Essay: What is an Open Creative Community?

Three weeks ago, I coined a new term in my attempt to understand and communicate some of the ideas under the surface of Toronto Transit Camp. I referred to Transit Camp and BarCamp as open creative communities. It was a vague notion founded on my intuitions about what I have been observing in places as diverse and apparently disconnected as BarCamp to CaseCamp to NewMindSpace to Burning Man.

So what do marketers and tech geeks have in common with half-naked neo-tribal bohemians in the desert?

Alive, originally uploaded by Thomas Hawk.

These are communities of interest, practice, proximity and values.

These communities live in a hybrid virtual- and place-based geography. They are hyper-creative and produce some phenomenal artifacts of human ingenuity and culture. They are open, in that the barrier to entry is not a membership fee or a geographic line in the sand or a common ethnicity. The barrier to entry is creative citizenship, and you are either a citizen and a participant or you are not, based on your individual relationship to that community’s interests, practices, proximity and values.

They are communities with both global and local dimensions. And they are self-organizing at an increasingly rapid rate, in the most unexpected places. (more after the jump)

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Creativity: the ability to create something new; the production by one or more people of ideas and inventions that are personal, original and meaningful

Innovation: a process that extends beyond the act of creativity towards some useful application; for something to be innovative it must be of some use to somebody

Community: a community is any group of individuals who interact and share some common characteristics; those characteristics may be geographic, ethnic or national; they may also include practices, interests, values and proximity;

Open: for a community to be open, it must be possible for new members to enter into the community without artificial or irrelevant barriers;

The Meaning of Openness.

Open is a critical differentiator of these kinds of communities, but it is important to understand what open means. Open community does not necessarily mean equal individuals. Unlike the concept of demos, an open self-organized community is much more rooted in actual human social behaviour, rather than idealized political philosophy.

Equality of opportunity is an important social norm of an open creative community, but one’s place within community has to do with one’s skills, abilities and willingness to engage with others and participate. Status exists, but it is freely given in a reputation economy where leadership authority is socially constructed and legitimated. Community members are encouraged to vote with their feet. A heavy-handed authority figure will quickly lose the social basis of their power because an open community offers no barrier to alternative leadership and few opportunities to close the gates for members to enter or exit.

Open is fluid and adaptable. Open is self-organizing.

David Crow has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the Toronto BarCamp community. He has been wrestling with openness, the nature of Community-driven leadership and the Wealth of BarCamp. He just posted an excellent piece on the question of community openness on the Future of Communities blog.

Open creative communities are not guilds, fraternities, clubs, member-based associations or formal organizational entities. You do not need a professional designation, a membership card or require the ownership of land or capital to enter one. An open creative community is not a network of isolated nodes, it is a cluster, a social agglomeration. It is inclusive of both professional and amateur, a space where hobbyists, theorists and practitioners can interact.


Bio-mimetic language is taking over. The laws of self-organizing biological systems are providing new insights to human social and technological evolution in an increasingly interconnected world. Social systems demonstrate emergent biological properties. By embracing new lenses and tools, we can harness the tremendous latent power of natural systems to solve our increasingly complex problems. This is the real power of social software tools and the social web.

The Search for Identity.

We are in search of ourselves, and we find possible answers to our search for self through our interaction in community with others, through both our similarities and our distinctiveness. We are increasingly aware of the complex and multidimensional nature of identity in the modern world. We are much more than the roles and demographic slices that our companies, families and mass media would want to trap us in. We belong to many tribes simultaneously.

We are multi-dimensional beings engaged in the process of becoming.

The Impact of Technology.

Technology, in particular social software tools, the social web and social media are changing our search for identity and the nature of communities. We have increasingly useful and easy to use tools for self-expression. We are able to express the many dimensions of our selves and find community through that expression.

We can increasingly harness low-cost open technology platforms as our tools for our search for self and community. The centrality of this eternal human search for self and community makes the issue of Net Neutrality all the more urgent.

A Meta-Innovation.

We are a civilization in need of meta-innovations: innovations that foster other innovation. This concept lies at the core of endogenous growth theory. Thomas Homer-Dixon calls our challenges of the future an Ingenuity Gap – a gap between the demands for ingenuity being made by increasingly complex and intractable problems and our ability to supply ingenuity in the form of solutions. Jane Jacobs warned of a Dark Age Ahead.

Researchers, teachers, thinkers, writers and practitioners like Richard Florida, Bruce Mau, Alexander Manu, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, Meric Gertler, Jon Hawkes, Roger Martin, Donald Tapscott and Anthony Williams, Charles Landry, Tim Jones, Daniel Pink, Sara Diamond, Glen Murray, and many others have been wrestling with these ideas of meta-innovation: the nature of creativity, the importance of place, the process of innovation, the peer production paradigm, creative industries and creative cities. Our politicians are paying keen attention.

In this global discourse, there has been a profound silence on the practical social and cultural methods to scale design thinking and creativity throughout our society. There has been some work on creative education and on cultural planning for cities, which usually incorporate top-down approaches to “engineering” creativity. Where is the dialogue on emergence? Governments and policy-makers need to be enablers and then get out of the way of what is a natural biological process. But enabling what, and how?

A Possible Future.

