Craft on the new frontier

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How do we characterise craftmakers in the 21st century? Are the varied activities of making taking on a profound shift in response to globalisation, technological change and new cultures of making and consumption? Is making being transformed by an emergent “new industrial revolution”? These were some of the questions addressed by the Crafts Council’s Make:Shift event, held on 20/21 November in London and billed to “explore how advances in materials, processes and technologies are driving innovation in craft practice.”

As chair of three of the sessions, I found the conference inspiring, challenging and dazzling in the sheer diversity of practices and perspectives that were represented. Running alongside the event was the national Make:Shift:Do programme of open workshops, exhibitions and talks that dovetailed the London conference and places the discussions in a national context of making. In Dundee, Louise Valentine and Jo Bletcher put together an ambitious programme of practical workshops, a salon discussion event, and an exciting new exhibition of work from designers, makers and up-and-coming undergraduate students. For us, embedding Make:Shift within our teaching programme and culture was an opportunity we could not miss!

In the conference summing up I presented some initial ideas and reflections, which this post expands on. They are not offered as a definitive view, but as perhaps a starting point, and I would value comments on them. This is not intended as a summary of the conference, as that can be better gained from the conference website with the videos of the various sessions.

Empathy for process and people

Right at the start, Martina Margetts raised the critical question of how we define makers and making. The presentations and discussions of the event provided evidence that definitions are fluid and increasingly diverse. Early on in the conference, one participant described craft as “empathy for materials and process”. This certainly seemed to be reflected in a range of the practices presented and discussed. through an ‘empathetic engagement’ makers had discovered new values and explored the creative affordances of seaweed, loofas, industrial estates and advanced robotics. But empathy for the physical, technical aspect of craft is clearly an incomplete perspective. Empathy for people is critical. As one contributor said “technology is just a tool, that’s all – above all, it’s about exploring context”. The human context is the driving force, to produce work that has cultural relevance and resonance. This human context does not just concern the use and consumption of crafted objects and systems, but far more significantly its production – and perhaps this is where empathy is most necessary.

Collaborating through a trustful language of touch

From the opening keynote to the closing speech and through just about every presentation in between, Make:Shift highlighted a new spirit of collaborative working, and a passion for defining new languages to underpin and enable these collaborations. Roger Kneebone introduced the idea of reciprocal illumination as a way of understanding how we advance craft knowledge. The old teacher > student model of learning has been supplanted by the maker <> maker model of advancing mutually supportive practices. This has echoes of Richard Sennett’s notion of the social expert, and suggests a welcome advance from the conventional notions of how craft should be taught. It made me question how we could better and more explicitly embed reciprocal illumination in our craft courses. Collaboration requires communication, and Roger Kneebone also raised questions about how we develop languages of touch, and of how we value the eloquent voice of silence.

On the final morning of the conference, I asked participants on twitter what their key takeaway had been so far. Tony Quinn replied: “The link between language, skill, collaboration and trust to develop and sustain one’s practice and one’s community of practice”.

Twenty years ago, Crafts Council and other events presented craft as a very much more individualised and solitary practice. I will speculate on some of the factors that have shifted us more towards collaboration a little later.

The maker as DJ

Colleagues at the event from Benchmark tweeted that today’s maker has become a DJ. As co-inventor of the Rip + Mix ‘designer as DJ’ method of innovation in service design, this struck a chord. In many cases we could see where makers were mixing age-old craft knowledge with new knowledge and finding new contexts and applications for their outcomes. We could see evidence of this with Michael Eden’s ‘digital ceramics’, with the electro embroidery of Sarah Taylor and Sara Robertson and in the new hybrid lab described by Raymond Oliver. DJs are above all expert curators and – in a whole variety of ways – create wholly new experiences and sounds out of what they find. Lauren Bowker mixes insights and innovations from science to crafted wearable objects, Roger Kneebone finds harmonising elements from highly disparate craft sources, and Fi Scott discovers hidden values and processes in gaskets and sailmaking.

If we seriously view the modern maker as curator of technologies, materials, tools and practices, as much as an originator, then this places further demands on them as social experts and collaborators.

Farmers and cowboys/girls

Roger Kneebone raised the issue early on about the difference between scored and improvised performance. For a musician this places very different demands on them – as it does the craft maker. This caused me to think about different modes of craft practice, and to connect with an idea expressed recently by Brian Eno. In his view there are two types of creative practitioner: farmers and cowboys. The former has a patient and intimate relationship with the tools and materials of their practice, and has a wealth of learned knowledge and experience to draw upon. The latter works largely in new territories with far less knowledge and experience, and improvises with what is available to them: “I often think that art is divided into the musical Oklahoma: the farmer and the cowboy. So the farmer is the guy who finds a piece of territory, stakes it up, digs it and cultivates it – grows the land. The cowboy is the one who goes out and finds new territories.”

In my view, craft – or indeed any creative practice – requires both cowboys and farmers. A constant search for new territories could pull destructively at the bonds of community and sense of common purpose that reciprocal illumination demands, while the focused cultivation of one creative territory would seem to negate any sense of progress. What becomes interesting is listening to the experience of those makers who have no problem in shifting from one role to another, and back again. Michael Eden, for example, appears very much at ease at being both farmer and cowboy.

