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Rethinking the creative city: the role of complexity, networks and interactions in the urban creative economy / 1

We are honoured and deligheted to publish Dr Roberta Comunian’s* last article engaging with the current research and debate about the creative city and the importance of cultural infrastructure in contemporary cities. It argues that much of the focus has been around the investment of cities in specific regeneration projects or flagship developments rather than addressing the nature of the infrastructures, networks and agents engaging in the city’s cultural development. The complexity theory and its associated principles can provide a new understanding of the connection between the urban space and the systems of local cultural production and consumption. Drawing on interviews with creative practitioners in the North East region of England, the paper argues that the cultural development of a city is a complex adaptive system. This finding has implication both for policy makers and academic research. It emphases the importance of micro-interactions and network between creative practitioners, the publicly supported cultural sector and the cultural infrastructure of the city.



Cities have made significant investment in their cultural infrastructure and creative economies in the last two decades. Culture has been used as a means of urban regeneration (Evans and Shaw, 2004; M. Miles, 2005), economic development (Florida, 2002b; Myerscough, 1988; Scott, 2000, 2004) and possibly social inclusion (Belfiore, 2002; Merli, 2002).

Nevertheless, the approach of developing and investing in creative economies has developed a new type of competition between cities. The attention of economic strategies and policy interventions has been focused on the specific assets and infrastructures that a city should have in order to be or to become a creative. As stated by Oakley: “no region of the country, whatever its industrial base, human  capital stock, scale or history is safe from the need for a ‘creative hub’ or ‘cultural quarter’ “ (Oakley, 2004, p.68). These interventions are used as a successful recipe that can be replicated on different occasions, without taking into consideration the distinctive aspects and specificity of places and circumstances.

Authors have described the cultural dynamics of cities from different perspectives. Some have focused on cultural consumption (Jones and Wilks-Heeg, 2004; Molotch, 1996) and image (B.  García, 2005), while others have looked at cultural production  (Clifton, 2008; Grabher, 2001; Pratt, 1997).  However, very little attention has been given to the interactions between these two aspects (Chapain and Comunian, 2009; Hall, 2000, 2004; Pratt, 2008). Without a detailed understanding of these interactions, a misrepresentation of the potential economic value of the creative economy can be formed.

The pressure to develop ‘creative cities’ has encouraged policy makers to adopt standardised formulas for cultural development. This often takes the form of a check-list of requirements such as a new art gallery, an ethnic festival, a media cluster or some public art. However, with this method no attention is given to the process of cultural development. While these assets might provide an initial attraction for companies or creative practitioners, what processes can sustain cultural development ?

The present paper draws on the principles of complexity theory (CT) to present the micro-dynamics of the creative economy in the context of NewcastleGateshead. It argues that the cultural development of a city (i.e. the process of becoming or being ‘creative city’) is a complex adaptive system (CAS) responding to CT principles. While this implies a critique and dismissal of any ‘one-size fit all’, top-down policy and consultancy solution, it auspicates the use of a more agents-focused and interaction-based understanding for both researchers and policy-makers.

The paper begins with defining and understanding the concept of the creative city and its more recent interpretations. Secondly, it outlines the principles of CT and its previous association to creative economy literature. Limits and challenges of the CT are also illustrated.

In the third section, the case study of NewcastleGateshead is presented and empirical materials are discussed in order to demonstrate that a ‘creative city’ is a CAS. The focus here is on the agents and their interdependence and interconnection with the context.  Finally, the paper proposes the need to re-think the creative city and its link to economic and cultural development from the prospective of the agents interacting in this CAS.


1 Definitions and limits of the ‘creative city’

1.1 What is the ‘creative city’?

Part of confusion and misunderstanding which surrounds policies and theoretical approaches to the ‘creative city’ are linked to a poor definition as a concept and the connotations which have been attached to it.

The first coherent formulation of the concept of ‘creative city’ is to be attributed to Bianchini and Landry (1995). Their work, taken forward singularly by Landry (2000), was linked to new re-positioning of cultural industries and cultural regeneration in urban development in UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They present ‘creativity’ in its broadest sense, considering how thinking outside the box can help  cities solve their everyday problems in innovative ways. Any lack of creativity needs to be solved in a multi-disciplinary way: all creativity – be it scientific or artistic – can make a difference to cities.  Among the examples, many present the interaction between artists or art organisations and places or communities.