A new world is emerging, beneath the surface of the old. It is a world of open creative human communities that are both global and local; multidimensional and interconnected with one another. It is a world increasingly based on a reputation economy, where authority is earned and accumulated through social media along with other traditional avenues of social interaction. It is a world fueled by a peer production paradigm and a reputation economy that interacts with the industrial capital economy, a world where creative innovations will fuel future growth and human development.

I dream of a future that harnesses the power of self-organizing open creative communities to global innovation networks in order to solve the most difficult problems of our time – from technology and business problems to problems of collective action like climate change, social equity and cultural sustainability, migration and international conflict.

I dream of a future where every individual has the power and ability to discover his or her creative passions, and to resolve their multi-dimensional identities into a coherent whole through their interaction in open community with others. The holy grail is the unification of one’s practical needs with one’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. It is a universal desire, and it is the most powerful force in human civilization.

What is your community?

20 thoughts on “Essay: What is an Open Creative Community?”

  1. Dear Mark,
    I was reading your post on our blog this morning and was struck by how beautifully well you stated the issues many of us are addressing thru our work in this field. I have the great pleasure to meet and work with many of the practitioners that you mention, but your post capsulized this matter for me in a way that was unprecedented.
    Thank you for doing this and I wish you continued clarity and success in your efforts.
    Rod Frantz

  2. Mark,

    Arrived here from Richard & Rod’s blog – The Creativity Exchange.

    Reposted some…we have so much to learn from you – City Hall to City Hall (Buffalo- Toronto) is less than 100 miles, seems like a whole world away.

    Just checked with Ontario Prov. Planner friend of mine…he’d heard all about the TransitCamp.

    Thanks for sharing all this…



  3. Mark,
    A great piece. Thank you.

    You are building an important bridge between on-line communities and the political, economic and social “reality” that rules in the developed world. While I (and many others) have been trying to break out of the silos that makes systems like human services and healthcare inefficient and unresponsive to individual and community needs – the experiments in open community on-line have been producing tremendous learnings. It is an exciting time as we begin to gain insight about how to carry learnings from one realm to another.

    I especially like your reflections on reputation economy – the concept of reputational capital combined with what we have come to understand about social captial is very powerful.

    Your observations that we are increasingly using analogies of self-organizing bilogical systems is also right on. I know I’m using them more and more – they fit! And of course, the search for identity – something Victor Frankl was saying decades ago and which Margaret Wheatley so poignantly reminds us today.

    Keep reflecting and keep posting.

    ProAct Ideas

  4. Mark,

    Thanks for your good overview. I agree totally.

    My 2 cents:

    On Emergence (and Decentralized Order) (the pioneers on complex systems and emergence in the eighties; Stuart Kauffman and Murray Gell-Mann offer interesting reads in this respect)
    – Kevin Kelly / Out of Control (1994)
    – Howard Rheingold / Smart Mobs (2002; for the collective action part in ubiquitous computing)
    – Jaron Lanier in on Digital Maoism (including the comments from many leading thinkers)

    On Peer Production and Reputation (and extending it to political, legal, educational and economic domains)
    – Yochai Benkler / Wealth of Networks (2006; highly recommended)
    – Henry Jenkins / Convergence Culture (2006)
    – Don Tapscott / Wikinomics (2006/2007) (Alex Steffen for the book (2006)) (different keynotes on this topic, e.g. Mr. Sinclair)

    On Identity
    – Shelley Turkle / Life on the Screen (1997)
    – Linda Stone on CPA (continuous partial attention, 2006)

    Personally, I resonate strongly with the interactive triangle of identity, creativity/innovation and authenticity. It is virtuous cycle of increasing returns I believe. This leaves a huge market open for self discovery, transformation (Joseph Pine II), self knowledge, spirituality, self expression and self presentation in many forms, starting with the online (2D and 3D) worlds followed by the physical, followed by the merging of these two in Augmented Reality (Steve Mann/MIT). The digital media will be the leading examples for industrial economies, sectors and companies to adopt including your creative open communities.

  5. As you talk about the “power of self-organizing open creative communities…in order to solve the most difficult problems of our time,” it becomes clear that collaborations (and sharing best practices) are a major output of open creative communities.

    We think a lot about the benefits of collaboration between creative professionals at Behance. In our work to foster productivity in the creative community, we have learned that creatives across realms face common challenges and frustrations around implementing ideas. A community promotes a sense of ACCOUNTABILITY and a source of FEEDBACK…two invaluable forces when it comes to making ideas happen.

    We’re documenting examples from our research on productive creativity at

  6. Intriguing.

    Please search or

    or Google Tsunami, Chaos, Global Heart for free full text book subtitled “using complexity science to rethink and make a better world”, also describing the global support after the Tsunami as global collaboration, and an invitation to use a similar thinking to solve other complex world problems. Update 2007 (not yet uploaded) describes global collaboration as described in Wikonomics, etc, as complexity.

    This site also mentions a complexity approach to women’s health that may be useful and P 163 of the Tsuanmi book describes a fractal complexity model for identy and diversity.

    We have used also this complexity approach for health promotion in Toronto over the past decade, with features similar to the open, selforganizing, creative, etc., mentioned in book.

    Note: Stephen Hawking said that this is the century for complexity and another physicist, Heinz Pagels said in 1988 that “I am convinced that the nations and the people who master the new sciences of complexity will become the economic, cultural and political superpowers of the next century.”

    The open selforganizing, emergent type things you mention happening now prove these two physicists right.

    VS Rambihar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *