Creative bureaucrats, in Landry’s lexicon, are high-level functionaries skilled at countering rigidities in their organizations and opening them up to more information. They are thus important points in the infrastructure, performing the essential if unglamorous work of distribution — and so reflecting Landry’s belief that great content means little if it has no way to flow. Although people tend to use the word bureaucracies in a pejorative sense, they are necessary for coordinating efficient action across complex systems. Landry points out that bureaucracies have gotten a bad name because they have a tendency to become self-reinforcing, reliant on compartmentalized expertise and unable to accommodate fresh information. This rigidity can be broken up only by creative individuals who know how to operate inside the structure; finding ways to support them has become one of Landry’s defining missions.
It’s ironic, given that his original impulse was to flee the legendary bureaucracies of Brussels, that Landry should end up advocating for the potential of such systems, to the point where his work has become widely associated with the phrase creative bureaucracy (it’s the name of a Comedia blog). He notes that he tends to gravitate toward concepts “that have a certain tension, seem paradoxical, give people a subtle jolt by confounding expectations.” The paradoxical notion of creative bureaucracy came to him when he himself received a subtle jolt while working on a project in Calgary.
Calgary is a big, diverse city that retains its frontier flavor; above all, it is an oil town, subject to the booms and busts of any resource economy. It first caught the world’s attention with the hugely successful Winter Games of 1988, for which the city, with great fanfare, had built a handsome Olympic plaza at the heart of downtown, adjacent to a large Olympic park. Unlike, for example, Atlanta, which tore down most of its Olympic facilities the minute the games were over, Calgary wanted to use the large spaces so proudly erected at its symbolic heart to improve the quality of life in the city. To help it do so, the city hired Comedia.
Landry was asked to begin the project in what seemed to him a very bureaucratic way, by meeting with its director of bylaws. He says, “When the guy — his name was Bill Bruce — showed up, he was wearing a brown suit, and we were meeting in this restaurant that also seemed very brown. I thought, this is going to be incredibly boring. But the guy turned out to be the most creative person in Calgary.”
Bruce had assumed his position some years before, at a time when the city had 14 volumes of regulations, rendering any decision making dauntingly complex. He decided that at 62, he had little to lose if he ignored the web of regulations. He began by inviting civic and business leaders to articulate the city’s major objectives, focusing on general principles rather than codified rules. The result was a simple, commonsense list of intentions: In general, we’re interested in less noise; in general, we want less garbage; in general, we want people to use alternative transportation.
Working from these principles, Bruce experimented with hundreds of small-scale innovations involving everything from bicycle bells to traffic routes. His goal was to assist people who wanted to solve civic problems rather than imposing solutions on them. He especially sought to involve citizens in decisions that affected them directly, for example, by assisting the park patrol along bike paths. One result of involving citizens in decisions was that Calgary developed a creative and progressive tradition.