Monthly Archives: October 2011

Anthony Giddens on the Politics of Climate Change

I have been trying to work out quite why I found Dame Ellen MacArthur’s vision of a circular economy so compelling.

I think it is at least in part due to some recent visits to a council tip. I had been helping a friend clear his late mother’s flat; my job was to drive the car, full of unwanted things, to the tip. The feeling of waste was palpable: huge mounds of waste and junk, most of it destined for landfill. We recycled what we could, separating paper, wood, metals, glass and paper, but we could see council workers laying into the piles with forklift trucks. Perhaps some of the disused (and for all I know unusable) electrical goods would be stripped down and the metals and rare elements they contain recycled, but it seemed unlikely. (Interestingly, the council’s rules forbid anyone removing items from the tip – so even if I saw something I might have had a use for, I couldn’t have taken it. That said, it looked like a few people were on the look out for something the might scavenge.)

This came to mind when, again at the RSA, I saw Anthony Giddens talk about the politics of climate change. Where MacArthur was upbeat, Giddens felt very downbeat; indeed, with politicians so unable to cope with climate change, civilisation felt beaten down.

Giddens identified many difficulties for politicians in dealing with climate change. Solving the issues with ameliorating or even reversing climate change requires long term action across national boundaries, when politicians are elected (or appointed) with local or national responsibility over a short time span: ours have four or five years between elections, so getting them to worry about expensive action to be taken over twenty to fifty years which may not benefit their electorate (since many of us will be dead by then) seems an impossibility.

Giddens made two powerful points which felt prescient. The first was his strong view that we shouldn’t assume technological solutions will come to our rescue. The belief that it might may act as a counter to more concrete action – we might just shit around waiting for technology to save us until it is too late for anything else. (That said, recent developments in carbon capture and storage may give us hope, and Giddens said that we must search for ground breaking technological initiatives which may help.)

The second was that many believe we are past the tipping point – a long way past.

The political will to solve these problems seems lacking. Obama has been disappointing, failing to take radical action, in part since his hands are tied by a Republican congress – Giddens was critical how the debate on climate change is largely polarised along political lines when it is such a big issue that it should be beyond politics. In the UK, David Cameron’s desire for this government to be the greenest ever seems empty rhetoric.

Giddens identified four areas that needed progress if we are to avoid the worst ravages of climate change:

  • bilateral and regional agreements in place of “legally binding” worldwide agreements which have failed to deliver
  • searching for ground breaking technological, social and political initiatives
  • in-depth intellectual and policy work to underpin our understanding of the impact of climate change – what will climate change and its amelioration mean for us in terms of employment, prosperity, growth and so on; this is needed he said at a very basic level – how will we need to change the way we think about our lives in a truly sustainable environment?
  • transforming the way we live our lives: actually putting these things in to action – for instance, if industrial society has run its course, how can we live our lives at a very basic level

Giddens said that this was a message of hope, not despair; I’m not sure the audience agreed with him.

After the talk, Matthew Taylor asked for a show of hands: who in the audience felt the solution to the problem of climate change lay in the hands of either governments and politicians, individuals changing their lifestyles, or market forces. Hardly anyone believed the answer lay with governments, with lifestyles and markets split roughly equally.

Clearly, these aren’t either/or questions: the answer must be “yes” to all three mechanisms of change: governments must develop policies to motivate markets and individuals to do what they can.

But looking at the mountains of waste at the council tip which our lifestyles contribute to, throwing things out rather than fixing and reusing, I don’t feel hopeful.

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My thoughts on ConnectingHR Unconference3… #CHRU3

Last week I went ConnectingHR Unconference 3 – #CHRU3 to its friends. I went to the first ConnectingHR unconference a year ago, though I had to miss the second event in the spring.

