Creative citizenship: a question of two halves (and then some)

June 24th, 2013 by Jerome Turner in Research | no comments

At a recent research meeting, we explored definitions and meanings of ‘creative citizenship’. This is something I’ve grappled with when talking about the work to outsiders, and I usually find myself reaching for real world, accessible examples of what might be considered creative citizenship acts¹.

In my contribution to the discussion, I wanted to use some of these ‘real world examples’. I started by describing fictional acts on cards, and I’ll admit I did design them to be inflammatory or at least thought provoking in some cases i.e. “Takes a photo of a major car crash and tweets it” could be seen as a positive act informing citizens about transport delays, or, more likely, playing into much less savoury participatory voyeurism.

My interest was in looking at the two terms ‘creative’ and ‘citizenship’ as related but different elements, so I presented a two way matrix – ‘creative’ along the horizontal, ‘citizenship’ on the vertical. The bottom end of both scales remained a question mark for the moment.

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As a group, we then briefly discussed each act and attempted to place them. Cards shifted throughout the exercise. In the top right corner, the act that most described one of creative citizenship, we had: Uses open data to make an online, searchable list of council bin collection times. The lowest on both scales was the aforementioned car crash snapper, and: Posts images on Facebook, of someone burgling their house (taken from CCTV). Some acts scored highly on one axis but lower on the other; Takes part in a flash mob ‘zombie walk’ was only deemed to be a creative act, not a citizen-minded one.

There was some difficulty with acts that took a lot of physical effort such as attending a consultation meeting, as opposed to a ‘creative act’ like taking a photo with a mobile phone. When technology is easy to operate and accessible by the masses, what makes that act of photography ‘more creative’? One person’s ‘creative’ is another person’s everyday, regular, banal act. So, a third dimension to the matrix was added to try and describe the ‘effort’ of the act (by balancing cards on a glass). Following this thread of discussion, we considered attending a protest and 1) holding a placard, or 2) streaming video from a phone, as roughly equal on our matrix.

One way of considering creative citizenship is to include creative thinking, as well as creative doing; we might argue that coding up data is not particularly creative, but, in this act, we graded the intention and ability to seize the opportunity of open data as highly creative.

Another consideration is motivation. Why does someone tweet photos of a car crash? For more followers? Or as a news service to their community? Regardless of the outcome, this must be considered. To the community, it is unimportant whether the data journalist is coding the map of bin collection times to further their portfolio, or to offer a service – the end result is the same. But if we want to understand why people act this way, and how to foster these activities, it is important to dig deeper.

Many of the acts that were placed high on one axis but lower on the other were still deemed to be contributing something in one way, although maybe we could say that creative-leaning acts benefit the self, whereby citizenship activity tends to assist communities. Whatever the case, none of the described acts were so fictional as to be entirely unlikely, so it is clear from our matrix that defining ‘creative citizenship’ will always be complicated.

Finally, I asked if it was now possible to decide on polar opposites for the terms ‘creative’ and ‘citizenship’ for the bottom of our scale. It was; Tyranny, Death, Passivity.

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¹ Or I reach for definitions like “people doing the kinds of things they’d normally be expected to be paid for, doing things for their community” i.e. focussing on the intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations, the giving nature of the act, and acts that benefit communities of some (however small) size.

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