Untethered creativity in the local community

Informal creativity to strengthen the local community

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A village with a history of waterwheels

A few years ago, a miniature waterwheel appeared on the Ruau, a stream that runs through the village of Saint-Blaise. Although the water level sometimes fell so low that the wheel stopped turning, it remained in place for almost two years. Watermills are a key part of the history of the village, having supplied energy for a number of craft-industries scattered along the stream. Today, only one full-size mill remains, for the tourists. To celebrate the thousand years of the village, the architect Mario Botta designed a triple waterwheel down by the lake (photo below).

A creative workshop making waterwheels

This year, Pascal Winkler, who built the miniature wheel, proposed a week-long workshop to his sons and local children to build waterwheels. The workshop took place on the flat roof of the Atelier du Ruau under an improvised canvas, overlooking the stream. On the last day, the varied productions were set up along a stretch of the stream for everyone to admire. (See the gallery at the bottom of the page).

Enriching the local community

This creativity that flourishes outside formal structures makes some of the richest contributions to local life. Why? Because it enriches the local community freely in every sense of the word. By its gratuitousness, it goes beyond the logic of administrations and commercial actors. It contributes to the cohesion of the community, offering a subject for discussion, feeding both a feeling of local identity and pride and a sense of belonging to a place that has its own riches. Through a shared interest, it helps overcome the growing isolation of individuals.

A challenge to local governments

Yet, this form of activity is the most difficult to encourage for those who work in institutions and administrations. Some might say it’s not their job. The debate about mergers between local governments has shown that local governance is seen as an essentially administrative activity. Those involved work with laws and edicts and budget lines and subventions and contractual relationships. They are often constrained by the inertia of long-standing ways of working, budget considerations, vested interests and party politics. As a result, they have little time for the more creative and unpredictable aspects of local life. Encouraging a diverse local community rich in human contacts does not correspond to their mission. It is questionable whether such a purely administrative view of the role of local authorities is adequate or appropriate.

Informal activities that build the community

Getting enthusiastic about building miniature watermills that serve no function may seem frivolous. But survival and future development depend on the cohesion and strength of the bonds forged within the local community. It is only through a solid fabric of human interactions that the major challenges of an ageing population, aimless youth, exclusion and incivility, poor health and a failing democracy will be overcome. These informal activities of individuals or groups contribute as much, if not more, to consolidating the fabric of local life as the pomp of official ceremonies.

Celebrating informal creativity

So what can be done? The most important thing is to celebrate the creative work within the community, but not in a way that seeks to take over or control what is done. Much of its richness lies in its informal nature. Bring it under the wing of an institution or an administration might well extinguish its freedom, its freshness, its unpredictability, all anchored in its journey outside the institutions. By celebrating this creativity, we make it more widely known in the community. Secondly, those in more formal structures should ask themselves how they can help such initiatives without harming their informal nature. This is a delicate question because it forces them to step outside their usual logic. One way would be to provide informal channels of communication, such as notice boards for local activities (if necessary under the protection of a neighbour or a nearby business). Another possibility would be to facilitate access to skills that are lacking (writing, video shooting, sound recording, active listening, caring relationships, cooking, website creation, project management, etc.). Once the population and the administration are sensitised to the need for this informal creativity, other possibilities will emerge. Creativity has a way of further nurturing creativity.

Click any photo below to see the full gallery of photos.