From musical concepts to unusual suspects

By Jon Huggett, Chair of SIX (Original post on 1 Sept, 2014)

Welcome to The Unusual Suspects Festival in London 2014!

We hope you make unlikely connections for social change. 35 partner organisation are collaborating to create 28 events, all backed by the Social Innovation Exchange,Collaborate, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The Unusual Suspects is a festival of social innovation and collaboration, so we have tried to make it:
• Innovative: mixing us up to make the most of serendipity;
• Collaborative: crowdsourcing and sharing the leadership; and
• Provocative: sharing the facts from practitioners of what is working

The Unusual Suspects is inspired by the collaboration and innovation behind great music festivals, such as Woodstock, Glastonbury and Womad. These festivals are fun and they bring musicians together in new ways. They have spawned new genres of music and led to social change. Rock Against Racism paved the way for ska, 2-Tone, and Live Aid. We hope that these kinds of collaborations can spark powerful social innovations.

Innovative — musical concepts.

From classical, though jazz, to dance we now enjoy music from unusual teams as well as virtuosos. Today’s dance music is a collaboration of not just composers and musicians, but also DJs and sound engineers with no clear hierarchy. Everyone can lead. Fast, sometimes virtually instantaneous feedback from listeners helps collaborations improve, or disband. Rapid trial and error can outrun tidy organisation.

In a classical organisation, like a symphony, there is a leader (conductor), an organisation (orchestra), a planner (composer), a plan (score), coordination (parts) and shared values (love of classical music). The structure works well for usual and predictable outcomes, but less well for unusual and innovative ones. Innovation thrives on collaboration among unusual suspects: people with diverse perspectives united by a common cause. Innovation can be thwarted when well-intentioned people fight for control, or lose interest when their contributions are not valued.

Other forms of music show prodigious innovation with less hierarchy. A generation ago John Clarkeson showed, in his piece Jazz vs. Symphony, how Duke Ellington’s open band leadership had made him “a dominant figure in twentieth century music … measured by the output of his original compositions”. Clarkeson suggested that Ellington was a better role model than Von Karajan for creative organisation.

The innovative and collaborative output of dance music today is yet greater — across genres, geographies, and media. This year an unusual collaboration swept the Grammy’s. Daft Punk won Album of the Year for Random Access Memories and Record of the Year for Get Lucky. The winning album brings together Daft Punk itself (electronica), Pharrell Williams (rap), Nile Rodgers (disco), to name a few, ranging in age from thirties to seventies.

Collaborative — unusual suspects

Leader-rich collaborations of unusual suspects are changing not just music, but the world. Millions of people have built Wikipedia and other “twenty-first century movements”. The movement for equal marriage in the US, the UK and France shared leadership across grass roots and treetops. Social media is letting us engage on our own terms. We can all lead.

Locally, leader-rich collaborations are improving services and cutting costs. Lambeth supports more tenant-managed estates than any other council, and the best of these deliver better housing management at lower cost. Project Oracle in London is now pooling the information of people working to improve the lives of children and young people. Facts are friendly.

Causes can bring unusual suspects together, even if values differ. We can’t win over mission-driven partners by telling them where they are wrong. Collaboration characterised by high friction and a poor focus on results is a waste of energy.

Provocative — improvisation, improvement, and proof

“Leader-rich” collaboration in music works with quick audience feedback. Improv provokes the listener. DJs see clubbers respond to each song played. Sales and downloads tell their story. Trials and errors can be sorted quickly. Rapid feedback can make innovation a way of life, rather than an outcome. The informal space within and around the formal work is often the magical place where unlikely ideas emerge.

The good stuff happens when we take these concepts, push them, and work with them. Improv eventually creates A Love Supreme, the studio album recorded by John Coltrane in one take.

Improvement comes before any proof. “Proof” — awards, respect — comes later. Originating from the African-American community, jazz was not taken seriously until well after the “jazz age”. F. Scott Fitzgerald published Tales of the Jazz Age in 1922. It was not until 1938 that jazz was allowed in to Carnegie Hall, when Benny Goodman performed “jazz’s ‘coming out’ to the world of ‘respectable music’.”

Great music can even meet violent opposition. In 1979, as the “Disco sucks movement” burned records on TV, Marxist Richard Dyer called disco a “flight from capitalism and patriarchy”.

Social innovation and collaboration are each at a turning point. Each has momentum, and each seems to be on the verge of something great. Geoff Mulgan argues “social innovation thrives on collaboration”.

We hope that bringing together unusual suspects opens up new possibilities for unexpected collaborations and innovative outputs that can become “catchy”, and even genre defining and provocative interventions. If you enjoy the “Unusual Suspects Festival”, we’ll try again, and try to improve.

Miles Davis, who called preferred to call his music “social”, not jazz, said “if you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake”. In honour of Miles, and the many others who dared to be different, we invite everyone to be social, greet unusual suspects, make some mistakes, and together seek some new harmonies for change.