Cities, regions, even entire nations, are pursuing the Creative Economy. What can we learn from Singapore, Glasgow, and Ogulin?
Successful economies have always been creative. Why is this 21st-century Creative Economy any different? Global exchanges and the clashing and blending of cultures have been documented and analyzed for at least 10,000 years. Technological innovations affecting all of society resulting from aesthetic curiosity (or “art for art’s sake”) can be traced back at least as long. Likewise, cultural tourism — people traveling to learn and explore, as well as to trade and exchange ideas — isn’t new either. Nor was Richard Florida, the economist who popularized the idea of the “creative class,” the first to notice that economic prosperity and concentrations of creative people go together.
So what makes this era so special?
In a word, speed. We communicate across the globe at the speed of light. We, and our goods, move across thousands of miles overnight. Global cultures blend daily in the workplace, on the streets, and at the farmers market. Artists and inventors blog, create, and reinterpret in virtual and physical space 24/7. Innovation — the fuel for entrepreneurs — and the drive to find and experience the new have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Now, they are in our faces, at our fingertips, and changing before our eyes like never before.
“New ideas must use old buildings,” wrote Jane Jacobs. However, the Creative Economy requires more than old buildings, artists, bohemian neighborhoods, and tourists. Cities, urban regions, and small towns looking for sustainable creative economies in a global marketplace must also look at their social and community fabric — things that do not change overnight. They need to examine their: clarity and authenticity of place (“brand identity”); civic and corporate cultures and institutions; ability to adapt to constant change; capacity to welcome and integrate new and different people and ideas; and ability to cross boundaries and find synergies between industries and disciplines.
Contrary to many notions and fears around globalization, success is not found in homogenization. Cities and regions that are able to distinguish their brand and build on unique skills, products, services, natural resources, and other assets are more likely to succeed. Creative branding or identity development is increasingly critical for places as much as it has become for products. More than a PR campaign, good branding requires finding widely shared authenticity rooted in the history, people, and evolving story of place.
The Croatian community of Ogulin with its castles, magical landscapes, and local literary figures reasserted its brand based in history and authenticity. Renowned for the fairy tales that were written there, the community has become a cultural tourism destination and has reignited its intellectual and creative energies, thus reinvigorating its self-esteem and its fortunes. In contrast, Hamilton, New Zealand, ignoring its indigenous heritage and agricultural roots, is trying to re-brand itself with the slogan “From Cowtown to Wowtown.” A likely flash in the pan.
Healthy civic and corporate cultures make an enormous difference. Chicago is a city that works — even if its political capital is tightly held. A diverse economy and inclusive civic institutions have kept it growing and stable. Similarly, visionary and effective leadership is credited with reviving the UK’s Newcastle Gateshead area, inspiring citizens, attracting investment, and assembling successful Creative Economy elements. On the flip side, rife with corruption and the inability of their leaders to fully motivate and engage people, are the cities of New Orleans; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Camden, New Jersey — which only look good next to Cartagena, Baghdad, or Nairobi.
Over the past couple of decades, the Scottish city of Glasgow has transformed itself with new industries and trade partners for at least the fourth time in its history. Meanwhile, Detroit and Flint, Michigan struggle massively to adapt to changing conditions. These US cities were literally built around an industry cluster, markets, technologies, and labor strategies whose relevance has waned.
While still a young metropolitan region, Silicon Valley and its urban center, San José, demonstrate enormous capacity to integrate new ideas and people through a cluster of industries that have morphed a couple of times in as many decades. The business and social construct of the “wiki” emerged there not only as a functional tool to incorporate the best ideas quickly from across the globe, but also as a way of re-thinking how business is organized. Welcoming people and cultures from around the world, San José also exhibits one of the highest rates of minority business ownership among major American cities and has perhaps the most diverse mix of small and medium-sized nonprofit arts and culture organizations. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, Creative Economy proponents lament the resistance to newcomers among the native-born and see evidence that xenophobic attitudes have clogged the city’s economic development pipeline.
Creating synergy across disciplines and sectors can be seen in some of the most productive small and large places. Legendary college president and Tennessee Valley Authority architect Arthur Morgan wrote about his small Ohio college town of Yellow Springs in 1953. In addition to one of the most concentrated and active small arts communities in the US, this village of 3,500 spawned businesses producing innovations in aluminum casting, seed hybridization, industrial design, and high-precision thermostats as well as water-monitoring devices, industrial surface-plates, high-stress rubber bearings, and the first-known EMT training program. The remarkable list goes on. Morgan concluded these industries sprouted from a quality of life that included interdisciplinary education in which both art and science were central, inclusive racial and labor relations, and a highly engaged civic community. Morgan was perhaps the Industrial Age’s Richard Florida. By contrast, and on a wildly different scale, Charlotte’s massive banking industry leaves that city in a precarious position in what is essentially a one-industry town.