The theme this time around was “The Future of Work”. Given rising unemployment, increasing lifetime work (and decreasing pensions funding) and changes in the nature of careers, it seemed like a pretty prescient theme.
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As seems to be common in these kind of events, we started off discussing some very open questions to get our mental facilities going and to help us come up with topics for discussion later. The first up was “what’s good about work?” The table I was at debated what work actually meant – how were we meant to interpret the question? (Being an unconference, of course, it was down to us to decide…) The answers to this preliminary included parenting, volunteering, hobbies and community activity as well as paid employment – though we generally concentrated on the latter, since that seems to be how society defines it. It is a spectrum, though.

Back to that first question, then: what IS good about work? Work is many different things to different people. My table came up with a long list: variety; social; money; security; routine; learning; something to keep us occupied; helping others succeed; making a difference; providing a purpose and identity; a sense of belonging and community; ambition; achievement.

Most of these are covered by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – things which we need to feel fulfilled. The interesting thing for me is that these needs can be met in many different ways – not just through employment: those other things we identified as “work” can go a long way to filling any gaps left in our needs by paid work – though to meet the most basic of Maslow’s pyramid – the physiological and safety needs – in our society we generally need money, and for the majority that means paid employment.

The second question was the flipside, then: “what is bad about work?”. A long list, again: stress; lack of skills; [rigid] job descriptions; unemployment; underemployment; perceived value; self esteem; how others value you; other people; tribal competition. There must be more. Many of these seem to reflect the social side of work – how others see us and, specifically, value us. For many people, their own sense of value stems from others’ perception. In a capitalist environment, society puts a financial value on our labour. The unemployed may think that they have no value.

Then we were asked what was perhaps the clincher, given the first two: “what would you like to change about work?” This was a bit like opening the flood gates. Here we go: discipline; company culture; society [let’s start big!]; creating a healthy environment; bad management; communication; focus – and identify – the real problems; give people the time to think; litigious culture; create organisations that value their staff; trust; innovation.

The last question is possibly the simplest: “what blocks change?” Another interesting set of responses: fear; uncertainty; risk aversion; organisation culture; mind-set; the economy; media; a lack of self-awareness; lack of time; loss of middle managers and their experience; politics, both internal and external.

I think any one of the points from any of these four lists could be expanded at length, and many of them are open to interpretation – the debate on, say, “bad management” could go off in all sorts of directions.

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Whilst we pondered and decided on topics for the afternoon unconference sessions, there was a panel discussion with a difference. The event was held in the Spring, and one of the projects they run is helping unemployed graduates: several from this group sat in front of us and described their experiences. They were an impressive bunch, articulate and passionate. It must have taken a lot for them to sit in front of 70-odd professionals and discuss their feelings at facing rejection after more than 100 applications. Darius Norrell, one of the people behind the Spring, suggested that any process in which one party get nothing from it has to be wrong: most candidates receive a rejection with no feedback whatsoever. The only outcome is demoralisation – probably on both sides: companies don’t really have recruiters, they have rejectors.

There were tales of typical system dysfunction. Two stick in my mind: graduates told that to be successful, they have to be really focussed in their applications – but to qualify for jobseekers allowance (and presumably other benefits too) they have to prove that they are actively applying for as many jobs as possible; and the large number of applicants for graduate jobs – ie roles for people fresh out of college – told that they didn’t have enough experience. Life is tough for graduates seeking a role.

There were several recruiters in the audience, and they seemed pretty determined to change the way they work – which would be a good start.
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I volunteered to run two conversations in the unconference session. The first – conceived before the session with the graduates – was around how society and workers cope with periods of un- and under-employment. (I can’t actually remember wording I used on the grid of sessions!) I didn’t (and still don’t) have strong views, but I think it is something that we will need to come to terms with. As a freelancer, I can spend long periods when I am not doing paid work; with UK unemployment at 2.6 million (8.1% of the workforce) at the end of August, nearly 1 million of whom are aged under 24, the impact on society could be large.

Needless to say, there were no answers. Periods of unemployment need not be unproductive: several people talked about using volunteer work to obtain new skills and maintain self-esteem and social contact – the “work habit”, perhaps – when society seems to not value our contribution.

