Playful cities

Last week, my husband and I attended a panel discussion at UTS entitled “The Future of Creativity.” It was hosted by the UTS Business School and brought together Sydney Theatre artistic directors Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett with Prof Roy Green from the UTS Business School and Lisa Colley, Director of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre. Patrick McIntyre, the Executive Director of Sydney Theatre Company, was the panel host.

The discussion was about business and creativity, and how the two intersect. Despite Lisa’s attempts to get people talking about real world examples, the conversation never really got past the basics – ie defining “business” and “creativity,” and emphasising the importance of allowing for risk taking and failure as part of the creative process.

In the car a couple of days ago, I listened to another panel discussionon Radio National, this time about “Knowledge Cities.” This conversation had been recorded in Melbourne, amongst a variety of experts in innovation and information access. The panellists made some interesting points, about the need for cities to allow for “playfulness” and maker spaces which supported collaboration as well as spaces which allowed for quiet introspection, and ultimately, cities which supported investment in ideas.

The two talks got me thinking. How does a city support an innovative economy? How do businesses make sure they allow for creativity? We have all heard of Google’s HQ and its play rooms and giant, coloured balls. But how about public infrastructure and councils? Governments and agencies? And small businesses looking to make it in the tertiary economy?

According to Abraham Maslow, the oft quoted psyhcologist who came up with “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” creativity in self-actualising people is the type ofcreativeness you see in people who tend to anything in their lives “creatively.” An essential aspect of this type of creativeness is what psychoanalyst Carl Rogers called an “openness to experience,” and which Maslow describes as being able to see the “fresh, the raw, the concrete, the idiographic, as well as the generic, the abstract, the rubricised, the categorised and the classified (Maslow 1968: 137).” As a result, they live “far more in the real world of nature than in the verbalised world of concepts…and stereotypes that most people confuse with the real world.”

In other words, they live authentically. They see reality and they not only embrace it; the milk it for all it is worth.

Maslow alos observed that “self-actualising” creativeness was very similar to the creativeness of happy and secure children. Self-actualising creativeness tended to be spontaneous, effortless, innocent, and free of cliches.

People with this type of creativeness tended to be relatively unfrightened by the unknown, and may be attracted by it eg to puzzle over something. Their quest for truth however is not a dire stretching for certainty as it may be for the neurotic. They can live with the unknown, even enjoy it. They are also relatively unaffected by worrying about what other people think of them.

These self-actualising creative people also can’t be characterised as either/or. For example, they are both selfish and unselfish – these two are not incompatible but exist in a “sensible, dynamic unity” as in Fromm’s “healthy selfishness.” (Maslow 1968: 139). Similarly, these people also showed other unities, eg between cognition and conation, as instinct and reason come to the same conclusions – “Duty became pleasure…the distinction between work and play became shadowy.” (Maslow 1968: 140). These people also have the strongest egos yet are also most able to be ego-less, echoing the Dalai Lama’s exhortation to Westerners not to confuse understanding the emptiness of the self with negation of the self (Dalai Lama 2000).

There are innumerable, interdisciplinary tracts describing and defining creativity – if you are interested, take a look at Teresa Amabile’s work as a good starting point. I merely wanted to talk about Maslow’s because I like how it reminds us that creativeness in one’s everyday life can be connected to our wellbeing and ability to live authentic lives. Also, Maslow talks about the need to balance and integrate creativeness.

As a normal person “adjusts” to the “real world,” she may find herself pushing away those parts of herself which tend towards play, silliness, and creativeness. These parts of herself are now dangerous as she tries to adjust to a world which demands a “purposeful and pragmatic striving” rather than play and revery (Maslow 1968: 142).

Maslow reminds us that we need these parts of us to be creative. So how can cities and government agencies support this when a large part of what these authorities currently do is encourage conformity with the mainstream in the interests of public regulation?

Hmm. This is a dilemma. Playful cities could perhaps be encouraged through Council plans for “playfulness,” which does elicit a grimace but how else can a government agency do it except to plan? How does a city plan for playfulness, and encourage non-conformity, within the bounds of social acceptability?

Times of the year and spaces within the city could be marked off as period or places for playfulness – maker spaces, low-level acceptance of artistic graff and street art, as examples. Some areas could specifically be cultivated as creative clusters, which lots of cities have jumped on because it is something they can plan for. But how else can you encourage a playful attitude amongst your citizenry?

There is a role of public leaders encouraging play by being playful themselves. By being honest about their own imaginations and urges. By being visionary and daring in their language and then in their actions. There is a level of small funding or simply a willingness to not enforce planning requirements which agencies could give to disruptive arts, eg street poetry, flash mob collectives, guerilla performers.

Most importantly, it is about getting creativity – people behaving creatively and the outputs of their creativity – out into public spaces in spontaenous or at least apparently spontaneous ways. Things have to be a little less controlled. Cities have to open their arms and be seen to be opening their arms to a little bit of chaos. Just a little bit. In the open and not just in the galleries and regulated spaces.

A city needs to breathe an air of creativity; it needs to make it part of the mainstream identity, so people in the middle, who would be more creative if they thought it was OK, can feel comfortable with their own minds saying “What if?”

There are always going to be outliers who will be creative no matter what – we don’t need to worry about them so much. It is the vast middle ground of people who would live a little more fully and have ideas to offer their employers and their cities and themselves, but do not because it is just not part of their days, and it is not anywhere to be seen on their street on the way to work, so why would they think of it?

I am afraid I have offered no hard solutions. Only a call to action. Let’s play!

Maslow, Abraham, Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd ed, Van Nostrand, New York, 1968.
Dalai Lama, Transforming the Mind, Thorsons, London, 2000.