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Creative Citizenship by the book: everyone, everything, everywhere


It’s always a relief to reach the book launch stage of a big research project. Coaxing a dozen or so researchers from six universities and an even larger group of external partners through a co-creative, four-year journey is a seriously demanding and rewarding adventure. The same goes for presenting that experience in book form. You want to describe the research, its methods and its insights, with authority and in some detail. You also want to stretch the reader’s imagination: to invite new or extended coalitions of thought and practice. The book is a well tried medium for such a mission, but pitching a book about the digital world, to a digital world, adds interesting new tensions.

From the beginning of this project, officially titled Media, community and the creative citizen, we set out to use those tensions to generate energy. So, our book’s title is rooted in a famous early 19th century English Romantic poem (Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound), but it’s also explicitly made for the digital age: mentioning terms designed to maximise search engine pick-up, whilst providing a Tweet-length summary of the book’s entire thesis: The Creative Citizen Unbound: how social media and DIY culture contribute to democracy, communities and the creative economy. Our publisher, Bristol-based Policy Press, helped us get this right. Policy Press is handling a series of books arising from the Connected Communities programme, in which AHRC is the lead funder.

The detail in the title also indicates the range and complexity of a book which is the work of 15 authors, supported by partners, whose voices are also heard throughout. These partners themselves operate across a vast spectrum, from major national institutions like Ofcom and Nesta to South Blessed a small, Bristol-based digital video, music and news network, and the Wards Corner Coalition, which is fighting for a more community-centred redevelopment plan for its slice of North London.

Local Services Workshop held at Royal College of Art

We also tackle some high theory around complexity, evolutionary economics and cultural science, drawing upon the expertise of the Australia-based Professor John Hartley, who, with me, co-edited the book. More surprisingly we engage directly with current, mainstream political conversation, reporting on a ‘live’ dialogue with political think tanks initiated at the 2014 Creative Citizens conference at the Royal College of Art and drawing some lessons in the book. In that debate, we experienced for ourselves the growing void between mainstream politics and place-based community experience and aspiration. This is a phenomenon we have all witnessed at higher intensity in this year’s US Presidential race and in our own BREXIT referendum.

Our research question asked how creative citizenship can generate value for communities within a changing media landscape. Our core argument is that it is at the level of community, where questions and goals of citizenship are permanently in negotiation, that a co-creative approach to intervention can be most successfully deployed. The creative dimension of creative citizenship can arise from any source, but in our research, we wanted to explore the many ways in which broadly familiar digital media tools might be used or modified for community purposes, as well understanding the limits that constrain such use.

Craftivists (craft activists) at the Creative Citizen Fair in Birmingham in 2015.

The book is a solid-enough medium for describing in detail and evaluating the media interventions made by our research team and our partners in three types of activity we chose to consider (community news, planning and creative networks) in four parts of the UK (London, South Wales, Birmingham and Bristol). Key methods used in the research, such as asset mapping, led by a team from the Open University and the RCA, are described in laboratory-practice detail and illustrated. It was also evident throughout, however, that digital tools are vital to sharing this kind of research and searching for its impact. Digital online video and information graphics easily beat the printed book as a communication device in this territory, but the book remains an unrivalled mechanism for the reader to flip back and forward to particular chapters and cases and to read chapters or sections in the order the reader prefers. The hybrid e-book, sitting somewhere in between these two, may be going nowhere.

Many readers – I’m one of them – test a non-fiction book by reading the end first. So, I offer that as an excuse to share with you the paragraph which concludes The Creative Citizen Unbound.

‘To unbind the creative citizen is to tap into an incalculably large resource of energy, ideas, goodwill, purpose and pride, as well as to confront the reality of everyday conflicts and so-called wicked problems – and how to resolve them – among an increasingly diverse and multivalent community. It involves thinking differently. Getting that right, from the perspective of government, requires a clear understanding of the importance of this resource for innovation and enhanced productivity, along with an equally clear understanding that this resource cannot be commanded, it can only be released. It can also, intentionally, or unintentionally, be too easily blocked. That is the lesson Jupiter learned the hard way about Prometheus. But as Shelley told us: creative citizens are many. The blockers are few.’ So, our work ends as it began, toggling between the 19th and 21st centuries.

Jimmy Wales at the book launch with the books' editors: Ian Hargreaves and John Hartley.

Books also have the advantage that they can be launched in a physical way. We tried to make the most of this opportunity by holding two book launch events, the first in London, at the House of Lords, and the second at a pop-up creative economy studio event at Cardiff University, a few days later. London enabled us to reach a celebrity or two, enabling John Hartley to talk to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, about his interest in Aboriginal language content for that most remarkable of knowledge platforms.

At Cardiff, we took advantage of our rapidly growing Creative Cardiff network, which aims to make new connections between the wide range of people working in the city region’s creative economy. This event drew in a wide range of people, from a young member of the Welsh Government’s statistics team to a BBC producer interested in discussing creative citizenship as a radio series. In and among, we also managed to sell a couple of boxes of books: another advantage of the pre-digital medium – face to face cash transactions still work.

The most pleasing aspect of the Creative Citizen project, however, is nothing to do with its direct mediation by ourselves. It is the way that creative citizenship stares us all in the face pretty much every day.

In the few days when I was preparing this contribution to the AHRC website, I had the pleasure of sitting in a Barry Island café talking to Andy Green about his own forum designed to support those who share his goal to boost social capital (www.flexiblethinkingforum.org.uk). The next day, en route to a music event in Cardiff, our local Big Issue seller offered me an edition with a cover proclaiming the importance of ‘creative activism.’ Here, Neil Griffiths, co-founder of Arts Emergency, declares: “Activism and art are so similar. They are both activities that envisage alternative realities. They make you look at how things are how they could be.” Shelley couldn’t have put it better.

Or as John Hartley argues in a recent blog for the Creative Cardiff website: “It turns out that the source of creativity and innovation is invariably cultural and community-based before it is economic and enterprise based. That’s because humans use culture – including language, social relations, meaningfulness and identity – as the mechanism for making groups, which in turn are the vehicle for creating new ideas, knowledge and technologies.” At the Creative Citizens conference back in 2014, John and I attempted to explain the connection between our own life-experiences and this research project in our joint presentation Two Journeys, One Destination. That’s the kind of project this has been: several miles in a life journey. If you haven’t got time to read the book, try the creative citizens website or the links to its social media outputs. Or just go back to the title of the book and start your own journey.

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