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Disrupters and cleaners

When I was a teenager, I worked every holiday for an agency that sent me to clean peoples’ homes. The money wasn’t great but it was convenient, and satisfying: a job where you can easily see that you’ve done well and how you’ve made a difference. 

Later I did many other similar jobs – cleaning out sample dishes in a hospital, cleaning the kitchens of a big West End hotel and cleaning factory floors. This work coloured my world view more than I realised. For it sometimes made me see the world as divided into the people who make mess and the people who clean it up.

The first group are predominantly wealthy and male. The second group are predominantly poorer and female. The first group are very visible, and often high status. The second group tend to be invisible and low status.

A huge amount of human activity is essentially about maintenance: keeping places clean and tidy; maintaining parks, forests and agricultural fields; maintaining human bodies, especially children and the elderly;  and sometimes maintaining minds. This is always less respected work. It tends to be repetitive. Some of it can be automated, but surprisingly little has been so far. We all depend on it.

Why does this matter to me now? I work in the field of innovation. 

Creativity depends on making a mess, and sometimes disrupting things. It feeds off disorder, and making lateral or random connections

That’s why the conventional wisdoms about creativity are so at odds with what I had to do as a cleaner. They promote throwing things up in the air, hacking, messing, mashing up. In what’s become a classic phrase for the digital economy they encourage people to ‘move fast and break things’.

If you live in overly ordered, hierarchical and predictable societies these ideas are exhilarating. But I sometimes wonder whether these cult phrases of modern tech are parodies of the world-view of people who have never cleaned up, the pampered elites of north America, Europe and Asia who literally always had someone else to clean up after them. They’ve happily disrupted dozens of industries and also inadvertently left behind a tsunami of thrown away gadgets and an ocean of messed up data (the dark side of Moore’s law: a remarkable, and disturbingly steady, growth in e-waste that is simply buried in the ground as people discard last year’s iPhone or laptop).

But just imagine for a moment if the whole tech industry had been dominated by people who hadn’t had such upbringings, and longed for neatness

It’s not so hard to imagine, because engineering and other fields are steadily embedding the very different idea of a circular economy that has become, perhaps, the natural home for people who clear up their own mess – the idea of an economy and society where everything is collected, reused and ordered (there are also plenty of people in the digital world who value elegance, economy, neat code).

These two ideas now sit in an interesting opposition. On the one hand many idolise the digital disrupters, the people who mess things up. These (nearly all) men are now some of the world’s richest people, the new aristocracy of the 21st century.  On the other hand many think the world has far too much disruption, mess and waste, and long for an economy aware of limits, and responsible for its own actions. 

We probably need them both, and to be able to cultivate both mindsets simultaneously. Perhaps what we should be wary of are people who only adhere to one – the disrupters who see that as an adequate world view, and people who cling too tightly to order over imagination.

Schumacher, the author of ‘Small is Beautiful’, once commented that in a world dominated by small institutions he would have written a book called ‘Big is Beautiful’. What mattered was to get the balance right. The same is true of disruption and order. But my guess is that the world would be a better place if its rulers, just occasionally, had to tidy up after themselves.

Author

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan has been Chief Executive of Nesta since 2011. Nesta is the UK's innovation foundation and runs a wide range of activities in investment, practical innovation and research.

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