WORDS: HELENE FURJÁN & LEE NENTWIG | ARTWORK: C — VA
Half-way through writing his 2008 book, Charles Leadbeater, a leading authority on innovation and creativity, realized he couldn’t write it alone. We-Think needed to be produced by “we-think,” the open, collaborative creativity that was the book’s subject. This didn’t mean the book would be fully open-sourced, but it did mean upending the traditional publication process: the We-Think didn’t start its public life on the shelves, but as a draft, open to public comment and contribution in its early stages.
Leadbeater’s work as an author and consultant on innovation strategy has focused on the rise of networked employment, activist amateurs, and mass, participative approaches to innovation. As a journalist working at the Financial Times and the Independent, Leadbeater learned to root analysis in lived experience, interviewing coal miners and steel workers as part of his economic analysis of the British industrial sector. On the ground research— visiting places and meeting people—was critical to understanding bigger ideas.
But as he moved into managerial roles he became distanced from writing, and had less and less time with his family. “I was in journalism because it was about explaining and understanding the world," Leadbeater describes, "but as I became more senior, my job became more boring and I became less interested—the dilemma of managing people rather than doing what you really want to do.” So he decided to try stepping out on his own. Without an organization or a title, concentrating on what he was most interested in, his journalism skills—interviewing, making sense of things and writing—could be deployed in a different way.
“I was in journalism because it was about explaining and understanding the world. But as I became more senior, my job became more boring and I became less interested—the dilemma of managing people rather than doing what you really want to do.”
As an independent researcher and consultant Leadbeater looked at the shifts in work, community, and the economy being driven by platforms for open-source sharing. The Pro-Am Revolution, written with Paul Miller for the London-based think tank, DEMOS, looked at the impact of innovative and networked professional-amateurs. Such pro-am networks consist of passionate outliers who aim for extremely high professional standards, but work out of a passion rather than for money.
Pro-Ams co-create: they work collectively to make, improve and share new things with their peers. They are able to bypass the gatekeepers and distribution bottlenecks created by traditional professional organizations, and they are particularly good at creating bottom-up social, cultural, political and economic impact. As Leadbeater notes in his TED Talk, The Era of Open Innovation, you don’t need institutions to be organized, to invent, and to generate creativity.
Pro-ams are often ahead of the producers, willing to test new ideas, able to embrace uncertainty without focusing on returns, and, by nature, interactive ideators. Muhammad Yunnus’ noted Grameen Bank pioneered a pro-am banking system that utilized local village structures to provide, manage, and guarantee micro-loans to people traditionally kept outside the credit system, enabling the poor to become entrepreneurs. Another example of this approach, open-source astronomy, has shifted the dominance of “big science” research institutions to pro-am collaboratives — backyard skygazers with sophisticated equipment, skill and dedication. When passionate pro-ams link together, combining their skills and knowledge, explosions of creativity occur.
Leadbeater predicts that the future will be defined by a shift, even by large corporate organizations, towards more open-source techniques and stronger connections between users and producers. But the big question for him is how this will be directed towards social impact. How do we turn users into producers and consumers into designers in the public sector? To accomplish this requires fundamentally rethinking the way the public sector operates. No longer can it be “for” or “to” underserved communities, but “with” and “by” those communities.
“You have to start with a respect for and an interest in what other people have to say, acknowledge that you don’t have the answer and it probably doesn’t exist yet.”
Social innovation emerges from thinking more like a movement than a machine. Leadbeater's short book More Together: The New Social Contract in U.S. Cities, looks directly at this issue. A Knight Foundation funded study of civic innovators, More Together asks the question, “What makes a great city?” Beyond purely market driven solutions, through an open and inclusive conversation, how do we decide ownership and define the success of a city in a deliberative way? The intention was to learn from five focus cities and the initiatives that have produced the most beneficial impacts towards making those locations the kind of city that satisfies its citizens.
All five cities featured in the study—Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami, San Jose, and Charlotte—are currently characterized by high poverty, weak education, and low opportunity. As they rebound, all are in danger of becoming cities for the wealthy to exploit, as has been the case for cities like New York and London. Leadbeater wants to help build a culture of ‘engaged communities’ and collaborative ideas that increase equity and opportunity while protecting against wholesale gentrification.
The old model of the social contract was Government to citizen; the modern social contract is now citizen to citizen, in a self-governing relationship. This social contract understands the need to build a shared commitment and responsibility. To increase a community-wide sense of belonging requires deeper experiences and stronger meanings tied to place. The result is fairer and more inclusive cities that become socially intelligent urban systems.
The grassroots civic innovators Leadbeater identifies as most successful have all understood the social basis to “everyday urban democracy,” which he describes as “a lived experience, enacted in daily life.” Leadbeater is clear that these innovators are successful not because of the organizations they belong to or run, but because of what they do, and how they do it.Often, they accomplish their goals by deploying simple, agile, inexpensive, and easily adopted ‘social technologies.’ Such technologies are not limited to the development of new social media platforms and meet-up phone apps. Public art programs, informal pop-up events, urban farming and community gardens, and hyper-local economic development projects are also considered to be social technologies from Leadbeater's perspective. These technologies make us more efficient by making us more social. In turn, they are able to bind people more strongly to a place through civic commitment.
“Creativity is not individualistic. Individuals don’t achieve much. New ideas often emerge from intense and extended conversations between people.”
Critical to their success is a belief that value should be shared rather than controlled. This mindset enables broad coalitions to be formed around catalytic projects that build momentum and resources. Effective civic innovators reframe conventional wisdom and rethink existing resources into new visions. They repurpose resources, build platforms to aggregate and interconnect existing initiatives. Their projects create access, reuse and renew underutilized assets, work towards social justice, and insert productive change into the operating platforms and systems of the city. They recognize the power of cities to incubate empathy, connection, and invention through collaborative, bottom-up processes.
Investing in empathy and creative place making that is cross-generational and cross-cultural is crucial to bring people together, keeping the conversation open, empowering ownership, and providing wide social opportunities. Creative place making focuses on experiences as much as, or even more than, physical spaces: How are experiences empathetic? How do you create conversations rather than audiences? How do those conversations build connections? How do you achieve collective action in the private sector?
Social innovation harnesses the interactions and vitality of urban populations. Creativity is born out of a mass of people adjusting and adapting to one another, where people improvise and where bottom-up investment by local citizens thrive. Leadbeater learned this through experience: through living in London, a hugely cosmopolitan hive of creativity and invention; and by visiting socially innovative cities (such as Barcelona in Spain, or Curitiba in Brazil) which acted as platforms for a wider creativity.
Leadbeater identifies creativity itself as a particularly urban phenomenon, "Cities are experiments in how to live creatively,” he writes. A culture of creativity is produced by diversity, density, and proximity. “Creative cities” are broadly creative about all aspects of urban life and not confined to a narrow range of cultural activities in dedicated sectors. When applied to urban challenges, this distributed, social and collaborative approach utilizes the interplay of varied people, ideas and insights to generate effective solutions from the collective potential of a community.