Makers as facilitators

The new collaborative culture of craft reflects significant new developments in creative practice over the past decade. The emergence of design jams, maker spaces, the open source movement, DIY culture, a new connectedness enabled by social media has led to new ways of learning and sharing, new forms of collaborative creativity, new forms of practice that not just blur, but render obsolete the old professional/amateur distinctions. Makers are as much concerned with facilitating and supporting the creativity of others, as they are with developing their own. Indeed many define their creative output in terms of facilitation. Increasingly, makers are crafting new opportunities for the creative empowerment and expression of others. The maker spaces and other projects hosting Make:Shift:Do events are evidence of this – as indeed is the Global Sustainability Jam that opened worldwide on the final day of Make:Shift.

A new industrial revolution?

At least a couple of the speakers took issue with some of the more fashionable ideas being expressed currently. Raymond Oliver claimed “I do not believe in wearable technology”. Others rejected 3D printing as overhyped. And while Chris Anderson’s book Makers was cited by two speakers, there was some questioning whether his notion of a new industrial revolution was valid. Revolutions are not made by technology or tools – revolutions are made by people and their aspirations for change and new values.

Ours is not a time of revolution – industrial or otherwise. But is is perhaps a time of an accelerating shift in craft’s relevance and role, and an associated shift in the role of the maker. We are on a new frontier, and therefore we need cowgirls and boys, who can explore and define new creative territories. The qualities they need above all else are empathy, a confidence in collaboration, a curatorial spirit and a willingness to constantly shift from the new frontier to the farm and back again. And perhaps above all, the frontier spirit demands a fair bit of courage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why learning through making matters

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The poppy installation at the Tower of London seems to have moved all who have seen it, capturing the immensity of the human cost of needless war. Certainly it triggered debate, which is always a positive thing.

The irony is that in the week this installation by ceramicist Paul Cummins captured the public imagination, so a campaign was launched to save yet another ceramic course threatened with closure – this time in Falmouth. Throughout the UK ceramics courses have been steadily axed over recent years. Apparently there is no longer any value in learning how to craft beauty and meaning, insight and inspiration from clay. However, the hundreds of thousands of people who have visited the Tower of London in recent weeks may have a slightly different idea.

Paul Cummins learned his craft at the University of Derby, where ceramics is still taught. If we value learning through making, if we value the unique objects and art works that only a mastery of ceramics gives us, if we value the imagination and power evident in the Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London, and the sense of wonder experienced by all those who have seen this remarkable artwork, then surely we must defend the teaching of ceramic art and design.

Ceramics runs deep with us. It runs in our veins. Some of the earliest human made objects are ceramic, such as the 30,000 year old Venus figurine discovered in Moravia. The invention of the potter’s wheel in what is now Iraq around 6,000 years ago revolutionised the production of vessels and led directly to the establishment of cities. Then there is Josiah Wedgwood: a potter who invented the factory system, industrial design, the principles of modern marketing and laid the ground for the industrial revolution. Oh yes, he also helped abolish slavery and provided the money for Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Artistic expression, the birth of cities, innovation, revolutionary change, social responsibility and evolutionary theory. Pottery. What’s not to like?

The craft of ceramics may play a vital role in our history, and can be used to remind us powerfully of recent historical events. But it is not consigned to history. Ceramic design is very much a practice of today – and it is vital for our future. At Falmouth, where the ceramics course is under threat, ceramic design researchers have been leading the internationally recognised Autonomatic Research Group, fusing craft and digital practices in highly relevant and innovative projects in partnership with programmers, cultural geographers, bio-scientists, journalists, social scientists, technology developers, museum curators, and artists. And of course they are doing this in Cornwall, a region where there is huge value in exploring new applications for making and craft.

If you’re still not convinced that an education based on making stuff has any value then perhaps you could imagine living without your phone. As Apple’s head of design, Sir Jonathan Ive pioneered the smartphone and the tablet, and provided the design expertise to make Apple the most highly valued company on Earth. This week he said “So many of the designers that we interview don’t know how to make stuff, because workshops in design schools are expensive and computers are cheaper. That’s just tragic, that you can spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not make one.”

Yes, it is tragic that those who are responsible for design education appear to have no idea of the educational, cultural and economic value of a learning that is based on making. But in most cases those responsible do not actually work in design education. It is part of their “wider brief” as senior managers in higher education who are given an art school alongside a clutch of other related (and usually less related) disciplines. In my experience, these “here today, gone tomorrow” managers have much in common with cabinet ministers who have responsibility for education: they have no passion, no interest and above all, no knowledge of their brief. But – and this is the real tragedy – they are making decisions that future generations will have to live with.

This week the UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan spoke out unambiguously about the value of the arts and humanities: “If you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do…then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful – we were told ­– for all kinds of jobs. Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.” In choosing the arts, she asserted, pupils are making choices that “will hold them back for the rest of their lives”. There is a poverty of knowledge and imagination behind these comments that is hugely dispiriting.

It is dispiriting because there is naturally the assumption that learning based on the arts – and making in particular – is somehow a bit dumb, and thus is something pursued by thick people. I don’t agree with this.

