What do Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, and Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba in Southern Brazil, have in common. Both have a background in the creative industries – Rama as an artist, Lerner as an architect. Both are politicians who think differently from the norm. Both have been willing to go out into the streets and speak to people, to find out what they wanted and to deliver their aspirations. Both are heroes of Mike Stevenson, the maverick Scottish imagination and innovation consultant.
Take Edi Rama, for instance. When mayor of Tirana, he launched something he called the Clean and Green Project. Huge areas of the city were turned parks and some 1,800 trees were planted. He also ordered many old buildings to be painted in what became known as Rama colours (bright yellow, green, violet). His critics claimed that he focused too much attention on cosmetic changes but there is evidence that people started to take more pride in their communities and crime fell as a result
In Brazil, Jaime Lerner entered politics because he wanted to create a city designed for people. He went out and spoke to people, neighbourhoods and even the slum dwellers. The barrios were a serious problem. They were left in a filthy state because the municipal waste removal service claimed they were impossible to deal with. Rather than abandon these people or raze these slums, he began a program that traded bags of groceries and transit passes for bags of trash. The slums got much cleaner.
According to Mike Stevenson, these are the kinds of lateral thinking that need to be taken in Scotland today. He objects to the nay-sayers, the people who insist that something can’t be done because it’s never been attempted. At the re-launch of his ThinkTastic consultancy, he said he was on a mission to change the world – or at best to change Scotland for the better.
He insisted that “There’s a change taking place which is irreversible. It’s a change brought about by the economic meltdown – there’s not enough money around to do now the things we should have done when Britain was at its most prosperous. That’s not surprising. Ten years ago, we never thought we’d be in this position. But I believe we’re more innovative when the chips are down. We can look at the world and realise that there are opportunities out there.”
He argues that the opportunities are not just in business, they’re in the public services as well, adding that they’ll change because they have to on the back of criticism from MSPs. But he wants these public services to see this as an opportunity to become “so customer focused that everything else falls into place. Think about the NHS,” he says. “If everything within the NHS was designed to make people ‘happy’,wouldn’t that make a difference?
“Imagine if the NHS was run on similar lines to (say) Disney. They don’t talk about customers; they talk about guests. They don’t make profits unless they excel at what they do. Their vision is indeed to make people happy. So they don’t have health and safety leaflets or safety briefings for their visitors – yet safety is their number one priority. Contrast that with going to hospitals. There’s safety information everywhere. Somehow, when you mention safety, it immediately conjures up images of danger.”
He argues that we live in a world of opportunity created by the digital revolution. It’s a given that digital communication is changing things faster than ever before; some people have embraced it; others rejects it; yet more use it because they’ve got to use it. But there’s a generation of people out there who have grown up with it. They know all the innovations, the new technology and software and they understand it in a way that older people never will.
“Their hands and minds,” says Stevenson, “move so much faster as well, ten times faster than we could ever aspire to. Yet they will have wait until they are 40, 50 or even 60 before they’re allowed to take over leadership. How absurd is that? How absurd that those who understand the future and have a grasp of the technologies that make the world a smaller and more innovative place are kept out of leadership roles. That’s something I want to change. I want to move things forward.”
But he believes that nothing will change until we accept the importance of leadership. He says that leadership and management are two completely different things with Scotland – indeed the UK – having a management culture. “You have to think differently,” he said. “You need to set audacious goals. There’s no point in “managing expectations” because you only get as far as those limited expectations will lead you. You need vision – that’s a good work. Story is also a good word. Strategic plan is not such a good word. And we need to remove the word policy from the vocabulary. We need to set people free to make mistakes because no great move forward has ever been achieved with a few errors along the way. Real innovation comes from thinking differently and laterally.”
To prove his point, he drew inspiration from some work being sponsored by the German car manufacturer, Volkswagen. It’s recently been working to change people’s behaviour by making it fun which it insists is the easiest way to making change for the better. The following video is one of a series which inspires Mike Stevenson who, in turn, hopes will inspire you, the reader.