God bless the BBC. Her majesty’s broadcasting service offered yet another gem by interviewing the UK academic John Howkins. Howkins first published his ideas on creativity and innovation back in 2001. His interview demonstrates just how “on the money” his ideas still are, at least in my mind. Howkins sets out why the rules governing today’s “Creative Economy” contrast markedly with the factory (or repetitive) based economy of yesterday. And the ramifications for business and society will be felt for many years to come. No wonder Howkins is demand from city planners and governments around the world.
So confession time—when I think of the “creative economy” what comes to mind is a bunch of hipsters half my age working either in a soulless corporate fun-zone somewhere in Kings Cross or a Café somewhere in East London. And perhaps herein lies the problem. Most of us in the West perceive the creative economy as an arts based one, with digital agencies and app designers dominating the creative output. But actually the Creative Economy focuses on the economic value of ideas and represents a mind-shift rather than any tangible product and service. Mind-shift counts when it comes to long-term economic strategy; when it comes to East versus West or city versus city.
Howkins ideas resonate powerfully because they link the forces swirling around the future of work to a profound recalibration between work and the individual. How we perceive work as part of our personal lives is changing (9 to 5?); where we want to work is changing (“A cube? You’re kidding me, right!”); how we collaborate together to get work done; how we gain value from it; get rewarded for it, incentivized, motivated for it and so on are all changing. All these elements are changing especially within the knowledge based industries of the West. So the city as an organizing principle for work and life must adapt to support its inhabitants. If you want to attract investment and business into Cardiff Bay or South Korea then policy decisions must evolve to support and encourage new ways of working. Howkin believes cities and nations must foster the mechanisms that drive new ideas and develop their own “Creative Economies”. They are volatile, intensely competitive and suffer from high rates of failure but they’re critical in generating ideas, applying learning and spreading knowledge. What’s more they don’t need bags of capital to start.
There are strong similarities between the economic forces unleashed by the last industrial revolution to the profound changes wrought by the digital revolution. A presentation I did several years ago in Manchester in the North of England brought this to mind. Manchester kicked off the industrial revolution in the 18th century due to several factors stemming from its location: Access to cheap energy sources nearby (Newcastle coal); access to raw materials and end-user markets (the port of Liverpool) and a perpetually dank climate (the curse of my youth…) meaning that the yarn used during the manufacture of textiles didn’t snap during the mechanical weaving process. The result saw explosive urban growth in the 18th century as thousands of workers flocked from rural communities into Manchester’s narrow streets—and the notion of 20th century work and place changed forever. The changes wrought by the digital economy looks set to be equally profound especially for the modern, post-industrial city as an organizational principle for people—which is why local and national governments are keen to nurture the principals set out in Howkin’s book. What I am keen to examine is how we, as a country, its institutions and its people are responding.