JWR Articles: Commentary - Creative Places + Spaces: The Collaborative City (Featured speaker: Ken Robinson) - November 5, 2009 id="543337086">

Creative Places + Spaces: The Collaborative City

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Unleashing creativity raises questions with its answers

Holding the day-one sessions of Creative Places + Spaces: The Collaborative City in the storied grandeur of the Carlu (cross-link below) was a real-time, walk-the-talk example of the value of relentlessly pursuing creative collaborations to liberate decaying urban real estate.

Built in 1931 as Lady Flora McRae Eaton’s personal showcase for fine dining (The Round Room) and first-class concerts (the concert hall, accommodating up to 1,000 people, was a favourite recording studio for Glenn Gould; as the Eaton Auditorium, this truly creative space was the National Ballet of Canada's first venue) by French architect Jacques Carlu (whose wife, Natasha designed the grand murals), the facility was shuttered in 1977 when the Eatons headed further south down Yonge Street to seek greater profits in the Eaton Centre.

Due largely to being designated as a National Historic Site in 1982, the seventh floor lay in dormancy until 2003 when entrepreneurs Mark Robert and Jeff Roick had the audacity, will and determination to restore the forgotten landmark. Today it is one of Toronto’s premier event venues where Corporate Canada, with the ghosts of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra humming a few bars invisibly in the background, hunkers down in opulence to plan the next great product or service.

“Be confident in what you don’t know,” advised Robert as he described this magnificent transformation to the collaboration-seeking crowd. One can only wonder that if the last generation of Eaton shopkeepers had heeded his counsel whether Canada’s retail giant might still be ringing up sales today.

With the black-and-white, rectangular-shaped mantra “think create collaborate” and similarly designed cardboard headgear (immediately igniting fond memories of The Unknown Comic for those old enough to recall the antics of Chuck Barris and his infamous Gong Show of the late ‘70s) sported by staff to underscore the desire to think beyond the box rather than just outside it, the goal of unleashing the creativity that is present—if largely untapped—in every human on the planet was constantly in our minds and faces. With the stellar line-up of speakers scheduled over the nine-hour span, our ears and imaginations were destined for a non-stop barrage of observations, innovations and challenges which if they spread as far and as fast as H1N1 could transform the world into a safer, more productive place.

Just ahead of the welcoming remarks, the ear was engaged by a highly collaborative quartet (voice, keyboard, bass and drum) even as the eye took in relaxing yoga practitioners before a covey of rappers collectively energized the delegates with an impressive array of solo work and a floor-to-ceiling rope, adding much to the decidedly primal tenor and tone.

Matt Galloway, CBC Radio One’s afternoon man, but today’s morning host ensured the session started on time and explained how blogging technology would permit anyone with Internet access to add their immediate thoughts which were shown live on twin, pixel-rich columns that framed the double views of the speakers (a huge overhead screen allowed everyone—even in the last row of the balcony—to have a clear impression of every grimace, gesture and grin). Sadly, the bulk of the twitters were comprised of tiresome cheerleading and shameless self-promotion, causing one of the most experienced presenters to despair: “Technology gets in the way of the experience you are having at the time.”

In his opening comments, Mayor David Miller reminded everyone “It’s through the arts that we are able to tell each other’s stories.” Artspace CEO Tim Jones spoke about the concept of convergence and set the stage for the rest of the day with a seemingly simple question: “How do we get out of our silos?” In one way or another, every voice that followed answered that overarching question.

Sir Ken Robinson was the ideal choice to lead off. The stand-up innovator/thinker used a droll humourous style of delivery, deftly slipping in his telling points amongst the anecdotes and personal observations (“Education does not promote creativity.” “The Las Vegas Venetian Hotel is more authentic than Venice.” “Digital natives [i.e., those less than 25-years-old] have no need for a wristwatch.”). After citing research which clearly demonstrates that the largest group of divergent thinkers in the entire population are children aged 3-5, Sir Ken urged one and all to “use everything we’ve been given [individual creativity]” as the prime strategy to solve the planet’s major calamities.

The coffee break was notable for the organizers’ attempt to further stimulate the intellectually buzzing attendees with near-naked art. Decked out only in scanty black-and-white loincloths (like their evening counterparts, colour is eschewed so as not to detract from the music), Baroque duets for cello and flute competed with conversations and cup clanks for aural attention. Fun as it was to savour every bare breath and bow, like the side-splitting text messages streaming continually beside the conveyors of wisdom, the effect was more a distraction from the whole than a telling bit of embellishment.