In these examples a vision of culture as an engine to support a cities’ image and  economic future is also portrayed. Their work coincided with a new interpretation of role of culture within the European Capital of Culture (ECC) initiative, specifically after the title was awarded to Glasgow in 1990 [1].

Until the end of the 90s, the European academic and policy interpretation of ‘creative city’ as a concept  largely corresponds to the regenerative potential of culture presented in the ECC vision. The focus in both interpretations is on an improvement of the city (with potential economic returns) and its image through creative interventions and cultural activities. The cultural economy, specifically focused on consumption and image, becomes central.

Nevertheless, from 1998 onwards, the word ‘creative’ become popular in a variety of contexts and interpretations which still influence the meaning of the concept ‘creative city’ today. This represents a shift towards the production of culture and creative products and the presence of skilled labour driving the new knowledge / creative economy. This shift is linked, chronologically, first to the emergence of the term ‘creative industries’ (DCMS, 1998) and secondly to the development of the ‘creative class’ theory  (Florida, 2002b).

In reference to the first, the acceptance of the term ‘creative industries’ and the DCMS definition implied a new focus on the production of cultural/creative products, the infrastructure behind them and the creative worker.  Therefore, a new interpretation of the creative city emerges as the city where work and production of creative industries is concentrated and supported (J Montgomery, 2005).  There are elements of consumption here, when the creative industries and their cultural scenes are able to shape the image of a city and attract visitors, but these are only peripheral to the production perspective.

The second, more recent and more powerful association is the one between the ‘creative city’ and the ‘creative class’ (Florida, 2002b). This has emerged from the success of Florida’s first book (2002b) and has added an extra connotation to the creative city term and in many cases has superseded the previous understanding. Florida’s theory (2002a, 2000b) suggests that the economic success of a city is determined by the presence (and attraction) of the ‘creative class’. This ‘creative class’ is encompassing  a wide range of professionals, of which creative industries workers are only a small proportion [2].

Nevertheless, the ‘creative city’ can now be interpreted as the city with the highest actual presence of – or potential to attract – the creative class.

Florida’s suggests that in order to appeal to this group, cities should foster a cultural climate able to promote diversity, investing in structures devoted to culture and entertainment [3]. Many American and European cities have seen in Florida’s (2002b) theories a ready-to- use methodology and a guide for local economical development.

However, his theory has been criticised on different fronts; for many authors adopting Florida’s hypothesis as a reliable methodology for the  development of future urban growth is considered a scientific overstatement. Limits of the theory can be identified from the following:

  • From an economic perspective. In reference to traditional measure of development, the correlations found in the research have not roven to have a precise connection of causality with economic development (Malanga, 2004). Furthermore, the theory does not seem to take into considération the decline that followed in many USA cities after the ‘dot com’ boom (Kotkin, 2005).
  • From a policy and political perspective. Florida has secured himself consultancy contracts and space in the building of a “fast urban policy” for creative cities worldwide: “so packaged, creativity strategies were in a sense pre-constituted for this fast policy market” (Peck, 2005, p. 767).
  • From a social perspective. Donald and Morrow (2003) highlight how many local policy makers, including Florida himself, tend to mistake tolerance – an open-minded approach towards diversity – with the simple presence of cultural diversity. Additionally, it is significant that Florida forgets to include in his indexes certain critical social factors (such as age, differences in income, racial segregation, etc.). Similarly, McCann (2007) underlines the strong links between the creative city-region approach and inequalities, which also for Florida (2004) remains an open question.

Although all of these criticisms are interrelated, the present article aims to consider the limits of this approach specifically from cultural policy perspective.

The limitation of this kind of policy intervention is that it is fundamentally based on developing assets for attraction and growth, from a top-down perspective. It forces the idea that for a city to be ‘creative’ there  needs to be specific local assets such as cultural amenities, café culture, cultural diversity, as well as a provision for high technology. It does not seem to explain how the creative class interacts with these types of assets, or what competitive advantages they actually create.

Many of these policy actions suggested by the ‘creative class’ theory are geared towards building an attractive façade that gives the creative class the impression of living in an appealing cosmopolitan and buzzing city, a “cool city strategy” (Kotkin, 2005).