The issue of youth unemployment is acute. At a time of high unemployment, 45% of business find it hard to recruit people and report that applicants have poor literacy and numeracy skill (among others). The need for experience before candidates are considered for positions explains the rise internships (and is presumably explained by increasing competition for prestigious jobs), and there was a discussion of the morality of internships – generally these were viewed dimly, limited to those who can afford to work for next to nothing – previously fulfilled by volunteering, now expanded into profitable businesses. It was suggested that making loans or grants available for interns might redress the balance in favour of the less-priveleged.

There were ideas of projects to tackle both unemployment and the bleak nature of high streets in the recession by using empty retail spaces for other types of enterprises, like Spacemakers does. (I worry that there is a danger that volunteering and pop-up enterprises may actually exacerbate unemployment and the recession by crowding out “for profit” enterprises: it would be interesting to know if there have been any studies on that.)

The other session I convened followed on from the third and fourth questions earlier (as well as my interest in organisation culture): what kind of culture makes organisations open to change and innovation? This was another wide ranging discussion. The difficulty of organisations to articulate their culture, and for the actual culture to reflect the espoused culture, featured: to what extent do senior managers really affect the culture on the shop floor? They clearly influence the culture – they set out the foundations – but their vision and values can be diluted by the time they trickle down. (Perhaps another advantage of flatter structures – senior managers’ ability to influence culture?)

The consensus seemed to be that organisations able to adapt to change and innovate would have high trust systems; embedded vision, values and culture promoting openness, listening, and accountability without fear; reward and performance management processes that reflect the values rather than work against them; and essentially embody “the learning organisation”. They’d need to value ideas, recognise and value individual and team contributions, and have a clear view of the behaviours desired in their staff and managers.

I also went to sessions on digital literacy (using digital tools to facilitate communication across teams and to promote collaboration); and using social media in organisations (more specific than the previous session, this looked at specific tools that can be implemented) – these sessions covered much of the ground that the unconference sessions of Tweetcamp did.
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It was a great day – it is impressive what a bunch of people can do in a day. I do have one major quibble, though. The theme for the day was the future of work – the new world of work; it was only after the sessions had closed that I realised there hadn’t been any discussion about the future of work per se – no one painted a picture of what the future of work might look like. Since at an unconference the delegates dictate what will be discussed, I accept my share of the blame for this… But it would have been useful to have some debate. Instead, I think I shall have to paint my own picture in a future blog post…

A Conversation on Public Sector Change…

I recently had the opportunity to talk to a friend who works in public sector change, and we talked about lots of issues around the topic, in which I have been interested for the last year or so. [My friend asked not to be identified.]

My main concern is that, given the scale of cuts to the public sector in this country – traditional cost cutting mechanisms familiar to anyone working in either the public or private sector over the last decade or so won’t work: you can’t “salami-slice” 25% of your costs away without the system seizing up. The complexity of public sector service provision appears to be such that something has to give: it is like that game where you have a tangle of sticks, and try to remove them, one by one: quite quickly the pile becomes unstable. Things could collapse.

What is needed is a different way of looking at the system – and a different way of structuring it – a complete rethink of the way services are provided. Despite recently meeting some very impressive public sector change managers at Tuttle a few months ago (I believe they came from Lambeth, though I couldn’t swear that), I’m worried that to come up with cuts quickly, most public sector service providers will instead do things the way they have always done them. Indeed the culture of the organisations they work in will drive them to this – they have neither the time nor, perhaps, the skills to think through how to do things differently.

Unfortunately, my friend wasn’t able to change my mind: indeed, he seemed as concerned as I was.

There were, my friend felt, many ways in which money could be saved: he believed that a lack of joined up thinking in the public sector wasted many billions of pounds. For example, local councils are responsible for social care of the elderly, the local NHS trusts for medical care; some simple interventions by local councils which could keep the elderly out of hospital were often put in place, because the council could save money by not doing so (at the expense of the NHS). [To counter this, my friend told me a great story of an enlightened local council that gave residents in care-homes a new pair of slippers every year – and, in doing so, reduced the number of falls those residents have, and the number of and length of hospitals stays they require.]