Cities and regions looking for sustainable creative economies in a global marketplace must also look at their social and community fabric — things that do not change overnight.
A report published in February 2009 by the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts predicted that the creative sector in that country will grow at an average annual rate of 4 percent during the next five years — more than twice the rate of the economy as a whole. It will employ more people than the financial sector by 2013, or as much as 7 percent of the workforce. (Similar data have not been studied for the US.)
Too many US communities hoping to tap this growing sector have fallen for easy solutions. City after city has rushed into a simplified version of Richard Florida’s three Ts, trying to attract Talent and Technology and showing little understanding of Tolerance. But clusters of “creative class” workers and the industries they populate are not enough.
This temptation to oversimplify, and thus misunderstand, the Creative Economy is common. In many US cities, institutional arts interests have dressed up the Creative Economy as a way to garner more money for the arts. A healthy creative community is a necessary ingredient for a healthy economy — as are healthy civic and corporate cultures. However, big symphonies, operas, ballets, and museums full of Renaissance paintings do not necessarily encourage creative behaviors among residents who come from all parts of the world, nor do they excite most young high-tech workers.
Similarly, cultural tourism alone is unlikely to transform an economy — apart from Orlando, Florida, a place dependent on a couple of California-based corporations. While their theme parks are unlikely to go anywhere in the foreseeable future, if and when they do, the region will need more than Ghostbusters.
Looking for quick fixes, some cities have tried to re-package creative industries, promoting “creative clusters.” Others have fashioned or built bohemian enclaves or arts districts to attract young hipsters. Clusters may fuel a raging engine for the short term, but cities that have focused on one product have not fared well over time. Their precipitous declines have been as dramatic as their rising fortunes. Clusters can be significant parts of an economic mix if they operate in a creative and permeable environment and interact vigorously with other industries and sectors.
Still other cities have put all three together — a robust arts community, a “cool city” image, and a cluster of creativity-based businesses. In some places, this has made a difference. A community with healthy self-esteem, where people get along and work together to accomplish civic ends — a community that can pull off this three-part strategy — already has in place most of the needed ingredients and is on the right path.
But an even more sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms that drive creative economies requires an even broader, more holistic view. Two countries, with very different histories and cultures, have recently embarked on initiatives that merit attention. Seeing the need to maintain a balance between strategies and assets, both Sweden and Singapore have articulated plans for nurturing their creative industries. In a nation not well-known for tolerance, Singapore’s National Arts Council prescribes the “5-C” plan to heighten the creativity of this already prosperous nation. Culture, Competency, Connectivity, Capital, and Conditions provide the framework it hopes will ensure a perpetual place atop the economic food chain. A program laid out by Sweden’s Knowledge Foundation has many parallels: Education and training, Research, Industry, Business collaboration, and Arts/Culture. This “ERIBA Model” is based on a circular approach of stimulating creativity and the arts, providing the forums, cross-sector research, and collaborative systems that allow business and industry to gain from innovations and innovative behaviors. Both Singapore and Sweden are thinking in terms of larger systems that embrace all their assets.
This is the challenge that faces Massachusetts today as it considers its Creative Economy. While Boston has reinvented its economy several times by drawing upon its key assets of geographic location and intellectual capital, it has also lost out on opportunities because of its tightly held culture, as AnnaLee Saxenian demonstrated in her 1994 book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128. Boston’s 19th-century business models, rigid proprietary practices, and paternalistic corporate culture, she argued, did not provide fertile ground for invention, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial enterprises. Meanwhile, a very different and open environment took off in Silicon Valley.
But the Boston region, indeed the entire state, is today a very different place from what it was in 1994. The economic growth of the last 15 years has coincided with the expansion of entire industries — biotechnology, videogames, new media — that did not exist a few decades ago, that have brought with them fresh faces and fresh business practices. The corporations that once ruled Boston are largely gone — sold or relocated. Demographics have changed, with a larger immigrant population. Greater Boston is not Silicon Valley, but it is not what it once was, either. It is much better poised to do the necessary work — to examine and promote its identity, functional capacity, adaptability, inclusiveness, and synergies — and to invent the necessary means. After all, what’s a Creative Economy without creativity?