“The creative industries are misreading the public”

Originally published on Dezeen.

With Brexit the British people have shown a greater appetite for risk than the creative sector, which needs to take the public more seriously or risk becoming irrelevant, says Martyn Perks of the Dissenters Design Network.

A general election has been called. No one knows exactly what the UK public will do, but they will likely, again, take a huge risk and vote for the unknown.

The 2016 EU referendum was a turning point. The UK public, in the face of ‘expert’ advice and exhortations, voted to leave. In the 2017 general election and again in this year’s European elections, they voted for leave-supporting ideas while questioning the old party allegiances. This represents the germ of a new, unarticulated radicalism against the old political order.

We are witnessing a momentous shift in public sentiment, and in political attitudes too. Arguably, many people who have been politically marginalised have voted radically because they want change – one that makes them feel represented and listened to.

What is striking about recent events is that the old categories of “left” and “right” in British politics, no longer apply to the same degree. New political lines are being drawn – leave or remain, uphold the vote or demand a new one. What tacitly underlies such broad sentiment is a recognition that the old forms of representation seem deeply inadequate.

Why should this matter for the creative industries? Because we need to take the public – our audience and fellow citizens – much more seriously.

The public expression of disaffection and dissatisfaction points to a potential for big ideas, something new that can capture the collective imagination. Millions of people have shown, over the past few years, that they are prepared to take risks. We are witnessing an incredibly disruptive moment.

We are witnessing a momentous shift in public sentiment, and in political attitudes too

At the same time, the institutions and representatives of the creative sector have, for the most part, been silent, or have defended the status quo. There are understandable, pragmatic reasons for this. It is reasonable to worry about continued access to the EU market and workforce. The prospect of a long-standing relationship being torn up is scary. The uncertainty that comes with change can be frightening.

That said, creatives are in the business of change. Yet in this context, the creative sector has become conservative in outlook and scope.

Take housing as an example – an urgent issue for many. An estimated 8.4 million people are living in unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable homes, with a massive shortfall of new homes needed under the charge of successive governments.

Housing has become a political football, especially now during a general election. Every political party will continue to make promises while saying very little that is new or innovative. For example, take the Labour Party’s housing reforms.

Its pledge to build 150,000 affordable homes in five years should be welcomed. But any such plans are based on constraints, such as finding much-needed space to build on. An earlier policy paper edited by leading environmentalist George Monbiot, found that the Green Belt where it exists, specifically near railway hubs is only suitable for “allotment provision and land for community food growing projects”. Not new homes.

This reluctance to unlock potential space and, pertinently, to challenge green orthodoxy is shared by many in the creative sector. Take the Architects’ Journal, with its campaign preferring retrofitting over tearing down old stock. Again, no new homes. Indeed, other architects push accepted limits much further, openly rejecting growth (even concrete) altogether.

Yet where innovation is occurring, it’s happening at a snail’s pace. Only recently, the government appointed a new industry tsar for modern methods of construction – a welcome move. But this remains at a small scale, with a paltry 7.5 per cent of all 200,000 new homes currently being built use modular methods.

The creative industries’ response to the housing crisis is symptomatic of the sector’s inability to take the lead

Others think the answer lies in more consultation. Sounds good, unless it’s a vehicle to perpetuate limits, like the Design Council’s new project to ask the public what a Home of 2030 should be like.

Experts are currently holding meetings across the country to ask the local community what they think, asking people to “think innovatively” about the kinds of homes they need. But, as the Design Council website states, “innovation” will be explicitly steered around themes of affordability, green issues, and health themes. So much for asking people what they think, never mind radical, disruptive thinking?

The creative industries’ response to the housing crisis is symptomatic of the sector’s inability to take the lead, ask tough questions and break the mould. But this isn’t because of a shortage of innovative technology or building techniques. Instead, there’s a prevailing sense of caution and pragmatism, especially among the design establishment.

This sentiment needs challenging, especially by a few dedicated and bold individuals who are willing to question everything and break the deadlock. And consequently, show our flailing political establishment some real ambition.

This is the crux of the matter: instead of seizing upon a moment of potential change, leading creatives have pretty much sought to batten down the hatches and wish the world was back to where it was a few years ago. This is a problem in two ways.

Leading creatives have pretty much sought to batten down the hatches and wish the world was back to where it was a few years ago

Firstly, there is a palpable sense that the creative industries are misreading the public, or not fully understanding what motivates them. This is a serious issue for the sector. In principle, it prides itself for its objectivity and an ability to get inside the minds of people to understand and interpret their needs and desires.

The sense of distance from ordinary people – in some cases outright disdain for those who voted leave – is symptomatic of a refusal to engage with our audience in straightforward terms. Independent critical thinking – a good understanding of the wider cultural and political forces that shape and are shaped by people – should surely be central to everything we do.

Secondly, the creative industries institutions and commentariat have created a toxic environment around the 17.2 million people who voted leave. To be in favour of leaving the EU, critical of it, or even in favour of merely upholding the 2016 referendum on democratic grounds, is for many, beyond the pale. Many creatives feel it impossible to even discuss these views for fear of being ‘outed’ and professionally and personally slandered.

It is irrelevant that the sector overwhelmingly voted Remain in 2016. More important is the fact that the Creative Industries Federation felt compelled to publicly call for a second referendum. This is an ideological imposition masquerading as a business decision.

The sense of distance from ordinary people and outright disdain for those who voted leave is symptomatic of a refusal to engage with our audience in straightforward terms

Tolerance of differing opinion and the core value of creatives – listening, investigation, ruminating and debating – has been hard to detect throughout the past three and half years. The unfortunate consequence has been the closing down of necessary discussion and debate. This is the very antithesis of what the creative sector should be.

We have a proud history of challenging orthodoxies, encouraging diverse views and creating something better from well-informed opinion. Indeed, we should resist the urge to take sides politically, and instead, be steadfastly independently and critically minded.

The Dissenters Design Network is a network of independent designers, architects, planners, writers and researchers who challenge orthodox thinking, encourage much-needed critical debate, underpinned by a limitless sense of what is possible.

We came together because we felt there is not much of this spirit around at present — especially in the creative sector – and with many who feel isolated as a result. Acting alone can be difficult; hence, our network provides an intellectual space to meet other like-minded creatives, exchange ideas and promote tolerant-yet-questioning debate about the future of the creative sector.

Let’s remember that good design is about thinking about and solving problems in new ways – including challenges no one even thought were problems. Design innovates. It draws on new ideas to build new things.

Just as with the housing crisis, new ideas are in short supply. To develop new ideas, creatives need to be able to question everything without fear and say things without the fear of censure. No assumption should go unchallenged. The current atmosphere stifles discussion and too many orthodoxies are accepted without question.

For three elections in a row, and maybe soon a fourth, the public have shown an openness to and an appetite for new ideas. The genie is out of the bottle. Whether we like it or not, there is no going back to how things were.

Simply put, the public are asking for bold alternatives. As creatives, we have a duty to meet that need.

Martyn Perks is a member of the Dissenters Design Network, a group of independent designers, architects, planners, writers and researchers. He is also a digital workplace consultant, and a writer and speaker on design, technology and innovation. Other members of the network, and signatories to this opinion, include Alex Cameron, Alex Dale, Alastair Donald, Mark Iddon, Penny Lewis, Paul Reeves, Colin Searls, and James Woudhuysen.