Early intervention appears to be more effective than late; but when money is short, late intervention becomes the rule – crisis management, if you like. This wastes money and time – and with headcount being cut, time isn’t always available. I was told another story of a local authority which had analysed in detail where their money went; it turned out a number of “chaotic families” were responsible for millions of pounds of local authority expenditure across a range of services – housing, social services, education and public order. It would have been much cheaper to send the children from such families to public (ie fee paying) schools and to rehouse the families in hotels. Though expect they might then have spent a fortune defending their actions from the Daily Mail onslaught… Instead of such drastic action, early interventions, joined up across several authority functions, could have saved the authority a lot of money, but the cuts had made this is less rather than more likely: functional managers are responsible for their own budgets, not for enabling other departments realise savings. Managers have a “guilty knowledge” of total saving that could have been made.

There are many services that local authorities have a legal obligation to provide. With funding short, they have to prioritise. It isn’t possible to make any cuts without affecting people (particularly if you are trying to do things the same way – that is, “salami slicing”). People – a service’s users – complain. It is easy to understand why a council such as Brent would seek to cut library services, since the real pain of removing access is less than, for instance, cutting social services. On the other hand, users of library services may be a bit more savvy than users of social services – they know how to use the courts to their advantage.

There are two other players in all this: central government and the media. The government largely controls local authority income: it funds local authorities by government grant and has recently frozen council tax. (Councils can also raise funds through other services, such as parking.) By freezing council tax, central government is stopping discussion of council funding as part of the democratic process – even if voters wanted to pay more for local services through increased council tax, they can’t. Council tax raises only about 25% of council funding (according to DirectGov.co.uk), so councils would have to increase council tax considerably to make up for other government cuts.

Political interference by central government is rampant. Eric Pickles communities and local government secretary (an appointment which isn’t mentioned in the biography on his website), makes frequent pronouncements on the priorities for local government – which is his job – but frequent changes of priority make planning difficult for local authorities. (Personally, I believe that the best place to make decisions on priorities for local communities are at a local level; but I am not certain that the population as a whole trust their local representatives with these decisions. They may be right.)

The media also plays a big part, because they have the create a storm, divert attention and – perhaps – ruin careers. This may sound melodramatic but Sharon Shoesmith, Haringey’s former head of education, was fired by Ed Balls, then Children’s Minister, following a firestorm of media criticism over the death of Baby P. The Department of Education and others lost an appeal (and the right to further appeals) over their action. Devolving decision making to local authorities creates a lot of media heat – the cliché of the postcode lottery as a media scandal is rampant. Frankly, a postcode lottery is exactly what one should expect from local authorities making decisions for their communities, and no one should be surprised that local priorities differ.

Of course it is important that public officials are accountable for their actions, and the media are one of the ways that we can hold elected officials accountable. Scrutiny is important; but it needs balance

This leads to another barrier to change in public services: it can make managers overly risk averse, even when change is needed. My friend told of a meeting with an elected council member during which the councillor bellowed “find out who is responsible for this blame culture – and fire them!” Surprisingly, no one around the table held a mirror up to the elected representative.

A culture of risk aversion and resistance to change may become engrained in an organisation – and when that organisation is trying to change radically, that is a dangerous combination. Trying to bring about change in such a risk averse organisation is a difficult proposition. Not many people would be keen to take on the task, and those within such an organisation are not likely to be up to taking it on.

Which brings us back to the salami slicer as a way to make cuts…

It was a pretty gloomy conversation, all in all. There are clearly pockets of clear thinking – the people I spoke to from (perhaps) Lambeth, my friend themselves – and, surprisingly, the private sector: apparently, some large companies working with the public sector have some bright ideas, in part because they can have a longer term view than those within the public sector. (I foresee media comments about “back-door privatisation”…)

Whatever happens, I hope those working for change in the public sector get it right: many things within our society ride upon it.

