Complex Creative Communities: A Youth Participation Case Study


Clore Fellow Fiona Wotton's AHRC research explores the idea of a creative community as a complex adaptive system.

Fiona is a creative producer, strategist and researcher with skills in funding, diversifying income streams, project management, network building, event production and impact evaluation. She was appointed Chief Executive of Creative Kernow in Cornwall in October 2020.

The idea of the creative community is in danger of becoming an oxymoron. Two complex concepts - double the scope for governmental interference and twice the potential for contradiction. Through successive industrialising policy cycles aimed at boosting creativity, and a persistent assumption that community can be physically constructed, the collaborative and open relationship through which both creativity and community should be co-evolving is under threat. The research builds on a body of work exploring the organisation of creativity and cultural expression through small voluntary groups who govern or organise creative practice. They are found everywhere: in villages and towns, in virtual and in real environments and working in the pursuit of all kinds of art and creative activity. They are sometimes supported by larger organisations and sometimes are entirely grown from the grassroots. They also provide, through their small scale and rich conversation, a wealth of insight into how communities operate as complex adaptive systems. These examples are in contrast to Richard Florida’s creative class theory, a strong influencer on creative clusters and urban development policy.

This case study of the Roundhouse Youth Advisory Board as a creative community nested within an arts organisation uses Complexity theory and cultural ecosystems as a framework to explore the underlying conditions and dynamics which sustain the group and the role which feedback loops play in power relationships between the organisation and the youth board. The case study is situated in a complex environment of national and regional government policies relating to the arts, creative industries and education which despite the focus on the small group inevitably seep into observations and interactions.

I write in the first person in journal style vignettes throughout the paper. The use of autoethnography is partly a methodological decision and partly a statement of creative activism. In conducting research using Complexity theory in which the system is defined from the perspective of the researcher, there is a need to account for the influences on the particular gaze of the observer. Why was I drawn to the themes I highlight? Do my values, education or upbringing confer greater access to the ideas or spaces which I am exploring? Or greater barriers to understanding which limit the validity of the research? Age is a theme which surfaced in the data and linked resonantly with the concerns of previously studied groups

In advocating for Complexity and ecology models as useful tools for understanding challenging topics like social impact, I need readers to be aware how immersion within the group is key to interpreting community dynamics. Stories are far more powerful routes to understanding for me and possibly

for the intended audience for this research – cultural professionals, volunteers and members of creative communities. Through Complexity thinking –which systemises and models lived experiences – I see a possible bridge between the type of quantitative, metric-based research by which arts and cultural organisations are required to measure impact and engagement and the deep qualitative research through which meaning and nuance emerge. Navigation through complexity requires a guide and my intention is to account for the direction of travel which I select.