Craft is the one true alchemy. It is through craft  – through learning based on making – that quality is found in the crudest of materials. From mud is created ceramic, from sand is created glassware, from ores comes metalwork and jewellery and from a sheep’s back comes woven textiles. It is through craft that pigments from the earth were discovered to have qualities of colour which could be applied as paint – to paint the sky. Craft is the process which takes the earth and paints the sky with it.

Learning through making fuses science and art, technology and culture. It defines our humanity and our values, it provides future visions and possibilities. It captures imagination.

It must not be lost.

Sign this petition.

 

 

 

 

 

Useful work: the changing landscape of entrepreneurship

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“Here, you see, are two kinds of work – one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life. What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.”

William Morris, Useful Work vs Useless Toil, 1884

 

Bill was right all along. The alienated useless toil necessitated by capitalism would eventually give way to more constructive, satisfying and useful work. It would take a great deal longer than he expected and involve far less chintz, but the landscape of work would – in the early twenty first century – begin to shift towards sustainable autonomous production involving considerable numbers of people. Perhaps not as part of the socialist utopia predicted by him, Marx and others – but more as a means by which people in advanced industrial economies could gain flexibility and satisfaction, while coping with the erosion of the welfare state.

There are some profound shifts taking place in the landscape of entrepreneurship in the UK which educators and policy makers need to catch up on. Despite record numbers of new business start ups in Scotland, political debate has yet to seriously address issues that concern entrepreneurs or indeed the wider cultural and economic questions of entrepreneurship. This is regrettable because the latest research is providing some rich insights into why people go into business, what meaning it provides for them, and how working and creative practices are being transformed.

A recent report on microenterprise provides some fascinating insights: the RSA/Populus survey Salvation in a start-up? The origins and nature of the self-employment boom, produced in partnership with Etsy and authored by Benedict Dellot. Below I will pull out some themes from this report, link them to other recent research and identify some implications.

A cultural shift

Since the onset of the recession in 2008 we now have 600,000 more micro enterprises (firms with less than 10 employees) in the UK. Today, one in seven of the workforce are working for themselves, and this trend is clearly climbing. Just over the last year we have seen a 9% growth in new business in Scotland, and over the last five years the business start up rate for Scotland has been one of the highest in the UK. According to Entrepreneurial Spark founder Jim Duffy “Coming out of a recession, a new industrial revolution is starting in Scotland. So many people, who didn’t think they were capable of turning their hand to entrepreneurship, are now doing it.”

That much is certainly true. But they are not doing it because of the recession. They seem to be doing it because they want to: it is (to coin a perhaps overused phrase) a lifestyle choice. The RSA survey suggests that only 27% of startups had anything to do with escaping unemployment, and self-employment had in any case been on a steady climb all through the years of the economic boom. This is supported by other recent research including a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Resolution Foundation, confirming that 73% of those who became self-employed since the recession “did so wholly or partly due to their personal preference for this way of working, and not solely due to a lack of better work alternatives”. While the RSA report argues for evidence of structural social and economic change to account for this, I would suggest that there is a more deeper seated cultural shift that is behind the new ‘start up tribes’.

 The new tribes of enterprise

The report identifies six tribes of self-employment, each of which describes very diverse characteristics and motivations of entrepreneurship – shown in the figure below. Only 33% fall into categories that we associate with conventional business culture – driven by profit, a focussed sense of purpose and desire for growth. Virtually all business policy is predicated on the assumption that startups have the ambition to grow and take on employees. The reality – revealed by this research – is that most don’t. Indeed, very few self-employed people who have started up in the last 5 years have taken on employees. There has also been a notable rise in part-time self-employment, suggesting that this can co-exist with part-time paid employment and other activities. Nearly half the rise in self-employment since 2000 is accounted for by part-timers, or nano businesses, as the report refers to them.

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Poorer but happy

Many of those in the RSA survey see work as inherently enjoyable (in contrast to much of society) and 85% say “they are now more creative, autonomous and satisfied in their work” with key advantages being flexibility to deal with their own health and the welfare of family. In other words, autonomy, flexibility and happiness appear to be the qualities of self-employment that are most valued. On the downside, they are earning less money. As the report argues:

“Life for the self-employed presents a paradox: they appear to earn less, work harder and be more isolated, yet in the round are some of the happiest people. The reason seems to be because their work offers greater autonomy, a source of meaning and – perhaps surprisingly – a greater sense of security. All of which suggests that the draw of self-employment lies in what the Swiss economists Benz and Frey term ‘procedural utility’. In other words, people who work for themselves gain more from the way something is done rather than the final outcome of that activity – namely money.”

I would suggest that there is a genuine movement towards creating a culture of useful work and autonomous welfare. The two massive failures of the modern age are the alienation and inflexibilities created by work and the shortcomings of our welfare state, especially in terms of childcare and inadequate pensions. Much of the shift towards self-employment would appear to be driven by an impulse to create meaningful, flexible work rather than profit. This is not to deny the vital importance of the visionaries and the classicals to local and indeed national economic growth, but their needs and significance have to balanced by the very different needs (and contribution) of the remaining two thirds of the self-employed. I will briefly look at three issues below and pull in some additional evidence.

