To everything there is a season…

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  • Published 20160503
  • ISBN: 978-1-925240-81-8
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

NORWEGIANS WORK ONE HUNDRED days less per year than Australians. The whole country savours its precious few months of summer, with long days, long holidays and widespread retreat from city apartments to cabins in the mountains. Norwegians open their summer selves to different sorts of creative opportunities nurtured by the rhythms of a simpler life in a place apart from the industrial working week. A seasonal adjustment of behaviours is one of the reasons for Norway’s success. It scores well on economics, equity and happiness indices. Not all Norwegians have the privilege of access to a family summer cabin, of course, and the idea of this seasonal ‘simple’ life is becoming more complex with power and Wi-Fi connections ever more readily available. But the summer cabin retreat remains a norm, respected and supported across society, through its regular five weeks minimum annual leave (plus additional paid leave for some holidays). Annual leave can be up to eight weeks in some professions.

Australia, by contrast, squeezes all of its Christmas and New Year festivities, summer activities (which may include wider reading and reflections on life), and even the national day, into the space between 24 December and 26 January. We ‘do’ summer in thirty-three days, just half the time allowed in Scandinavia and most of Western Europe. Australia also completely misses the space of a midwinter solstice, which in northern climes corresponds with Christmas and New Year. To make matters worse, our summer is the increasingly nervous fire season in the south and the cyclone season in the north. We must be ready to ‘watch and act’ even on Christmas Day, as the residents of the Otway coast in Victoria found in 2015. In the north, Cyclone Tracy will forever make the Christmas of 1974 memorable.

While daylight and weather are less restrictive for recreational activities like camping in the rest of the year, a duty to productivity prevails. Australia, famed as the laid-back ‘land of the long weekend’, shows little recognition of the virtues of occasional shorter weeks for recharging creative batteries. Even a single day extra public holiday, such as Victoria’s ‘Football Friday’ before the AFL grand final in 2015, was immediately ‘slammed’ by business leaders as costing ‘productivity’. In Sweden and Denmark and other countries, public holidays take on and expand the old pagan and Christian calendars, recognising that seasonal celebrations are part of marking the circular passing of time. In the long hours of springtime they take very long weekends for Pentecost and national celebrations. Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland all have national days between mid-May and mid-June. Typically, public holidays fall on Tuesday or Thursday, and most of the community takes the klam day (the day between the holiday and the weekend) as well. In the dark middle of February they take ‘ski week’ (five days off school, with many businesses closing), to make the most of the seasonal winter snow at its peak. In contrast, Australia maintains a calendar that yields only one winter holiday and no national spring holidays at all, opening its ski season on the ‘Queen’s Birthday’ weekend – usually before the snow has arrived. From early June until Christmas there are only state holidays, which vary between states. Christian festivals shape our community life, but they are all unseasonal here: we have Easter and its eggs representing new life at the same time as Harvest Festival, and the autumn pumpkin ritual of Halloween clashing with the Spring Racing Carnival.

Every workday is precious in Australia – and the same sort of workday. None can be lost. The school year is structured so public holidays fall in the breaks. It is not ‘productive work’ if it is not produced on some sort of industrial system. But ideas are not widgets, and systems for productivity in manufacturing do not nurture them. Research and creativity do not fit within a Fordist vision: they require a capacity to look around, to synthesise across tasks. They do not emerge evenly along a conveyor belt of production outcomes.

Festivals, public holidays and great sporting and cultural events encourage communities to regenerate through celebration. By forcing us to pause, they give work a different shape and emphasis. Nordic nations use them to generate the creative energy evident in their famous design and innovation. A confusion between the clock card and actual work limits Australia’s potential for innovation, creation and research. The ‘industrial’ (or corporate) model may be counter-productive for this sector.


INDUSTRIAL EXPECTATIONS AND public holidays are worth reconsidering for new twenty-first-century futures. As we enter difficult economic times many, especially younger, people are increasingly underemployed. Already, the city of Gothenburg in Sweden is trialling a six-hour working day, recognising there is not enough work to go around. The arts and culture sectors can be leaders of change in difficult times, and working life needs to be refashioned in ways that support and encourage the next generation to be widely innovative.

I want to consider here the creativity that is nurtured within the university sector – what is usually called ‘research’, but which is not always recognised as creativity. We imagine innovation, design, creativity and research in different boxes and with different institutions, yet they are all ways (often non-linear) to explore the human imagination. ‘One thing remains constant,’ as Julianne Schultz argues in Griffith Review 45: The Way We Work, ‘work is essential to economic wellbeing’, and is also about ‘working for life’: it is not just about money, but also about contributing to the social good. Creativity needs nurturing, rather than being assessed as if it were of the same stuff as the national accounts. For creative people, work and life are mutually entangled, not merely ‘balanced’. High-quality ‘work’ may be done for love, rather than for money. Such activity is motivated in ways incommensurate with the present methods of corporate management.

