A very brilliant person who I have collaborated with on some projects, Tessy Britton, is just about to publish a wonderful book that she has edited, entitled Hand Made – Portraits of Emergent New Culture. It includes contributions from Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement, Tracey Todhunter from Low Carbon Communities, Tim Smit who runs the Eden project, and many others. It’s a lovely and inspirational book.
Tessy invited me to do a chapter as well. She has very kindly given me permission to plonk an edited extract from my contribution here:
Social creativity is the heart of a strong and happy society
I’ve always enjoyed the process of making something – designing, creating, putting things together, to make something that previously didn’t exist. When I was 9, it was Lego spaceships. When I was 20, it was making and sharing zines: printed little magazines, fun to make, but tiresomely difficult to distribute. When I was 26, I realised that the World Wide Web had solved that distribution problem, so I’ve been making and sharing online ever since.
When I was 34, I found I could delight my inner 9-year old by bringing Lego back into my work life: using it as a tool to explore people’s aspirations, memories, and self-identity, through asking them to build metaphors in Lego bricks and pieces. This was not just to be novel, or to do something different to traditional interviews. Making things with the hands stimulates the brain in unusual ways – putting knowledge together, and creating something solid that you can explore, review and remake.
All of this unnecessary biographical information leads us to now, where I’m finishing writing a book called Making is Connecting. For rather a long time I’ve been writing stuff about people making things, and people connecting and communicating, but it was only quite recently that I realised you could squish all those messages together to say what I wanted to say, more or less, in three words. People create, and communicate, and form social bonds, and this works best of all when these are one and the same process: making is connecting.
- Making is connecting because you have to connect things together (materials, ideas, or both) to make something new;
- Making is connecting because acts of creativity usually involve, at some point, a social dimension and connect us with other people;
- And making is connecting because through making things and sharing them in the world, we increase our engagement and connection with our social and physical environments.
This book, the one you’re reading now, is full of inspiring accounts of amazing projects which brilliant people have done in their communities. Each one may justifiably bring a tear to your eye. Now, I don’t have an amazing community project to tell you about, and am unlikely to leave you sobbing. So what am I doing here?
What I can usefully do, I guess, is to show how crucial this kind of activity is for the very life and spirit of a society. I say ‘crucial’ because we’re not just talking about ‘a nice thing’ than can give individuals a little extra bit of pleasure; and we’re not looking at self-starting creative and community activity as a public-money-saving alternative to local council spending. Rather, the point is that doing things for yourself, and making things with others – making the world your own, and making your mark on the world, rather than merely receiving a manufactured environment assembled by external others – is absolutely central to our health and our well-being, as individuals, as families, and as a society. We can’t have a worthwhile future existence without it.
Meaningful everyday creativity doesn’t have to be manifested in those big projects that transform the experience of a whole community – although those are great, of course, and can really help to inspire people. But in fact any kind of creativity is significant and valuable, and it can make a difference in all kinds of tiny ways in everyone’s everyday lives and relationships.
The rise of contemporary crafts and knitting, hands-on community projects, and the ‘maker scene’, seems to have come hand-in-hand with Web 2.0 – simple tools that enable people to share their ideas and creative stuff online, and to make fruitful connections with others both on the internet and in real life. The sources of inspiration for Making is Connecting go back much further, though – to the Victorian thinkers and makers, John Ruskin and William Morris, and a radical philosopher most famous in the 1970s, Ivan Illich. You can’t really pigeonhole these guys. Ruskin was a conservationist, Morris a revolutionary socialist, and Illich shoots off in a direction which cannot be tied to any conventional political map. Add to this mix some of the feminist philosophers of craft, such as Rozsika Parker, plus some radical knitters and guerrilla gardeners, and it all starts to ferment nicely.
For Illich, making is connecting, but also making changes everything. It is only through the individual (and local collaborative) exercise of creativity that we can feel alive in the world, and enjoy our capacity to make a difference.
This argument has been given an extra boost by the recent research on happiness and social capital. Happiness sounds like a vague concept, but social scientists have found that you can measure it like anything else – you just ask people how happy they are. The reported levels of happiness can be aggregated and compared, and patterns emerge.
We learn, for instance, that strong social ties, and good health, contribute significantly to happiness. People who think that money will make them happy, however, are often wrong. Evidence shows that people adapt quickly to a new level of wealth, so unless you started out in poverty, having more money doesn’t make much difference.
The studies show that there is a way that individuals can choose to be happier, though: get a project. Research shows that people need something to strive towards. Leading happiness researcher Richard Layard reports: ‘Prod any happy person and you will find a project’. Human happiness, it seems, stems from having meaningful connections with others, and meaningful things to do.
The initiatives highlighted in this book really show the power of people coming together, in shared projects, to build something – something that previously just wasn’t there, and something that makes a difference. And, as I’ve said, we should also remember the importance of everyday acts of social creativity, however small. What makes these things important is not so much that they are useful, but that they are joyful. As people are increasingly starting to notice, life is just more vibrant and interesting when you make a change in the world for yourself.