Self employment is about thinking.

The biggest increases in self-employment since 2008 have actually been in professional occupations. In a piece entitled How British workers are losing the power to think, Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty has drawn on research that strongly suggests an erosion of autonomy in many occupations. “Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986… 72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.” Some researchers are suggesting a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have permission to think. “The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call ‘digital Taylorism’, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line.” This would suggest that self-employment is driven by a very basic human need: to use your brain creatively and fully.

Self-employment is family friendly.

The successive failures of UK and Scottish governments to provide adequate and affordable childcare – in contrast to many other European countries – is providing one major motivation for self-employment. One recent survey showed that 65% of mothers with children under ten years of age are considering starting a business from home in the next three years, and 49% “believe that they would be financially better off if they started a business from home”. The rise of the ‘mumpreneur’ (a contentious term), of whom there are estimated to be 300,000, is part of a shift in self-employment away from its historical tendency to be male dominated. Indeed, over the last two years the number of female entrepreneurs has increased by 9.6% in contrast to a 3.3% rise for men.

Make a job – don’t take a pension.

The self-employed are getting older. Those aged 55–64 has risen by 40% since 2000, while the over-65s in self-employment have increased by 140%. The over 55s are now a significant start up demographic and we could perhaps see this group as shifting towards self-employment as a means of dealing with the pensions crisis that is otherwise undermining security into old age. This view is supported by the Resolution Foundation in their separate survey and report:

“28 per cent of the overall growth in self-employment is due to a decline in the rate at which people leave self-employment. Our view is that this is partly explained by the UK’s expanding and ageing workforce. The raising of the retirement age, longer life expectancy and low levels of pension saving may have led to people remaining in employment for longer, and because self- employed people tend to be older than employees, this disproportionately affects this group. Self-employment might be growing as an alternative or complement to retirement, rather than as an alternative to being an employee.”

A policy vacuum

The evidence suggests that this diverse and varied landscape of enterprise is simply not recognised as such by the state, and those public bodies there to support the self-employed. At least that is the view of those surveyed in the RSA report who “still largely feel as though they are overlooked by the state”. More significantly “the vast majority believe the Conservatives have the best policies for their business”. Worryingly, there is also widespread support for a cap on immigration. The Conservatives certainly have more policies and a clear ideological commitment to enterprise and self-employment. The left and the labour movement appears held back by long-established animosity. While the RSA report points out that the most obvious bodies to help provide the collective benefits and support needed by the self-employed are the trade unions, this is unlikely to happen any time soon as the unions “have been one of the most vocal in disapproving of the rise in self-employment, with the Trades Union Congress recently expressing its concern that this type of work is inherently insecure”. 

So perhaps in an independent Scotland the self-employed could be the driving force of a new economy, autonomy and community focused wealth generation and support? Best not hold our breath. In all of its 604 pages, the weighty tome that is Scotland’s Future : Your Guide to an Independent Scotland contains only one reference to the self-employed.

What is clearly needed are conversations to help set a new agenda to support the forms of self-employment that are reshaping work, enterprise and welfare. These conversations should seek to focus around the question of how the UK’s micro enterprises can be taken seriously and influence policy makers. A critical objective should also be to create a vision of how a world centred on useful work could develop and thrive. 

 

Craft in Conversation: Added Value

Internationally renowned jeweller Jane Gowans and I would like you to join us in conversation about how craft adds value – and how to add value to your own creative practice – at an afternoon symposium in St Andrews, Fife on 1 March 2014

The symposium is a special event to accompany the exhibition Added Value – a British Crafts Council touring exhibition, presented by Fife Contemporary Art & Craft at St Andrews Gateway. The exhibition questions the value of high quality contemporary craft within the contexts of branding and luxury. Invited to conceive a symposium, Jane’s vision was a creative response to the exhibition which complements its core theme. Craft in Conversation will discuss the ways in which craft can enhance industry, community and wellbeing alongside collective and individual creative practices.

Jane invited me to chair the event and work with her in developing a programme that is both inspiring and engaging. We have pulled together a programme that we believe will give you some vital insights into the value of craft, and some vital tools in adding value to your own practice. The afternoon is divided into three parts:

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Perspectives

We begin the symposium with three expert speakers who each present perspectives of how craft adds value in different ways.

  • Adding Value to Creative Wellbeing Dr Frances Stevenson – Head of Textile Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design – will present key findings from a 5 year research project on craft’s contribution to creative wellbeing.
  • Adding Value to Community Jill Skulina – Dundee based maker and artist – will draw on her extensive and diverse experience of using art, craft and creative practices in a community context.
  • Adding Value to Industry Fi Scott – creator of Make Works – last year undertook a 3 month tour of 116 makers and manufacturers in Scotland and has unique insights to share on the future of craft in 21st century Scotland.

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Initiatives

Following these presentations you have the opportunity to join three 20 minute conversations with individuals behind some significant new initiatives in Scottish craft and creative practice. These include:

  • Richard Clifford – Director at MAKlab, Scotland’s Digital Fabrication Studio in Glasgow
  • Sarah Stewart – Designer at Scottish Linen, a new contemporary brand based on a traditional Fife manufacturer.
  • Lisa Cresswell – Design researcher in the Design in Action team, University of Dundee.

