Drew Rowlands

IVE Director Drew Rowlands

Creativity brings skills availability

Mike Hughes talks to IVE Director Drew Rowlands about the crucial role of creativity in tackling the region’s skills challenges.

The journey of creative development agency IVE, from a strongly-held belief in the importance of creativity to a vital cog in the Yorkshire skills machine, reflects the radical changes the whole region has been through as it maps out its economic future.

For 20 years IVE (whose name stresses the importance of being CreatIVE, InnovatIVE and SupportIVE) was rooted in the education sector at the forefront of a movement that was realising the importance of creativity to allow pupils to make the most of their opportunities, and contributing to a seminal report for the government called All Our Futures.

The impact of the report led to a national programme of creativity in schools called Creative Partnerships, and to IVE advising the government on the role of creativity in education, all the time absorbing and leading the latest thinking on processes and problem-solving.

In the last two years all that learning has been developed into a series of training programmes IVE now offers for businesses and leaders which improve resilience and enhance capacity in ways that were always possible, but needed revealing and nurturing. One stark statistic driving the organisation’s passion for what they do is that within the next 20 years up to 70% of the work in certain sectors will be done by artificial intelligence.

“The thing that keeps that stat from overtaking us is human creativity,” says IVE development director Drew Rowlands. He is a passionate former school leader now developing programmes for business, schools and young people to make sure everyone can tap into their creative potential, and he says this most human of skills will be a key factor for growing businesses.

“We are faced with growing problems and issues and I think the only way out of it all is through our human capacity to create. Within my lifetime the Earth will have to tackle some fundamental questions that need answering and those answers will start with us all being more creative.”

Such global challenges begin at a regional level, and it is a core part of the IVE philosophy that a creative strategy needs to start early and cover all areas to make sure the whole region can benefit and not just a small area of adopters.

Rowlands explains: “We want to reach all parts of the community so, for instance, we are a social enterprise organisation, so any profits we make go into our programmes for disadvantaged young people in particular who are looking to fill that skills gap, through the pathways and opportunities we can provide.

“Sometimes our society does what we think young people want without listening hard enough to them and what their issues are. IVE has a four-year relationship with the children on our Shaping Creative Futures programme, including the transition at 18 or 19 when they are going into apprenticeships, higher education or training.

“That programme was born out of years of research and gives young people the chance to work with top-notch people as well as giving support, mentoring and advice to help them navigate, almost as a surrogate parent nurturing them towards career goals by teaching them the creativity they need to be one step ahead.”

The approach has drawn plenty of praise, not least from patron and Eurythmics founder Dave Stewart who says: “This programme is exactly what is needed to support the development of untapped potential and nurture the dreams that disadvantaged young people often can’t afford to have. It will allow us to shine a spotlight onto talent that would otherwise remain in the shadows.”

Rowlands found some of those shadows when he was working in Knowsley on Merseyside helping to turn round a failing school where the hard work of teachers just wasn’t getting results. He worked with staff and pupils to look at the added value of being creative and decided that a definition of ‘the application of original thought’ was a good starting point. That allowed teachers to incorporate creative thinking into lesson plans and make a trackable difference to results and the potential of the pupils.

The idea of teaching creativity as a skill that can be acquired is still quite a challenging concept, but minds have been changed so many times now that it is fast becoming an added essential for organisations and individuals wanting to bring something exceptional to a situation.

“My background is in education and I truly believe that you can teach the creativity that can make that difference,” he says. “The process can be broken down into constituent parts and you can train people to understand, harness and embrace that creative thinking. That means that processes towards problem solving can be taught and collaborations developed, as we found with one organisation whose engineers were highly innovative individuals, but collectively, they just don’t gel. So we can go into these places to bring out the group potential and teamwork that can be such a benefit to a company.

“We work with people to move them from divergent thinking outside that box to convergent thinking where they start identifying an action plan of what they are going to do, which involves articulating what the problem is and making the language more positive – all facilitated within our processes,” says Rowlands.

“Once you understand what it is, you can access a creative process and start to understand how you can develop it in yourself as well as other people. It can take time but it can also happen quite quickly, depending on the dynamic within the group because we have seen before that creativity can be inhibited really quickly by the behaviour of those listening as part of a group, who are not open to new ideas.”

A good first step for an organisation getting involved with IVE is to sum up what is missing from its business and contrast that with the difference some original thinking could make. When those gears start turning and the thought process starts, a whole industry can begin to realise that thinking outside the box has never been so important for Yorkshire businesses, particularly at a time when they – and the students who will be running their businesses for them in a few years – are facing some hefty challenges.

