Mayor Bob Bratina has been catching some flak lately for his tendency to speak off the cuff. Whether throwing out an alternate pie-in-the-sky solution to Randle Reef, musing about deamalgamation, or handing Hamilton International Airport over to the GTAA for management, Bratina's unscripted pronouncements can sometimes come across as politically tone-deaf.
Yet I find Bratina's habit of saying whatever he's thinking to be one of his more endearing qualities. Perhaps it comes, as observers suggest, from his years as a radio announcer tasked with filling hours of silence. Perhaps it simply reflects a curious intellect that is always playing with ideas.
Yet the source of all innovation is that very willingness to play with ideas - even, I daresay, a willingness to be wrong. As education adviser Ken Robinson put it in his brilliant TED talk on schools and creativity:
Kids will take a chance. If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same as being creative, but what we do know is: if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. We run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes - and we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make.
We also run our governments this way, excoriating and punishing anyone - politician or staffer - who takes a chance. In a June, 2009 essay on how Hamilton could transform into an open source city, I argued:
The prevailing corporate (and public) culture would have to change from one that punishes errors (and hence drives them underground) to one that celebrates openness and sees problems not as faults to be punished but as important and valuable opportunities to improve the end product.
A vision sometimes pops unbidden into my head, of our city staffers and politicians in a long, wide room with a low ceiling, crouching with their heads down. If anyone is foolish enough to stick their head up, a sword swoops around and lops it off.
In a refreshing break from this form, Bratina broadcasts ideas the way a traditional farmer sowed seeds, casting them broadly in all directions. As the parable goes, some seeds are devoured by birds, some fall on stony ground, and some fall among thorns and are choked. Yet some fall on fertile soil and take root.
We can ding the Mayor for going off-message, but maybe that's the price to pay for the chance at uncovering something transformative.
In a political culture that Gil Penalosa has aptly characterized as "Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim...", a bit of a loose cannon may be exactly what we need to shake up our complacency. The question is: are we willing to tolerate some howlers if it means also uncovering the next truly innovative solution?