Adding value to your practice

The final part of the afternoon provides a framework to develop a personal strategy that adds value to your creative practice.

  • Lauren Currie is Director and co-founder of Snook, Scotland’s leading service design consultancy. Lauren has run workshops all over the world, including an acclaimed session at Craft Scotland’s inaugural conference.

Jane and I are confident that the event will be provocative and inspiring – but above all positive and constructive. And did I tell you it’s free?

For the event to work as we hope, participant numbers are limited, so if you are interested please register at the Eventbrite page.

Achieving relevance

My lecture to First Year students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD) on 2 October 2014 emphasised how the achievement of relevance is a fundamental aim to their four years of study. Find what is relevant to you and to the world around you; use this to guide your creative strategies and developing technical skills. The lecture wove together the themes of relevance, creativity and craft – and at the end of this post are resources to help you explore these themes in more detail.

But why listen to me about how you should be thinking about your next four years at Art School? I asked five remarkably talented individuals to give you their advice, all of whom studied at DJCAD. One graduated two years ago, while another graduated in 1993. Between them they embrace a range of creative disciplines. All of them are inspiring people, who needed no encouragement to share with you their advice on how to get the best from Art School.

James Donald is one of Scotland’s most successful weavers, selling his work all over the world – particularly in the United States. Based in Edinburgh he allies his creative practice to being joint-owner of the successful Concrete Wardrobe retail outlet. Here is a message from James to you:

Johanna Basford is a remarkably versatile illustrator who studied printed textiles at DJCAD. Apart from designing the catalogue for the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, she has acquired an enviable client roster across many different industries from Channel 4 to Absolut Vodka. Her blog post 50 things I wish I’d known in art school is required reading. But below is her personal message to new DJCAD students:

Lauren Currie is co-founder of Snook – a social innovation and service design company based in Glasgow. Studying both Product Design and the Master of Design course at DJCAD, Lauren’s career has begun with a remarkable start, and she is now running a company that has the Chinese Government among their clients.

Joanna Montgomery graduated in 2010 in Interactive Media Design, is Director of Little Riot whose Pillow Talk product has proved a viral sensation on YouTube, as we saw in the lecture. In exchange for her valuable advice, Joanna asks that you vote for Little Riot in a national competition, to make Pillow Talk a reality. I am sure you will support Joanna in this competition. It will take you a minute!

Kate Pickering studied Jewellery & Metal Design and the Master of Design at DJCAD. Since graduating she has established Vanilla Ink, a highly acclaimed initiative to bridge the gap for jewellery students into industry. Kate won funding from the NESTA Starter For Six scheme to launch her initiative. An accomplished teacher in jewellery and design, this is her advice to you:

Why not follow these designers on Twitter? This will help you keep up-to-date with their activities and give you more insights into their professional practices. All of them use Twitter as a key part of their professional practice. Click on their names to access their twitter stream: James Donald, Johanna Basford, Lauren Currie, Joanna Montgomery, Kate Pickering. You’ll also find me on Twitter. Once you have set up a Twitter account, then you can follow them.

Achieving relevance referred to a number of artists, designers and events that you may wish to explore further.

The craft of design leadership

My post yesterday on design leadership attracted considerable positive interest, which was encouraging. However, I was aware that my developing ideas on design leadership required a more robust theoretical foundation. My friend and colleague Karen Yair suggested Richard Sennett. Great idea; I had not made the connection. Rather than rewrite the previous post, I now present this as a coda.

Antonio Stradivari was the Steve Jobs of his age: a hectoring obsessive, who ruled his Cremona violin workshop with a ruthless vision of perfectionism. The craftsmen he employed were chained to their work benches. No, they really were. When not crafting the finest violins and cellos the world has ever seen, the apprentices would sleep on bags of straw under their bench. It is a model of design leadership that many have emulated since.

But you do wonder why they bother. When the 93 year old Stradivari died in 1737, the quality of his workshop’s musical instruments died with him. Despite the best efforts of his sons and master craftsmen to maintain the preeminent quality and reputation of the Stradivari name, the instruments they turned out were not a patch on those that had preceded them. Great efforts were made to analyse the pattern of the original instruments, the materials, even the precise formulation of the varnish, in a vain attempt to create a design template that could replicate his original genius. But these efforts fell flat, in every sense of the word.

According to Richard Sennett – Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics – in his book The Craftsman, the dramatic collapse in quality can be attributed to Stradivari’s very style of leadership. Antonio Stradivari, Sennett argues, was an antisocial expert. Antisocial expertise is driven by a competitive zeal which occludes the notion of co-operation, holding up world class excellence as the one goal, and based on a strict sense of hierarchy. The antisocial expert lacks essential skills required to ensure that the good work they do can live on after them; their unique expertise is held within the firewall of their own tacit knowledge. As Sennett explains:

“There is an inherent inequality of knowledge and skill between expert and nonexpert. Antisocial expertise emphasizes the sheer fact of invidious comparison. One obvious consequence of emphasizing inequality is the humiliation and resentment this expert can arouse in others; a more subtle consequence is to make the expert himself or herself feel embattled” (p. 249). It is of course precisely this form of expertise that the UK’s Research Excellence Framework is seeking to encourage.