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, spent much of his address discussing ways and means for business to creatively respond to the current “re-set,” itself driven by solution-seeking governments as they try to survive the self-induced financial crisis by funding all manner of shovel-in-the-ground initiatives. Previous and current post-meltdown responses were recalled and compared: in the 1870s, streetcars and subways provided jobs and urban transportation solutions as cities grew; a network of super highways bound those urban centres together after the 1929 crash; for 2009? perhaps high-speed rail will have its day in the sun. Like Sir Ken, Florida pointed to such companies as Toyota whose relatively unscathed balance sheet—compared to the Behemoth 3—could be explained by the automaker’s formalized commitment to “tap the ‘kaisen’ [a results-oriented tool that fosters continuous improvement] of everyone on the floor” instead of treating the help like mindless drones.

During lunch, the boxheads continued to assist the invigorated assemblage as the long, snaking lines intent on the human need for nourishment tested the collaborative abilities of herders and the unfed alike.

At various times between major speakers, a series of On Location Videos (essentially mini documentaries funded by the Canada Council) were shown to add other dimensions to the subject at hand. Eleni Arbus’ The Melbourne Laneways chronicled the spectacular metamorphosis of grubby urban alleyways into bustling cafés, shops and artist centres. The “planned graffiti” was awash in colour, texture. That revitalizion of back avenues that resonates locally with the rejuvenation of Queen Street, Niagara Falls (cross-reference below). Using game technology to help preserve Cree culture and values was the focus of Jason Lapeyre’s The Twenty-first Century Learning Kit. Nerd Jam, young designers set loose on the rails, was Moira Simpson’s contribution to the quick takes of inventiveness springing up all around the planet.

Using film as the go-between in medical settings proved to be a fascinating experiment on many fronts. Something old (the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change series whose heyday was four decades ago) was most certainly new again. Filmmaker-in-residence, Katerina Cizek spends her days (months and years) in St. Michael’s Hospital, gaining the understanding and trust of health-care professionals and specially trained law enforcement officers before employing her camera to build video bridges between severely at-risk patients (from mental health to unwanted pregnancies) and their service providers. Both parties say things to the camera they’d never express to each other. But is it art?

Producer Gerry Flahive explained: “Docs are generally ‘about’ something” and that the “audience has the expectation to see everything.” Having 8.5 hours to show after four years “in production” doesn’t seem like much until it’s realized that many of these cinematic interventions have caused systemic change. The key to success, Cizek pointed out, is “choosing the right collaborators.”

Designer extraordinaire Tom Wujec took the creation of an innovative atmosphere a step further by entreating management to quit the relatively passive “PowerPoint Presentation” planning/reporting/visioning technique, replacing that static process with white boards and touchable objects in order to unearth staff creativity and increase productivity.

In many of the other sessions, the notion of partnering in unexpected ways to fuel innovation and reposition organizations in the eyes of their customers and competitors was demonstrated and extolled. Small, careful steps are a part of the longer-term goal of moving beyond survival and back to growth.

Quietly reflecting on the vast amount of information, ideas and calls-to-action shared in just these few hours, Sir Ken’s caution not to take things for granted (of course, there are only five senses: that’s what we were always told …), a couple more dilemmas occurred that might upset the dash to creative collaborations as the twenty-first century’s silver bullet.

Imagine a world where everyone is in touch with their inner, innate creativity and they bring it to the workplace. In factories, what happens when worker A creates an improvement to the assembly line that will quash the change of worker B’s innovation? At a Toronto Symphony rehearsal, what would be the effect of each member of the brass choosing their own tempo for the opening measures of the Mussorgsky/Ravel’s “Great Gate of Kiev?” (Pictures at an Exhibition is a marvellous example of artistic collaboration achieved in two solitudes.)

In creating Oliver Haddo (loosely based on an acquaintance), Somerset Maugham was able to explore the same issue of individuality through the words of his hugely obese and opinionated character: “Will, love and imagination are magic powers that everyone possesses; and whoever knows how to develop them to their fullest extent is a magician.”

The key is “how to develop them.” Unleashing creativity without especial knowledge risks letting the Genie out of the bottle and could plunge the world back to even darker days. Team work and creative collaborations, necessarily, must be nurtured and guided. Yet, in nearly every case, a point of decision is reached; typically seniority (rather than democracy) rules, ensuring a smooth-working production line or a tempo that brings order instead of chaos. To excite the workplace with the doctrine of creativity unbound, then dashing it with constraints might well produce more subjects for Cizek’s filmed monologues than unparalleled growth and huge profits.

Two questions remain:

  • What will success look like in a world overflowing (apologies to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) with creative collaboration?
  • Who will a writer the calibre of Maugham’s collaborate with to produce a better novel?

We look forward to more discourse, perhaps during the next Creative Places + Spaces in 2011. JWR

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Producer - Gerry Flahive
Featured speaker - Ken Robinson
Designer - Tom Wujec
Photographer - Vanessa Garrison
Keynote Speaker - Richard Florida
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