Elections are, in theory, about which party is best placed to tackle the challenges of the future: balancing the books, reforming public services, raising living standards and keeping Britain secure. But there is one deep, structural challenge that will not be mentioned during this long campaign even though its resolution could hold the key to solving those other problems: the crisis of creativity that afflicts our population.
The problem is encapsulated by the fact that three-quarters of the citizens of the UK and other advanced economies feel they are not meeting their creative potential. In short, the vast majority say they are unable to generate change, solve problems and turn their ideas into reality.
The RSA’s survey of what we call the “Power to Create” – people’s freedom and capacity to turn their ideas into reality – discovered that the UK’s population breaks down into five groups. Only two segments, making up 28 per cent of the population, felt they were able to be “creative generators of change”.
Only 28 per cent of people thought they could be “creative generators of change”.
At 52 per cent, over half were unwilling to take on such a role while the remaining 20 per cent felt positively blocked from exercising the power to create despite a deep desire to do so. When asked what stopped them, the most common three answers were lack of self-confidence, money and motivation.
These themes are reflected globally. The Adobe “State of Create” survey, which covered five advanced economies, found that only one in four felt they were living up to their creative potential, with large majorities stating that both their jobs and their education stifled their creativity.
Does this matter? Surely creativity is nothing more than something “nice to have” at a time when we are faced with so many other pressing problems. And who really cares about being creative when pawn-brokers and food banks spread like knotweed across our economies?
There may be some logic to that argument if the existing institutions that shape and govern our world had shown themselves able to resolve our biggest problems. But that is simply not the case.
The most pressing challenge has been to get the global economy back on track. But the Eurozone remains stagnant, the Chinese miracle is slowing and recovery in the US and UK is fragile. Even the silver bullet of quantitative easing has created a sense of uneasy artifice with confidence and investment decisions driven not by the fundamental health of various economies but by the minutes of central bank committees and the pronouncements of their governors.
Inequality, which was rising in most OECD countries in the three decades before 2008, has barely shifted since despite the outrage felt towards the multi-millionaires of the financial sector and the role they played in the crash. Indeed, the loose monetary policy of the noughties which created such a powerful class of the undeserving rich has been loosened to unprecedented levels: pushing up asset prices and making the wealthy even better off.
Attempts to prevent catastrophic climate change, perhaps the biggest long-term threat we face, has moved from energetic but ineffectual activity by our global leaders before the crash, to downright apathy after it.
Government: A failed model of change
The problem is all of these failures share a common origin. They rely on a defunct model of change, in which transformation is driven from above by an elite group of decision-makers. In this model, those leaders are expected to be in strong control of well-established, credible and popularly accepted hierarchies.
But such conditions no longer exist. Having gathered evidence on the new structures of the political, business and cultural worlds, the writer Moises Naim observes that the power of the old hierarchies has become “perishable, transient, evanescent”.
The power of the old hierarchies has become “perishable, transient, evanescent”.
The underlying cause behind the failure of the model is the burgeoning desire for individual self-determination in a growing number of spheres. Increasingly, people hunger for real choice over where they live, how they work, the products and services they buy, their sexualities, their family life, their identities and how they spend time off.
This is not a new phenomenon. It has been growing ever since large numbers of people began to exercise free choice over their religion in the sixteenth century. Since then the strength of free choice has ebbed and flowed as hierarchies and elites reasserted themselves, but each time those elites have faced a backlash more powerful and wide-ranging than the last.
So just as the twentieth century saw centralisation and hierarchy taken to its most extreme levels, so the twenty-first is giving rise to a powerful counter-trend for individual self-determination.
The result is a world in which people listen to and care less about what the old elites tell them to do. The world has become much more complex as established institutions, norms and lifestyles fragment – making it far harder for anyone in authority to have a clear and straightforward impact.
This has worked
Which brings us back to creativity. If hierarchical, centralised and elite power no longer works then there only seems to be one logical alternative if we are to meet our biggest challenges: to release the creative potential of as many people as possible to find and deliver solutions.
This is something the most advanced organisations in the public and private sectors are already recognising. Frederic Laloux has charted how radical new business structures which abolish hierarchy and bureaucracy, and free employees to use their own and their team’s creativity, is delivering huge productivity gains and genuine impact.
He points to the Netherlands, where the problem of meeting the homecare and nursing demands of an ageing population is being addressed with astounding success by the Buurtzorg. It employs 9,000 nurses divided into autonomous teams of twelve, requiring a back office staff of only 45.
Each team is set free to determine its own objectives.
Instead of decisions being made and delivered from above by layers of hierarchical management, each team is set free to determine its own objectives and operational approach without the need to spend time and resources navigating the complex waters of a large corporate body. The model has allowed Buurtzorg to deliver services that are so popular with clients that it has grown from start-up to its current size in just seven years.