“Re-imagining Business”: a discussion at the RSA

Last week saw a discussion at the RSA on “Re-Imagining Business: the transition to the circular economy”. The main presentation was by Stef Kranendijk of carpet-tile manufacturer Desso, who explained how his company had adopted “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing methods to greatly reduce the resources they use and damage caused to the environment. There is extensive recycling, with new processes developed with suppliers to minimise waste. By incorporating cradle-to-cradle into their standard business model and processes, Desso had become more innovative and business focused – they had to be to make it work. Kranendijk named Ray Anderson as an inspiration. It was an impressive session, and if it sounded like a business working out how to profit from sustainability, that felt fine.

I was really impressed by Dame Ellen MacArthur. I had no idea what her connection to sustainability was, and I had been surprised to see her on the panel; but she made her interest completely clear. When she had been sailing single-handed around the world, she said, she had an epiphany: isolated in the oceans, thousands of miles from port, she realised her resources were distinctly limited: the only energy, water and food she had access to were what she had packed. (Ok, she could have fished…) This made her think about how precious the world’s resources are (presumably she had a lot of time to think) – it is a closed system, after all, like her boat – and on her return, she decided to stop sailing and focus instead on learning about those limited resources – the stuff she wasn’t taught at school. And she set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to “inspire people to re-think, re-design and build a positive future”. It worked for me.

MacArthur realised the need to move from a linear model of consuming resources to a “circular” model: increasing efficiency of the linear model can only buy us a bit more time – we are still going to run out of resources one day. Most products are designed to be disposed of, not recycled. MacArthur described the circular economy as one in which waste is designed out – and the rise of commodity prices (a result of the linear economy and finite resources) makes recycling more economically viable: products can be remanufactured, as Ricoh are now doing for its printers and copiers. By designing recycling into every aspect of a business – its products, services, processes, everything – a business – and the economy – would be re-envisaged: and new, profitable business models would be built. She described an A-level student who said that he now looked at every product he used in a different light – what it would look like if the future had been designed in. we need to rethink everything we use.

The last two speakers focussed on what this might mean for different sectors. Paul King talked about the built environment, and how we needed a revolution in the way we think about buildings. Working with companies that are adapting to the green agenda, he said people often ask him if he doubts the motives of such companies: never, he said – he knows that they are purely driven by profits, and that there is nothing wrong in that if it also drives them to develop green solutions. One of the problems is that even if all new building was designed for low carbon-usage, only 20% of buildings would be so adapted by 2050: most of our structures pre-date new standards, building methods and designs. So ways to retrofit low- and zero-carbon technologies – we need to reimagine our relationship with the built environment, he said.

Penny Shepherd talked about the financial environment; building on MacArthur’s theme, she said finance needed to be redesigned too, with a wholesale systemic change (and given the economic turmoil in the Eurozone, who can doubt her?).

It was a fascinating, enlightening and ultimately positive discussion. I reckon that if the true environmental costs of extracting finite minerals (especially for technological uses – mobile phones, computers and the like are dependent on rare minerals, and are rarely recycled), more companies would be prompted by the profit motive to move to circular models. A role for government, perhaps?

#Tweetcamp: my takeaway lessons…

Last Saturday, I was one of maybe 150 people who made it to a rather shiny new school in the East End for Tweetcamp – a BarCamp-like unconference on Twitter. Since I like the unconference format (I’m off to another next week), I signed up and went along, and had a great day talking to old and new friends about Twitter, mostly, but also London, music, chocolate and many other things.

The conversation is the thing. The morning was taken up answering some deceptively simple questions posed by the ever-present Benjamin Ellis (@BenjaminEllis and Farhan Rehman (@farhan) as we moved around tables. These simple questions led to some deep discussion about why and how we use Twitter.

The first question was “why do you use Twitter?” (I said they were deceptively simple questions!) Sitting around the table, there were a huge number of answers. The ones which resonated with me were: learning; sharing; communicating; discovery; and conversation – all big headline uses, undifferentiated – there is a lot more in there. Others came up with trolling and stalking (and I won’t be following her!); managing, advertising and sharing events; creating community; connecting; collaborating; news (reading and gathering); following celebrities; branding; finding work; dating.