Sennett contrasts this with sociable expertise, making the case that “A well-crafted institution will favor the sociable expert; the isolated expert sends a warning signal that the organization is in trouble” (p. 246). Sociable expertise is the very essence of craftsmanship – a concept elaborated and explored so expertly by Sennett. The social expert relies on good work and transparent practices for the basis of their authority. Driven by a desire to improve one’s own work, “the sociable experts tend to be good at explaining and giving advice to their customers. The sociable expert, that is, is comfortable with mentoring, the modern echo of medieval in loco parentis” (p. 248). According to Stephan Lorenz “The craftsmanship view means giving greater appreciation to the good work of the many compared to the promise of excellence by but a few, which, in a democratic sense, is ultimately also more conducive to the public interest.”

Sennett’s sociable craftsman “conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking” and is in many senses crafting knowledge transfer. Karen Yair in Crafting Capital has described this ‘craft thinking’ which “enables innovation by working with – rather than against – the restrictions of a given situation. In this analysis, craft thinking applies both to engineering and to team working: Sennett describes the craftsperson as a ‘sociable expert’, able to facilitate innovation by stretching the competencies of others within reasonable parameters.”

This is precisely the model of design leadership relevant for our age – an age of open design, ever-evolving collaborative partnerships between creative microbusinesses, social design, user-centredness, knowledge transfer, empowerment and inclusivity. Let me pull out three key arguments in favour of this as a far more useful and usable model of design leadership than the others on offer.

Co-designing with consumers

First, the rise of open design and innovation, linked to technologies that provide ‘consumers’ with potential to become creative ‘prosumers’ requires that designers need to shift to encouraging more creative and designerly self-reliance in others. I have written about this in my chapter for the Handbook of Design Management and say “the design manager is therefore critically the manager of the interfaces with the wider community of co-designers”.  Charles Leadbeater, in Production by the Masses, argues that professionals (designers, for example) “should educate us towards self-help and self-reliance as much as possible. Modern society trains us to be workers and consumers. Postindustrial institutions should train us for self-management and self-assessment” (p. 186). The design leader thus uses her or his social expertise to empower us as self-reliant prosumers.

Designing public services

Second, the design of new forms of public services demands a wholly new form of design practice, the success of which relies critically on the social expert model. In recent insightful research into the future of the UK design consultancy industry, Rachel Cooper, Martyn Evans and Alex Williams set out a number of likely future business models for design. One they entitle SIG (Special Interest Group) Niche Network and describe it thus: “‘Facebook’ social network approach: essentially a C2B2C model. The structure involves co-design/participation between design communities and special interest groups regional hubs. Designer’s role is as facilitator and mediator. Fees would be based on scale of contribution and would be reliant on ‘long tail’ economics, outsourcing production and distribution. High public sector engagement such as the re-design of services. Other clients would include subgroups, empowered communities, and local authorities.”

This would appear to describe much of the work undertaken by Taylor Haig, Snook, The Young Foundation and others. I am not wholly convinced that SIG (Special Interest Group) Niche Network trips off the tongue quite as well as my preferred Designers for Social Innovation, or even Social Designers but I will let history be the judge here. The design leader as social expert is clearly essential for such work.

Construction of social problems

Third, and intimately linked to the above argument, design provides the potential for people not just to co-design services, but to construct social problems. As such it offers potential to enable new forms of participatory democracy (an idea I will explore in a future post). I posted on this previously, but it seems appropriate to reiterate it here: The danger of service design for public services is that it becomes incorporated within the institutional paradigm that it has the potential to challenge, and thus becomes just another technocratic tool of the public sector. Simon Blyth and Lucy Kimbell have provided a vital analysis that comes out of service design practice, but which suggests a significant shift of emphasis:

“Rather than claiming to solve social problems, we want to argue for the relevance and value of Design in actively, critically and reflexively contributing to their construction… We want to invite designers to make this more clearly part of their practice. We think there are things about Design that make it particularly good at doing this, although the positioning of design-as- problem-solving tends to have ignored them.” Blyth and Kimbell argue that there are five things that make Design particularly good at helping construct social problems:

  1. The first thing Design does well is rendering issues as something that other people can experience.
  2. The second thing Design expertise does well is creating artefacts around which people can gather to interpret and discuss the characteristics of a social issue.
  3. A third thing that is central to design expertise is staging an open-ended enquiry that actively avoids being closed down quickly in the form of a particular solution.
  4. A fourth aspect of Design is its role in making trouble and being open to the potentially disruptive side of creativity.
  5. A final part of contemporary Design expertise is opening up the conventions about who and what can be included in a design project.

Again, this help us in defining the challenges and practices of a design leader as social expert working in this field.

Resourceful social expertise

These three zones of new design practice – co-creative prosumption, design for public services, and the construction of social problems – will be critical for our future and design wholly new models of design leadership. He may have crafted damned fine fiddles, but I have my severe doubts that Antonio Stradivari would have been particularly good at facilitating workshops for co-designing new long-term care services for those with dementia. I may be wrong; he may have had more than one string to his bow.