The ‘long breaks’ in the university calendar that have traditionally been the spaces for reading, writing and developing new research ideas are increasingly filled with intensive teaching. More ominously, summer has become the grant-writing season. University research offices opened submissions for Australian Research Council ‘discovery’ and early career grants on 14 December 2015, and closed them on 3 February 2016, in order to allow a further full month for internal processing before the ARC deadlines. No northern European country would open a research grant scheme in late June with a closing date of mid-August! And none of the schemes in other parts of the world leave the applicant waiting ten months to discover the outcome. This is an Australian problem. Large grant systems, like the ARC and others, make it difficult for individuals with a good idea to bring it into the national conversation about innovation. The ‘creative nation’ is an aspiration, but the present tools available to achieve this are blunt and weighed down with onerous bureaucratic obligations that have become opportunity costs.

The seasonal straitjacketing of grants reflects a broader misunderstanding of the value of fallow periods in creativity. Goal-oriented grant writing, driven by budgets and deadlines, gets in the way of reflective thinking and wider reading. These grants change lives, yet there has been little discussion of the wasted work of the overwhelming majority who don’t receive them. Failing can mean no job at all or no promotion for those employed in universities. Even success is not always good news: cuts in funding allocations frequently mean long renegotiations with partners about what to leave out of a carefully planned project. With an inherent bias against success – in some categories, more than 90 per cent of applicants have wasted their summer – we have a system that is tragic for promising career researchers. Negative outcomes are announced just before the next summer, forcing unsuccessful applicants to waste their next summer trying again because of obligations to universities and industry partners. Online submission systems mean nothing can be done far from a computer. Negotiating partnerships and budgets is important work, but it is ‘business as usual’– not blue-sky research. And it adds to screen time, which in turn creates ‘shallow’ cognitive patterns, according to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2011).

An industrial-style grant system rewards safe research. Most often, success comes to work that is already underway, to projects that add incremental changes to existing knowledge or fine-tune earlier work, rather than work that might enable new futures. Conveyor belt grant writing favours big industrial teams rather than individual innovators. Teams can use the last grant to develop the next, rather than finish a small project. Big teams typically comprise people working with others from similar backgrounds, not innovative combinations.

The trickle-down effect of the big grant system on Australia’s research culture and creativity is depressing. Colleagues now talk less about ideas; instead they talk about grants. Grants dollars rather than ideas for the future are the currency when comparing universities. League tables depend on things that can be counted (and accounted), like publications in global publishing outlets (measured by citation indices) and grant success. Our big-grants culture works against imaginative collaboration between universities, industry, non-government organisations and non-aligned independent scholars. And such a culture doesn’t work at all for small or local problems, where genuine innovation may be inexpensive, immediate and exciting.


THE HISTORY OF innovation is rarely linear or industrial in style: ideas arise in unexpected places, and innovators need ways to experiment, and even to fail. Creativity is about trial and error, flexibility and seized opportunities. Imagined milestones and outcomes conceived before an idea is tested often just get in the way. Pressure to measure success will always favour projects without risks. Trust and mind-space are not measurable, so they are completely missing from the present grants systems. One hidden cost of our system is that many next generation creative people are driven out of the research and innovation sector altogether. They can’t wait for its outcomes, and they want to be creative in smaller or different ways.

Why does Australia need more diversity in knowledge-making? An ecological system needs diversity for resilience in the face of the unexpected, and for healthy functioning; similarly, the ecology of creativity cannot afford to be reduced to a monoculture of grant hunting. Nor can the grants themselves only reward success in the limited fields served by IMRAD formats (Introduction, Methods, Results, Analysis, Discussion). At present, the bean-counting methods used for university leagues tables ignore unconventional formats, lonely brilliance and transdisciplinary partnerships. Real, multifaceted problems – urban renewal, for example, or the concept of feeding the world’s growing population sustainably, or keeping children in touch with the natural world – need active solutions, not academic journal articles. Problem-solvers often come from very different walks of life. We need opportunities for scholars and artists and activists to work together in alternative, creative ways, and a variety of large and small grant systems that define success using different criteria.

Marcus Westbury’s exciting crowd-funded book, Creating Cities (Niche, 2015), is suggestive of new paths for fostering creativity in thinking about urban renewal. He sees the arts sector as leading this push, and his ideas could apply equally to research institutions. Through his experience of ‘Renew Newcastle’, a program that engineered successful urban renewal in Newcastle for very little money, he argues for creating space for bottom-up initiatives, not instead of but as well as larger projects. Rather than relying solely on top-down planning – in Newcastle this had led to economic stagnation and decline – he developed possibilities for creative people to reinhabit the town, to get its heart beating again. He offered short opportunities that did not cost too much, but were readily accessible. Westbury’s idea was that ‘the biggest priority was not a big idea after all – that we needed to think about the problems at a smaller and not a greater scale’. Instead of ‘motivating and incentivising the big thing that will fix everything’, he sought ways to reduce problems to a size where practical people could solve them. Newcastle’s stagnation was not one big problem, but rather hundreds of little ones that were ‘capable of being transformed by the application of imagination, enthusiasm and sweat equity’.