Rowlands says: “Unfortunately, the educational landscape has become narrower and narrower in terms of the curriculum, to the extent that it is now often purely about knowledge and content. The idea of thinking and skills and adaptability is being lost and employers are seeing that when they try to recruit.

“Part of our drive for doing all this work now is that there is a gap in the market for both employers and educators and an urgent need to develop these capacities because information, advice and guidance for people moving into employment is dire, particularly around the creative industries, which is one of the biggest growth markets worth more than £80bn to the economy.

Drew Rowlands “The knowledge of the different pathways and employment opportunities are almost non-existent, and IVE recognises that we need to raise the profile and awareness of what is out there.

“I think it would help enormously to start by changing the language we use in education because at the moment ‘academic’ is one status and ‘vocational’ is somehow second class. Surely it is far more helpful to talk about ‘theoretical’ and ‘applied’ which would cover every subject and might even change the way subjects are assessed at schools and therefore the skills that can be gained before they leave school.

“But that is the most basic of steps, and well within our reach. I think to close that gap even more, business can step in to mentor and give students a real-life brief so they can respond to a real need and both sides win because they work in synch together to get the greatest benefit and build in a resilience, with at least one eye on the future by adopting flexibility and creativity.

“If it is going to address the availability of skills then business needs to adopt a mindset that creativity leads to innovation which leads to sales and jobs. Creativity and innovation are not the same thing - they are inter-related but it is being creative that results in innovation and when HR and recruitment divisions are doing their work, they need to understand how each one works and how it might be developed.

“People need to feel empowered to deliver new ideas rather than opportunities being missed because of how a solution might be articulated and then received.”

The warning is very timely, because one of the key points which IVE is pressing home now, is that the human side of industries is also facing a challenge from automation and artificial intelligence, one that will take over some non-creative roles. If we lose sight of our own creativity and our perception of how important it is, then more roles become non-creative functions and AI moves in again... and again.

We have discussed many times in BQ the problem of companies suffering because the people who run them work too hard ‘in’ the business rather than stepping back and working ‘on’ it. This enforces a short-term view of the operation, letting the next big opportunity pass by.

Rowlands agrees and says adopting a creative culture could be the answer: “Yorkshire businesses – particularly our SMEs dealing with day to day pressures – don’t feel they have the capacity to be looking at tomorrow let alone next month or next year. We live in very uncertain times but when you look back at our times of greatest challenges, that is when human creativity comes to the fore, which is why we have to be open about looking for creative solutions. I think our organisation can enable them to take the bull by the horns now and become that resilient business that is fit for purpose regardless of what comes their way.”

IVE’s work is also helped by being one of ten Arts Council funded Bridge organisations connecting the cultural sector and the education sector. The scheme and its partners work together to give children and young people access to arts and cultural opportunities and to support schools to achieve Artsmark and organisations to deliver the Arts Award to keep standards high and visible.

Rowlands places high regard on the opinions of those young people and their capacity to lead and be decision makers who can influence their regions, so their opinions of the IVE work matter to him and his team.

“For us, success will be when we start hearing those stories from young people about their experiences with us. I am still getting to hear about children I taught 30 years ago and are now particularly successful – including three professors, several film stars and a few Premier League footballers. Something has clearly worked for them.

“Another measure of success we are still working for is a change in education policy, to recognise the imperative of having creativity on the curriculum and the impact that this can have for businesses looking for the next generation of staff. We are putting our money where our mouth is to make that all happen as soon as possible.”

Among the projects IVE is working on now is one on health and safety and finding a way of making sure workforces are constantly aware of the issues and don’t just file it all away once the company course has finished. There is also a fascinating challenge from a Government agency which has unwanted stock it wants to deal with. With a reputation for thinking outside the box and engaging a community, IVE is being asked to help potential buyers be more creative about uses for old buildings including a magistrates’ court building.

“It is very inspiring to be working on such a range of projects and helping people realise the importance of injecting creativity at every stage,” says Rowlands. “We want anyone with a skills issue to be able to come to us and work with us to find the creative solution. We don’t always come up with that solution ourselves because we encourage our partners and enhance their strategies to discover their own answers every step of the way.

“That’s the perfect combination for us - using our skills and experience to unlock the creative potential of the whole region individual by individual, school by school and business by business.”