But these zones in some cases lay far beyond the familiar and comfortable territories of design. That some designers have succeeded, in some cases spectacularly well, in rising to the challenges, suggests that we need to identify the essential characteristics of leadership that can ensure success. My ‘feeling’ for this (in the absence of any actual data) is that in addition to some of those qualities identified in the previous post on design leadership, a critical requirement is resourcefulness. Emily Campbell makes the following points with regard to resourcefulness and design: “Resourcefulness is ingenuity: the ability to think on your feet; the ability to adapt one solution to another problem; the ability to make something out of little or nothing. But resourcefulness is also the confidence that comes with knowledge: having a skill or a range of skills at your disposal; knowing enough to make a wise choice; having analogous experience; having connections to draw on and knowing how to collaborate.This knowledge feeds the ingenuity, and vice versa.”

Tomorrow’s design leader is a resourceful social expert, who crafts change co-operatively.

Crafting our future

 

An opportunity for Labour?

It’s hard work being a Labour Party supporter. I suspect Obama supporters feel the same. Indeed, the failure of the left and the centre left (or in the US case, the liberals) to advance any credible progressive alternative is dispiriting in the extreme. What is all the more curious is that there IS the starting point of a progressive alternative staring them all in the face – but since it has not emerged from the increasingly insular world that party politics is now conducted in, then it has simply not been noticed.

The makings of an alternative are to be found in maker culture and active consumerism: in craft cafes, hacker spaces and especially in IKEA. It addresses some profound issues concerning how we innovate, how we create sustainable enterprise, and how we link this to a social agenda. It provides solutions for educational underachievement, models for urban and rural regeneration, and strategies to address critical skills shortages in fields as diverse as plumbing and programming. It demands that we rethink our conception of work, in order to make better use of the one vital resource that humans are provided with: our creativity. It connects with something very deep within us all: an inherent desire to make things for ourselves. And it requires that we ditch the one thing that ties us to redundant notions of our future: our labour. Perhaps that is the left’s problem.

What is interesting and significant is that this ‘new alternative’ has in recent weeks been the subject of coverage in UK and US business media, national media in the US, New Scientist, together with the technology and eco-activist blogosphere – but aside from one or two pieces in The Guardian, the Left’s media appears far more interested in the Occupy movement. Sorry, but I’ve spent time at St Paul’s and all I see is yet another marginal protest that the Left is so fond of.

Below is a summarised commentary on some of this recent coverage, prior to working it up into a more resolved piece of writing. I have emphasised recent writing rather than more extensive academic literature, such as David Gauntlett’s recent excellent book. The argument threading through it is that the emergent maker economy is of critical significance in the development of an alternative economic model that is capable of addressing economic regeneration, social renewal and individual fulfilment. While we have in the past been defined by our labours, in the future we will be defined by our works.

The indie capitalist revolution

In December 2011, The Economist reported on the significance of the maker movement under the headline “more than just digital quilting”. It recognised that its roots lie in digital culture at the confluence of the open source movement and the new technologies such as Arduino and MakerBot’s 3D printers. Setting its scene at the New York Maker Faire, The Economist explained how “this show and an even bigger one in Silicon Valley, held every May, are the most visible manifestations of what has come to be called the “maker” movement. It started on America’s West Coast but is spreading around the globe: a Maker Faire was held in Cairo in October.”

Physical spaces and tools are part of the maker movement’s landscape, along with online communities. There is a rich pluralism as hackers and corporates coexist alongside business startups, social enterprises, hobbyists and venture capitalists. In its conclusion, The Economist draws a pertinent parallel:

 “The parallel with the hobbyist computer movement of the 1970s is striking. In both cases enthusiastic tinkerers, many on America’s West Coast, began playing with new technologies that had huge potential to disrupt business and society. Back then the machines manipulated bits; now the action is in atoms. This has prompted predictions of a new industrial revolution, in which more manufacturing is done by small firms or even by individuals. “The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit,” writes Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.

“It is easy to laugh at the idea that hobbyists with 3D printers will change the world. But the original industrial revolution grew out of piecework done at home, and look what became of the clunky computers of the 1970s. The maker movement is worth watching.”

Also writing in December, Bruce Nussbaum – a former editor of Business Week – presents four reasons why the future of capitalism is homegrown, small scale, and independent. Indie capitalism, Nussbaum argues, is “a maker system of economics based on creating new value, not trading old value. It embraces all the strains of maker culture–food, indie music, DIY, craft, 3-D digital fabrication, bio-hacking, app enabling, CAD modeling, robotics, tinkering. Making is not a rare act performed by a few but a routine happening in which just about everyone participates.”

In contrast to The Economist, Nussbaum differentiates the culture of this new movement from the West Coast start up scene of the 70s that spawned Apple and Microsoft. He favours the term indie capitalism “because it captures more of the social context and values of this new economy. I think it is sufficiently different from the entrepreneurial, startup culture of Stanford/Silicon Valley to warrant its own name. The term feels more 21st century, while ‘startup’ sounds, well, 20th century. It’s socially focused, not technology focused, more designer/artist-centric than engineering-centric. I especially like ‘indie’ because the indie music scene reflects many of the distributive and social structures of this emergent form of capitalism. It’s no accident that Portland and New York have vibrant indie music scenes and are the centers of a rising new indie capitalism.” In Nussbaum’s, view, the time is right for this indie capitalism to usher in an indie economics and indie politics given that – from Occupy to the Tea Party – finance or ‘predatory’ capitalism is under attack. And so is high street retail capitalism.