There are insights here for a creative country and its rigid research grant schemes. Forcing a single competitive system, rather than multiple smaller opportunities, diminishes imagination and enthusiasm. Competition to win grants for simple solutions is unhelpful to ‘wicked’ problems. Transdisciplinary, negotiated and synthetic approaches are more likely to generate innovation than more ‘data’. Issues such as living with global environmental change, creating social justice, and equality of opportunities demand diversity and participation by more than the specialist research community. Australia needs an ecology of creativity that is diverse and responsive to different scales of questioning and allows for multiple creative outcomes over varied time frames.

The issue of anthropogenic climate change, for example, needs to be underpinned by good planetary climate science, but it also needs good policy-making at local levels. Public engagement is essential for this. By working with museums and the arts, with performance and events, it may be possible to create a new literacy for a subject that is so much more than science. Archbishop Desmond Tutu regards climate change as the biggest human rights issue on the planet. Yet climate scientists often feel locked away in a discipline that has little engagement with the general public. If global warming is a human rights issue, it behoves participation by more than ‘science communicators’. It is especially important to hear the voices of those most vulnerable to climate change’s effects. In Australia, these are often Indigenous people – for example, in the Torres Strait where increases in sea level and ground-water salinity are becoming alarmingly evident; and in central Australia, in places like Oodnadatta where heat stress is already apparent as summer temperatures rise to new heights that demand a new colour (deep purple) on weather charts.


THUS I RETURN to the Australian summer – now angry, certainly changing, and getting more uncertain every year. How can we use our summers to diversify the research culture in small and practical ways, to put our ‘sweat equity’ into something that makes a difference? How can we restore imagination and enthusiasm to the innovation agenda, and tackle questions that defy pigeonholing? Westbury talks of the destructive arts culture that had ‘moved away from supporting artists who actually made things to subsidising middle managers of increasingly irrelevant infrastructures’. As I dutifully add 75 per cent on-costs to my research applications, to support internal management that cannot even assist creators with basic clerical tasks, I wonder what the first duty of the innovator or creative researcher should be? It is surely not spending the summer refining the presentation of their own CV or mastering a frustrating online system, or assessing the budget-worthiness of other people’s grants.

I look at the hardworking Scandinavian nations for alternative visions – for ‘positive policy examples’, in the words of Andrew Scott, who in Northern Lights (Monash University Publishing, 2014) explores Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland for innovative ideas that can be applied to Australia. In places where ‘work-life balance’ and national accounts are congruent, not conflicting, we find design and innovation, and rewards for creativity and can-do attitudes. Australia is different in important ways – but the idea of seasons for different activities has not been tried here since 1788. Our unseasonal thinking is possibly a legacy of migration to a place with an ‘upside-down’ calendar. A seasonality of the mind is more possible in Europe where there is still a hankering for a pastoral past, even in our post-industrial present. Perhaps settler Australia’s concentration of the agricultural and industrial revolutions truncated the tradition of the long summer being apart from the rest of the year. In the Danish language, spring and autumn, the seasons before and after summer are called (literally) ‘before the year’ and ‘after the year’. Summer is the year, the growing season where defences against the long harsh winter are created for storage. In Australia, the industrial ideal displaced the harvest traditions – summer was neither golden nor nostalgic. Aboriginal summer traditions, like the Bogong Moth Feasts in the Australian Alps, arose with a long understanding of a very different ecology – one that went unnoticed by the post-1788 arrivals, who failed to recognise the culinary or cultural promise of the moths.

Australia’s capacity for innovation could be enhanced by looking again at the possibilities of a longer or freer summer. Certainly, a better variety of grant schemes, some of which enable more reflective and less bureaucratic content, would enhance research and innovation opportunities. Even simple things like timing and response times could make a big difference.

In New Zealand, the Marsden grants scheme opens with a request for a preliminary ‘two-pager’ outlining an idea. A full grant application is only required of those selected from these initial outlines. This system saves assessors’ time, as well as making it easy to propose genuinely new work at an ‘intuitive’ stage. Intellectual traditions in many other countries allow for a wider variety of work to be supported – longer and shorter schemes, with smaller and larger amounts, and outcomes that include artistic work, performance, events and inventions as well as ‘refereed journal articles’. In these places, outcomes of all sorts of schemes count favourably for research institutions, who are more concerned with impact and less with outputs.

Few nations rigidly separate university researchers from all other creators or define research by output rather than impact. Sweden offers larger grants that force more collaboration between universities, museums and other cultural institutions. They also offer a range of smaller grants for early career people, including those who are not already employed by a research institution. A range of schemes enable the Swedish and Norwegian governments and non-government foundations to fund small and innovative pilot schemes that enable researchers and creators to fail without wasting resources.

Funding big teams that ‘tick all the boxes’ for success is not the way to discover the new things that happen outside the boxes. A ‘research culture’ can include big grants, but it should also offer small grants and time for reflection if it wants quality, not just quantity of outcomes. If Australia is to be an innovative nation in the future, it must find new and more diverse ways to reward creativity.

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About the author

Libby Robin

Libby Robin FAHA is a historian of science and environment at the Australian National University. She is a former museum curator and author of...

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