My takeaway here: Twitter users use Twitter in many different ways, simultaneously – and most of the time we are probably not conscious of the way we are using it: it is simply a tool, integral to the way we use the internet, and we switch from one mode to another. I think we could have spent much of the day exploring the issues that came out that session – but we only had fifteen minutes or so before…

The next question was actually more interesting: “what DON’T you tweet about?” Some people in the group had very firm views – no real names (leading to a rich debate about persona and identity, privacy and anonymity), no food tweets (that rules outs #breakfastofchampions and #dinnertweet), no work tweets, no swearing, no locations, no cross posting between Twitter, Facebook or any other service, no relationships…

I realised that though there are things I rarely tweet about, there is little I would never tweet. I made a decision when I started using Twitter to use my real name, because I wanted to use it for work as well as socially, and I reckoned that running two accounts would just be confusing: the easiest way to solve my Twitter identity problem was simply to be myself. Clearly others strongly disagreed, keeping their offline identities separate from their online personas (and sometimes have more than one online identity).

Whilst I rarely swear on Twitter or tweet about food, neither is completely unknown. Similarly, I actively try to avoid giving away my location – and neither FourSquare nor other location based services have made sense to me – though I do tweet about events I attend (like #TweetCamp!), where Twitter creates a richer experience.

Someone said they used the “mum” test: don’t put anything on Twitter that you wouldn’t want your mother to read. I think I use a similar filter – don’t put anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want someone else to see, and which you wouldn’t like to be recorded – for ever: because once something is on the internet, it stays there, however hard you try to remove it, sitting on someone’s server, somewhere.

The last question of the morning was perhaps the easiest and hardest to answer: “Has Twitter changed relationships with others?” The easy answer is a resounding “yes!” Harder was working out in what ways. Twitter has brought people (and things – events, for instance) closer: it has made connections easier, facilitating online meeting across distances, and offline face-to-face social get-togethers. For me, it has made learning social (albeit undirected and serendipitous). Of course, as with the first two questions, everyone’s answer to this was different; and in the heat of the discussion, I didn’t take notes on what others said…

TweetCamp London 2011

photo: Benjamin Ellis, on flickr

The unconference sessions held a lot of interest – and a lot of clashes. My chosen schedule featured the use of social media in organisations, with discussions on connecting virtual teams, knowledge sharing and learning, and internal communications. There was much cross-fertilisation between these three sessions – many of the same ideas and attendees cropped up in each (creating a great spirit of camaraderie!). They also incorporated thoughts generated before lunch, too – the role of communication in organisations reflecting its place in society as whole. Through making connection easier, social media may facilitate flatter organisation structures and matrices. But they need to be included in the workflow – within the established processes.

Cultural issues – within organisations as well as societies – came to the fore, as did issues of power and control: do flat organisations use social media because their use makes the flat structure workable, or will their adoption by more hierarchical organisations result in them being flatter? A bit chicken and egg, perhaps, and the answer is most likely to be both; but rigid hierarchies dominated by managers control the way work is done seem unlikely to take to social media. The ability of social media to create networks across organisational silos seems to be very powerful and empowering.

In learning and knowledge management, we talked about knowledge-sharing and communities of interest, and how social media can mediate these processes, promoting “just in time learning”. We decided that there was a great difference between the impact of social media on learning as opposed to training – the former about discovery and community, the latter about tickbox and control, for instance. What social media can do is help develop peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing, maybe reducing the value of offline networks in which knowledge is power. The use of Twitter as a personal learning network – the whole network, that is, not just a select few within it – could be very useful.

The overriding theme of the last two sessions I went to, the first on the impact of social media on central government, the civil service and policy making, and the second on the adoption of public and private profiles, and how we might manage them, came back to issues of identity (at least for me!). Mediated by the online avatar of @Puffles2010, we discussed the impact of social media in breaking down the links between ministers, journalists and the public, such that structures of policy-making established in Whitehall for decades (if not centuries) are likely to fail. Social media cut out the middlemen – the civil servants whose main role may be seen to protect their ministers – and can illuminate the spin that ministers use in speeches as crowd-sourced fact-checkers can identify waffle and hypocrisy before the speech is even over. Just follow the #BBCQT hashtag to see how people on all sides of political debate challenge and engage with political and public figures. (The hashtag is much more interesting than the TV programme it responds to, in my view!)