This power to create model can also generate economic growth and help people to improve their own living standards. Albina Ruiz, a social entrepreneur, and her organisation, Ciudad Saludable, has shown how the living standards of some of the world’s poorest people – those picking rubbish on the dumps of Peru – are best addressed by creating the conditions for those people themselves to use their “power to create”.
Instead of starting with appeals to politicians to address the poverty she saw around her with top-down policies, Albina worked with the rubbish-pickers to persuade Lima’s citizens that sorting waste and recycling was worth a small fee. Once that idea was accepted, the rubbish-pickers were able to establish themselves as small enterprises, invest in new services and in improved safety.
The model has turned the rubbish-pickers’ once-derided activity into income-generating businesses which serve the community and protect the environment. In the process, lives are transformed and the marginalised win respect as productive members of an economy.
Etsy is another company trying to create a supportive environment for tens of thousands of people to sell handmade goods. It has gone from start-up to generating a combined turnover of a billion dollars for its many sellers in just eight years.
The model has turned a once-derided activity into income-generating businesses.
By creating a world-class on-line platform for its sellers, Etsy has opened up a global market for people who in the past may well have treated their creativity as little more than a hobby. In doing so, incomes have been improved and creative fulfilment enhanced. Etsy also places a very strong emphasis on collaboration and peer group support amongst its sellers to ensure they reach their full potential.
Of course, Etsy’s success points to the enormous power of the internet to release such creativity free of hierarchical and elitist control. Indeed, the internet has undoubtedly played a central role in driving and enabling that twenty-first century hunger for self-determination and freedom. But its full potential is far from spent.
Bitcoin is an exemplar of how decentralising power in the traditionally hierarchical and centralised area of currency can be highly effective and generate growth. Using very carefully written code and an innovative model, Bitcoin has shown how so-called ‘block-chain’ technology allows the day-to-day management of a complex system to be handled by a large network of many individuals and organisations all incentivised to do their bit rather than a single hierarchical structure.
The approach holds the potential to allow on-line creative collaboration in a wide range of areas without the need for centralised control such as on-line trading, social networks, web search and even political campaigning.
New solutions to big problems
This suggests that in our highly complex, fragmented and self-determined world the solutions to our biggest problems – from economic stagnation and public service productivity to climate change and inequality – are not to be found in monetary policy committees, business board rooms or even cabinet meetings.
The only long-term, sustainable and genuinely benign solution to economic stagnation is not to funnel money into the established hierarchies of the banking system. Instead we should be focusing on investment in the platforms, training and support (both financial and non-financial) that could unleash a wave of creative entrepreneurialism across the global economy.
The solution to climate change is not to strive endlessly for half-hearted global treaties with thin roots in the attitudes and behaviour of the world’s wider population. For such agreements to work they must be closely allied to investment in and encouragement of millions of innovative, small-scale and renewable solutions to meet our energy needs.
If politics can break out of its hierarchical, elitist mind-set then anyone can.
And a more equal society will not come about through governments tweaking tax and welfare systems but by the creative campaigning of millions of poorly paid workers to force culture and policy change within the world’s biggest businesses.
Recent advances, for example, made byliving wage campaigners in the UK and those fighting for decent employment practices in the fast food industry in the US show what can be achieved and how much potential for change exists. Of course, many are already embracing the entrepreneurial approach to change exemplified by Albina Ruiz as the recent boom in self-employment has revealed.
The best role government can play in this is to act as an exemplar of this new creative world. If politics can break out of its hierarchical, elitist mind-set then anyone can. A shift away from the domination of old-fashioned twentieth century political parties, for example, towards more participative, open and entrepreneurial forms could do more than anything to promote creative problem-solving. It would also show other organisations outside government, the scale of change that is necessary.
The creativity of the stifled 75 per cent can solve our biggest problems.
Increasingly, government must think of itself as a platform for the creative endeavour of millions rather than the direct providers of solutions. One fundamental shift could be to treat tax revenues as a creative resource to be distributed to public service users to commission and develop services as they see fit rather than be allocated by government and managers. Such an approach has transformed social care through the use of ‘personal budgets’ and could well be extended much more widely.
Regarding government as a platform is not the same as a laissez-faire approach: with so many citing significant barriers to their creative flourishing such as lack of self-confidence and money it is clear that becoming an effective catalyst for mass creativity is no straightforward matter of government ‘simply getting out of the way’. But it does imply a fundamentally different approach to the missions and structures of our most important institutions
However, when such a shift is fully operational then the creativity of the stifled 75 per cent can truly be put to use to solve our biggest problems.
Adam Lent is Director of the RSA Action and Research Centre. His book ‘Small is Powerful: why the era of big government, big business and big culture is over’ is due for publication in 2015. It can be pre-ordered here. He is on Twitter here.