In a blogpost entitled why 2012 will be year of the artist-entrepreneur, Michael Wolf argues that with distribution chains collapsing vertically across video, music and books, as online storefronts become the entire distribution chain, so this expands the role of the artist-entrepreneur who distributes themselves. “No doubt, the vast majority of economic wealth is still distributed through large corporate media, but as new technologies enable artists to reach consumers directly through push-button creation and distribution, there is a movement afoot. Expect this movement to expand in 2012 as more artists take control of their own economic destinies and become part of the artist-entrepreneur generation.”

Writing recently in the New York Times, William Deresiewicz frames this development even more profoundly: “The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity.) Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”

The Left almost certainly has a problem with the maker movement because it is bound up with entrepreneurialism. Which is strange, because many of the new entrepreneurs seemingly have no problems with politically progressive concerns and ideals. Yes, this is is the age of the business plan and the start up. Young people especially are doing it for themselves in terms of employment creation. Now, in part this is because many have no other choice; around 30 percent of new entrepreneurs in the US go into business because there is no other option for work. But whether reluctant or willing, increasing numbers of entrepreneurs are doing it less for the money and more to make a difference.

Danny Alexander, a design entrepreneur writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, takes issue with those who see entrepreneurship as purely in terms of wealth creation: “For many of us, entrepreneurship is our anger, our edge, and our ego. It is our social movement… I’m an entrepreneur because I see fundamental problems with society and want to be active in creating solutions.” Closer to home, there are dynamic new enterprises such as Snook which are pursuing a new politics and social vision through entrepreneurial action.

Labour isn’t working – the value of doing it yourself

Throughout the world, there is a generation of highly educated, aspirational young people with a strong sense of a social vision who have been failed by both labour markets and labour parties. Put simply, there are no jobs and no political vision about how to change the world in a progressive direction. The only solution to both problems is to do it yourself. Entrepreneurialism also addresses a third problem: most jobs suck.

In a piece entitled How British workers are losing the power to think, Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty has drawn on research that strongly suggests an erosion of autonomy in many occupations. “Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986… 72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.” Some researchers are suggesting a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have permission to think. “The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call ‘digital Taylorism’, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line.” The options appear to be useful work (through creative entrepreneurialism) versus useless toil (by selling our increasingly devalued labour power). Put simply, whether creating a livelihood or building bookcases, people value doing it themselves. If you want proof – go to IKEA.

The IKEA effect has been documented and argued by behavioural economist Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School. In this month’s New Scientist, an article entitled The hard way: Our odd desire to do it ourselves explained how Norton and his colleagues set up experiments in which people were asked to assemble IKEA furniture or fold origami or build Lego sets. “The participants then had to bid small sums for the products of their labour, or for a custom- or expert-made equivalent. The results were impressive. People bid considerably more for their own creations, even when they were plain old IKEA boxes. When it came to origami, they stumped up nearly as much for their own forlorn frog or bird as for the same animal folded by an expert – even though other participants subsequently rated their efforts as ‘nearly worthless crumpled paper’”. The New Scientist piece describes other research that cumulatively demonstrates that the things we make we value far more – regardless of how well we make them.

Crafting the creative society

One of New Labour’s many problems was the incredibly narrow way that it viewed creativity, reducing it to the questionable notion of creative industries. The whole point was that the UK was to build up a particular set of consumer industries that required specific skills and knowledge that would be supplied through the labour market. Built on a theoretical bedrock that drew heavily from Richard Florida’s Creative Class thesis, this drove policy at both national and local government. There are three central problems with the creative industry emphasis. First, it is highly centralised: necessarily London will act as the key focus for such industries. Second, it is very fragile: the experience of the computer games industry in Dundee is evidence of that. Third, it is culturally defined by Florida’s Creative Class: DIY culture in north Wales or knitting in Shetland does not feature in its metropolitan landscape. As such, the creative economy as defined is exclusive.

Crafting an inclusive creative society demands a wholescale rethinking of education, work and the processes of civic society. Libby Brooks, writing in The Guardian, makes the following case:

“A recession invites fundamental reassessment of the place of work – and leisure – in our lives. Practically, this means recognising that teaching a tradable, portable skill is one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty. Philosophically, it invites an acceptance that a trade-off between hamster-wheel presenteeism and mollifying consumption has never been good for us and is not feasible in this economic climate. Crucially, craft is egalitarian. While some in the Labour party appear bent on resuscitating the canard of meritocracy, which divides the gifted few from the unexceptional mass, craft reminds us of the significance of equality of outcome, rather than of opportunity. Everyone shares the capacity to develop a skill, based on decent teaching, application and time – not raw talent.”

The question is, can Labour (or indeed The Left) envisage an egalitarian future in which people craft their own lives?