Those same civil servants can also become targets of the media, as the oft-told tale of Baskers shows. Without an upfront policy on social media use – a vacuum that directly led to the creation of @Puffles2010 for a civil servant to participate anonymously in social media – indulging in social media can be risky.

Tweetcamp had a busy schedule. Much of what was discussed didn’t feel new to me – for instance, many of the organisational issues around social media were covered during last year’s ConnectingHR unconference – and I’ve had conversations around many of the topics discussed during the day, so I didn’t feel I learned as much from the day as I had expected. But then I had deliberately chosen to attend sessions in which I had an active interest, so that shouldn’t really surprise me.

And I wasn’t surprised either by the great warmth and degree of participation that everyone I spoke with –old friends and new – brought to the day. Just like Twitter, really…

Creativity and Collaboration: exploring C4CC

Friday Mornings . Tuttle at Centre for Creative Collaboration

Photo by Tony Hall, on flickr

I once had a conversation with Brian Condon, one of the people behind the Centre for Creative Collaboration, where I asked (more or less) “what do you mean by ‘creative’? What do you mean by ‘collaboration’?” [I must have felt I knew what ‘centre’ meant…] Brian neatly sidestepped my question by telling how he’d had a similar conversation with someone who had been trying to build such a space for several years; they were still stuck on their definitions, refining the semantics but being neither creative nor collaborative. It is better to start something and see where it gets to rather than get tied up in what it actually is, Brian said.

I remembered our conversation when I was at C4CC last week to take part in a discussion led by James Wilson about what people actually involved in the C4CC thought it was and what it did. James, a former inmate resident of C4CC, had carried out a piece of research by asking other projects what the C4CC did and how it worked. It was a fascinating, thought-provoking presentation. Brian and his colleagues have clearly made something quite special at the C4CC – a space for seed-projects to work, experiment and collaborate.

James’ respondents had similar semantic difficulties to me in defining ‘collaboration’: they couldn’t! It was all about the context – the serendipitous conversations that cross disciplines without specified goals. It is different from teamwork. There was talk about “real collaboration” and “true collaboration”.

Whatever it is, they felt the C4CC helped it happen: setting up different projects in close proximity in a neutral venue helped promote the serendipity; people working on the projects believed that their openness, trust and willingness to communicate helped create the right mindset to overcome barriers to collaboration. An openness to unpredictability within an unstructured context – allowing for improvisation contingent on the situation and need. It was all about the context – and highly social. For some this was due to a change in the power dynamics, part of creating new structures and ways of organising with shared values – an openness to experiment. Some described C4CC as an ecosystem.

They were a surprisingly positive set of people: there was little about the C4CC that they wanted to change, though having more communication between projects – through more formal presentations, for instance, or specific “problem solving” sessions – seemed to be desired. This was interesting given the views that the unstructured, serendipitous approach to collaboration was beneficial.

Making C4CC more sustainable was one thing those working on projects desired: “making sure it’s still here!” C4CC is funded by several London-based academic institutions; finding a business model that would promote rather than stifle the collaborative environment is difficult, and in times of austerity, funding may be at risk.

Measuring the outputs from somewhere like C4CC is difficult. How would one define success? The space clearly works, and the positivity of people involved – perhaps self-selecting – was apparent. (I wonder if positive, open and communicative people are by their nature more collaborative? Hermits need not apply…) C4CC clearly evokes strong, positive reactions.

We discussed whether it were possible to recreate C4CC – the extent to which there is a recipe for such a venture. There are clearly some things which are necessary – a suitable space, a bit of management and selection of projects – but I believe much of what Brian and his partners have built down to the social mix of the projects – the people that work in the centre itself.

#c4cc after another #tuttle

Photo by Lloyd Davies, on flickr

(You can see James’ presentation here.)