The U.K.'s Innovation Dream Team
The “marriage” of David Cameron and Nick Clegg offers Britain a chance to avoid America’s polarized politics—and get truly creative in solving the country’s problems.
I was just in London, where bookmakers are now betting on whether David Cameron and Nick Clegg will set a new standard for blended governance or be one of the shortest political marriages in history. I hope for the latter, as this could turn out to be one of the most important partnerships for driving societal creativity and innovation that we have seen in a century.
I say this for several reasons.
Cameron was seen as someone who “gets it” even if he is a conservative—one would be harder pressed to imagine an American conservative enjoying the same reception.
First of all, the challenges facing the U.K. are examples of what the literature calls “wicked” problems. That is, they are complex, riddled with uncertainty, and hard to handle. Examples of wicked problems from a governance perspective are: security, reinvention of education, financial system reform, immigration policy, and approaches to taxation. So-called tame problems are those that can be easily solved by reasonable people and rational thinking. (My car is broken, I need a new one, I’ll do the research, test drive a couple and make a decision.) The point is that basic truths regarding wicked problems come in many flavors, which is why the tendency is for opposing, polarized political viewpoints on every major issue of the day.
• Clive Irving: Don’t Underestimate Britain’s Coalition • Labour’s Highs and Lows This is why I say that the new U.K. coalition government could be a major driver of large scale innovation: on paper it exhibits one of the core principles of how to address “wicked problems,” namely getting all the players under one roof with a shared interest in figuring out how to work together.
The political default mode is always polarization, but what may help to save the day is that Cameron and Clegg are actually remarkably similar in many personal attributes: age (only several months apart), elite education, sense of humor, even their taste in wives (professional, societally engaged moms). From a political perspective, what comes through is their obvious love of country, concern for its future, and desire to take action. They are politically diverse, but demographically and stylistically connected, which bodes well for their ability to achieve constructive compromise.
And they seem to communicate well across ideological lines. I watched David Cameron, for example, wow an audience of innovators and technologists at the 2009 TED conference in Los Angeles. Cameron was seen as someone who “gets it” even if he is a conservative—one would be harder pressed to imagine an American conservative enjoying the same reception.
One might say that the U.K. has been extremely lucky with this election. If Cameron and Clegg didn’t need each other so much, if Cameron had forged a stronger Tory coalition, or Clegg had received more political support that might have swung him to Labour, we wouldn’t be in this situation. Here, the coalition’s balance of power could enable the kind of collaboration that leads to significant, innovative outcomes.
Of course the $64 (or £64) question is leadership—and whether Cameron and Clegg can instill an ethos of collaboration up and down the line and deploy the kind of creative processes and facilitation that will enable their diverse teams to work together constructively. Getting them under a common roof is only the first step. I’m available, of course, to help them design the necessary processes.
One other observation comes to mind. It is a dictum of the creativity literature that breakthroughs come from requiring mutually irreconcilable perspectives to coexist in the same mental space. This can be illustrated in humor. One of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons is of a fish moving to the surface “feet first” with the caption “Carl is sent to sleep with the humans.” Here we have the collision of The Godfather “sleep with the fishes” line with the world of underwater creatures.
When the collision of ideas comes from different perspectives, demographics, and mindsets, the result can be “aha.” This is why in the private sector, companies often rotate people, pay attention to creating diverse teams, and focus on “open” innovation as a way to bring diverse opinions in from the outside, etc. They try to mix it up to increase the likelihood of “aha’s.”
This is the very situation the U.K. finds itself in politically. And if the new government can finesse the kind of polarization that has infected American politics, then the “marriage,” as pundits are calling it, will enable the U.K. to innovate successfully in many areas in order to get a lot of important things done. The whole world is watching.
Dubbed "Mr. Creativity" by The Economist, John calls himself an innovation activist. He is chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation, whose i20 group is an association of national innovation "czars." He wrote Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, a BusinessWeek bestseller, and Innovation Nation, about America's growing innovation challenge. He is also a Tony-nominated producer of film and stage. Follow him on Twitter at @ johnkao.