You Don't Have to be Big – Just Smart

On the first Monday in November I went to “Birmingham’s Big Debate”. IT was held at the ICC in Birmingham, one of my favourite buildings. The subheading for the event was “Can the creative sector save the UK economy?” I went because I received an invite through colleagues at Digital Birmingham and I am interested in all things Digital, particularly in how they relate to people. Events like these are a good opportunity to catch up with old friends and hopefully make a couple of new ones. I managed the former, I’m not sure if I achieved the latter.

There were some interesting speakers at the event which was peopled predominantly by representatives from Birmingham’s Creative sector. Charles Leadbeater highlighted the small pebbles theme, the importance of rebels in the innovation process, the dangers of centres of excellence that end up as a home for lime coloured bean bags and the need for places (not necessarily permanent, purpose built places) for people to collaborate and to exhibit.

David Harris gave an industry perspective on the economic potential of creative industries and how creativity sat low on the educational agenda. He posed a very important question which seemed, to me, to get lost; what happens if you put creativity at the core of everything? David was accompanied at the podium by Toby Barnes who runs a successful gaming company. Toby’s presentation tried to pull together the potential for the future, particularly of digital technology.

The event then moved into facilitated discussion groups and, for me at least, it entered a state of mass denial as it appeared that the messages from the front of house had not been heard. I don’t think it was just my table, at least not judging from the bullet point list that arose from all of the discussions. There were some good people on my table, engaging, intelligent, and important but seemingly unable to see the bigger picture. There was deep conviction that the city was to be the focus of activity – what happened to collaboration as a route to innovation? The West Midlands is a large and diverse place -. There was a call for centres of excellence as place to exhibit national collections. Why did they bother to invite Charles Leadbeater if nobody was going to hear a word he said? There was a re-run of the Birmingham City Council website fiasco and the excellent riposte from local activists with their DIY site but then a complaint that the council still wasn’t listening and engaging with them – Err, your point? But what was most disturbing was that nobody, as @Cyberdoyle would say, got IT. Nobody appeared to understand the wider implications of a digital world.

Charles Leadbeater covered the ground from “We Think” but there is a paper which he wrote for Cornerhouse, Manchester in 2009 called “The Art of With” where he describes the culture of companies (and governments) that do things ‘for’ people and ‘to’ people. In creative terms it equates to art ‘at’ us. For Leadbeater the logic of ‘with’ underpins changes in people’s relationship to information and to one another. “The barriers to entry into creating media content are falling.” This is part of what was missed by the people at the Birmingham event; it was clear from the comments that the participants saw themselves as doing things for and to and not recognising the new economy or the new opportunities that arose from doing it with.

It’s time I stopped buying the Sunday Times. It’s a bad habit; I’m used to settling down with it for an hour after breakfast on a Sunday. It’s the only time I buy a traditional paper.  Rupert Murdoch doesn’t get it either, I’m referring to his insanity viz Google indexes, yet conversely there was this article in the Culture section last Sunday.


The article was a brilliant example of how small pebbles, collaborating, allowed musicians to share their art, make a living – and that includes all of the support organisations – with not a single rant about DRM. The irony wasn’t lost on me but I don’t suppose that Mr M reads his publication, well, not on a Sunday.

What the people in that debate were missing was the same point; the internet has changed the goal posts, the world is no longer just flat, it’s joined up. Eric Schmidt, in a recent Gartner interview stated that “It’s because of this fundamental shift towards user-generated information that people will listen more to other people than to traditional sources; unsurprisingly, for Schmidt, Learning how to rank that ” is the great challenge of the age.” Schmidt believes “Google can solve that problem” because Google tends to listen to some people more than others. In the next five years, if a company does not exist on the internet, it does not exist in the world. Those companies with an eye to capturing the content market will have their identity firmly on the web 2.0 and web 3.0. Those companies with art to exhibit and art to sell will do so in ever changing, ever flexible, ever on line spaces and their market place will be the web. However, it’s more than this, because not only does the web provide the place to share and sell it also provides the place to receive thoughts, to gain inspiration, to collaborate, it is the art of ‘with’ that Leadbeater talks about.

Within five years a web persona will be as important as a real world identity. Brian Solis recently wrote about Portable identity in the evolution of the social web. “Socially connected consumers will strengthen communities and shift power away from brands and CRM systems; eventually this will result in empowered communities defining the next generation of products.” – Brian Solis – The world will know you by your web persona, in the internet of things you will be a connection and every device you use will be node on that connection. Bigger entities, like companies, will just be bigger networks.

Having the faith to put yourself into the hands of the people and trust them. That’s what’s wrong. There is no faith and no trust. There is an underlying fear that people will ask for something that the system can’t deliver and so it has to manage expectations. I was humbled recently when I read an article by Radha Rao on Technology and the Intellectual Life of the Poor where he looks at the inability of society to consider excluded people as just having a creative life, we have to see them as both creative and excluded: “How do we begin to look at the technological lives of people beyond developmentalism and take into account the way it changes aspirations and subjectivities?” – Radha Rao –

I’ve talked here about an event with the creative sector but it applies equally across all businesses. Unless business embraces its audience, its customers, unless it seeks to understand the art of ‘with’ and has the faith to accept that a wider collaboration will yield benefits irrespective of  whether they’re from the creative quarter or not then the creative or any other sector will not be able to save the UK economy – I doubt it will save itself.


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