A marketplace for creativity: why collaboration may be infectious

Markets are bustling places: crates of fruit and vegetables, fish piled high on ice, shouting and haggling, people jostling for space, drifts of empty cardboard boxes piled high, smells mingling and changing as you walk. I’ve walked through markets in Manila, Kuala Lumpur, America or Brixton and they all have things in common. There’s an energy: stallholders calling over one another, each vying their wares, each competing for your attention. They call out, as each gets louder, the other has to compensate. Their energy is infectious.


Marketplaces are busy: vibrant and energetic. When we engage in marketplaces of ideas, we open ourselves up to change

Brixton is an interesting place: i’ve been spending some time there, talking to a few people about their evolving model of governance. It’s a proud district in London, with a mixed culture and strong sense of community. Take the Brixton pound: a super local currency that you can choose to have part of your salary paid in, aiming to keep money within local shops, within the local community. Shops selling a wide variety of foods from around the world: as i walked through the market with a friend yesterday, he pointed out a wholesale store as a cornerstone of the community, somewhere that all the restaurants and cafes used for supplies: a node in the network.

I visited the Town Hall, a grand building strangely innocuous next to the marketplace, opposite the KFC: stained glass windows, a clock tower and security guard on the door. I heard stories of change: they’re pursuing a very collaborative and cooperative system of community engagement, and one story really stood out.

In an attempt to change mindsets and create opportunity, they’ve opened up part of the ground floor to enterprise: space for startups to mature, to come together, to feed off each other’s energy and ideas in a classic enterprise hub approach.

As i spoke to the Chief Exec, his enthusiasm was infectious, but not just for the benefits it would bring to the entrepreneurs. The idea was to open up the highly formal space of a Town Hall to new ideas and uses, but also to create a permissive environment for innovation and creative thought.

And creativity is not just the preserve of creatives.

At each of my four meetings, the words ‘engagement‘ and ‘collaboration‘ were common: a striving for more effective actions in more dynamic organisations.

It’s no surprise that ‘collaboration‘ forms the pinnacle of the NET Model of Social Leadership. If you can’t collaborate effectively, it’s hard to lead. But to collaborate effectively, you need to master core skills: building your reputation and authority, building social capital in yourself and others, humility, sharing. Collaboration is more than just sharing though: it’s about recognising the imperatives of the organisation and the people within it (and outside of it) and charting a course that is fair and just.

Letting the startups into the Town Hall is great on many levels: it subverts the formal hierarchy of the building by introducing constrained risk and uncertainty, in parallel with introducing creativity and an open mindset. And it’s a change: change which can gain momentum and be infectious.

Look at the work around NHS Change Day and the Healthcare Radicals: they make pledges for change and can support each other’s pledge. They create permissive environments for people to commit to change. The create and facilitate subversive (but still semi formal) communities which give permission to think differently. To employ radical thought to direct consensual community action.

I talked quite widely yesterday about narrative: about personal narrative, co-created in groups and organisational narrative. I think that generating narratives around personal learning is a powerful approach, helping people to measure and chart how they have changed, Within groups, it’s a co-creative process, understanding how what you do impacts on others and affects overall organisational change. Organisations can then draw upon all these co-created group narratives to construct their overall story of change. Each feeds off the other. It’s a fully co-owned process, which is important and much more effective than simple ‘top down‘ models of change, which can create noise but little shift.

Collaboration can lead to further collaboration: indeed, that’s how a collaborative culture spawns and persists. The greater our generosity of thought and deed, the healthier the overall marketplace becomes.

Throwing open the doors of the ivory palace to welcome in the community is a great way of importing energy: it makes government closer to the community because, after all, government is part of the community. Creating opportunities within micro businesses and startups brings energy into the system and, as with any market, once one stallholder starts shouting, all the others have to up their game to keep up. Before you know it, the place is bustling.

I stood in the lobby of the Town Hall after my meetings. Around me, plaques on the wall, commemorating the war dead, stained glass windows depicting ancient stories, brass fittings and wide marble floors. It was raining outside and a chap was walking past, fumbling with his umbrella. “It was sunny when i left home this morning” i said, apropos of nothing in particular (i’m English: making small talk about the weather is virtually obligatory). “Yes” he cried and we chatted for a while about the weather, about where we lived, about Brixton and the changes he’d seen. Sharing stories, collaborating to develop a shared narrative about the change.

That’s the thing with collaboration: once you start the conversations, it’s hard to stop.

Questions for organisations:

1. Where are your collaborative spaces?

2. How do you create permissive environments for exploring radical change?

3. Does your process inhibit or enhance collaboration?

4. Do people have time and clarity on their role in collaboration?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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