are plenty of existing creative approaches which people are using to rethink the way people come together to discuss matters and make decisions. Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology is a good example of a different way to convene a group and decide what’s important. There is a growing use of Citizen Assemblies which empower citizens to lead decision making processes. And Sortition is championed in the UK to create a second chamber to hold the House of Commons to account.
(Scratch ends in failure – now I am going to hide in the dressing room.)