Tired of the Creative bubble: Some thoughts on a popular concept

by Ares Kalandides

Though I have more or less abandoned research on the issue of the Creative City, I am still often invited to participate in discussions or seminars on the subject. It is rarely satisfactory, as I find that we are recycling our knowledge of the past decade without any important progress – of course with the occasional exception. One of these exceptions was the two-part seminar on the “Villes des créateurs”, the first in Lausanne in October, the second in Lyon in January, organized by POPSU Europe, an applied research programme of the French Ministry of Environment, Sustainable Development, Housing and Transportation. One of the characteristics of the francophone context, is that it has its own intellectual traditions and this way it often offers insights that are not totally dominated by the Anglophone hegemonic discourse.  Using this seminar as an excuse, I would like to gather my thoughts here and explain why I am tired of the subject, but also why I think that we still have some chances of finding seeds for fertile approaches:

First of all, almost every single discussion starts with a (new) attempt at a definition. Here I think it is quite important to make some basic distinctions: 1) Creativity as a basic capacity of the human being, an ontological concept that is best analysed by philosophy or psychology 2) the Creative Industries, which is a business-oriented model, 3) the Creative Economy, which deals with the phenomenon from a broader socio-economic point of view, 4) the Creative City which is a more interdisciplinary approach linked to urban studies and deals with the issue within an urban context and 5) the Creatives (or creative professionals) a more sociological and anthropological approach. Usually definitions mix these different things making dialogue quite absurd. I am very happy with a statistical definition that defines the Creative Industries as particular “market sub-segments”, but I would like the rest considered, too.

Installation at Le Flon, Lausanne

Secondly, we need to distinguish between a life-style/milieu discussion and a broader socio-economic one. I realize that we very often tend to think of the “creatives” as a kind of urban elite, the way we look upon artists (at least since 19th century romanticism) as playing children, cute and important – but not part of the real life. Of course, many creatives themselves have a tendency to define their milieu through particular patterns of consumption and entertainment, clothing and modes of communication. We should not forget though, that there is often a much less glamorous side to creative professions, one of precariousness, of hard, irregular and badly paid work. What is more interesting here is to think about these “new” concepts (and reality) of work. I use quotation marks for the word “new”, because I am not even convinced they really are.

Pfefferberg. A former brewery, now an important location for the creative industries in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg.

Thirdly, I think that it is important to link the questions of the creative economy with the creation of value – and that brings us to value-chains. Value-chains are not limited to the creative work, but include education, production, financing, distribution etc. Seen this way, one needs to ask, how these are interlinked, how work at different steps of the value-chain influence each other. In a sense, this means dissolving the distinction between creative and non-creative (the latter a rather offensive term).

“Space-Invader” – Street Art in Paris

Finally, a lot has been said about the urban context of the creative economy: about upgrading and gentrification, about reputation and branding etc. There are three lines of thought here that I think are quite interesting: The first is on the specificity of place (you can call it identity or intrinsic logic). How do particular place-specific factors influence the development of the creative economy? Are there particular spatial patterns that make it possible or that hinder it? The second line of thought, linked to the first one, is on the role (and importance) or density and proximity. If this is an interconnected world, where allegedly almost everybody and everything can be reached through the internet, why do we still see such concentrations in urban agglomerations? Probably because face-to-face relations, trust or the possibility to co-operate project-wise are central to new modes of work. Here research on networks, milieus and scenes can give us some very interesting insights, including a discussion on formal and informal exchange. The third line of thought is on urban governance. How can administrations deal with this highly volatile, constantly changing, protean group (if it is a group)? Are there new patterns of cooperation? Is there anything the administration has to offer?

The above are truly open questions which have been partly covered by research, but can profit from a more differentiated look on how people and space interact – leaving behind the rather unproductive hypes of the past decade.

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