Nevertheless, this façade remains there for mainly aesthetic reasons: it is hard to prove that the high-skilled knowledge workers of the new media sector are going to be the ones particularly interested in visiting an art gallery or taking part in an ethnic festival.

“What is not being argued here is that there is an intrinsic value in ‘culture’ that attracts the ‘creatives’” (Pratt, 2008, p.108). On the contrary, it seems that the creative class profiled by Florida simply merges together professions which have very different approaches to life and culture (Markusen, 2006b).

Many of Florida’s (Florida, 2002a) indexes are based on the presence of specific assets (‘hard’ factors) and infrastructures –  as well as specific type of professions (bohemians): for his ‘cultural index’ and ‘coolness factor’ the cultural infrastructure, such as museums and galleries –  is considered a proxy as well as the presence of nightlife and clubs.  The CT, which will be introduced in the next paragraph, suggests that while these assets can play a role, the key to understand the development of creative cities is not in the assets but in the interactions and relations developed between the community and these assets and between different elements of this infrastructure. It is argued that a complexity  perspective – which takes in consideration the importance of networks and non-linear interactions – needs to acquire a new, central role in the argument of the creative city.


1.2 Contradictions and limits of the creative city policy

The concept of creative city has a variety of connotations and is linked to a variety of perspectives on the role of cultural consumption and production in the city. However, it can be argued that the policy succes of the ‘creative class’ theory and the oversimplification it implies has created a strong contradiction between the ‘creative city’ as a global discourse and its possible articulation in local urban development. Furthermore, the paper argues, it has enforced globally a top-down homologated approach to local cultural development.  As with many fuzzy concepts (Markusen, 2003) and global branding exercises (Jensen, 2005; Kearns and Philo, 1993), it can be seen as another globalised brand which has been accepted and adopted without critical debate or intervention. In particular, Europe has been very receptive to the concept (Florida and Tinagli, 2004), although previous research adopting a more embedded approach to the creative city (Bianchini and Landry, 1995; Landry, 2000) did not enjoy the same success.

Some of the limits emerging in urban policy discourses can be understood in light of the following contradictions and policies dilemmas:

  • Creative class versus creative industries / cultural workers. In the policy arena these two terms are often confused but they refer to a very different set of ‘stakeholders’. It is wrongly believed that these  groups want the same interventions and that interventions will cater homogenously for both (Markusen, 2006a). This is examined by Montgomery (2005) who points out that the creative cities listed by Florida (especially in the European analysis) often do not reflect the reality of the creative industries [4]. Similarly, Gibbon (2005) suggests that even though Florida’s theory might be valid for the American context, this  does not imply that a similar correlation can be found in European cities.
  • Local values versus global competitiveness in urban regeneration. This relates both to the kind of assets that are promoted and the kind of audiences that are targeted. There is a contradiction in how urban regeneration and other policy intervention cater for the ‘creative class’ or for the local distinctiveness value. This is explained by Bailey et al (2004) who point out that Florida’s creative class is far from promoting the kind of local culture and identity that is central to many successful urban regeneration projects. They argue that this paradigm promotes a globalised culture that can cause a location to become anonymous by virtue of its prescribed ‘diversity’. This vision is almost in antithesis with the decline of the identity and community links typical of Florida’s globalised city model. This is also linked to a larger debate on who should be the audience and target for cultural development of cities: the local community that can interact with the development in the long-term but may not have high-spending capacity or the visitors with their short-term use of the city that can generate economic returns.
  • Short-term attraction versus long-term retention policies. There seem to be a tendency for policy to adopt a short-term perspective and underestimate the need for balance between the attraction of « foreign » talent and the development of local talent. Theoretically, there is no guarantee that investing in the attraction of “outside” talents produces better long term results than investing in the “empowerment” and consolidation of local talent. On the contrary, if the focus is the attraction of a highly mobile creative class, cities would have to continuously compete for the retention of those highly skilled people with other fast-growing creative metropolises (Evans, 2009). As Gray argues (2009, p. 19) “the Creativity Fix is most insidious when it assumes that every city can win in the battle for talent and growth. Creativity scripts, however, are better understood as “zero-sum” urban strategies constituted within the context of uneven urban growth patterns ».

On the contrary some literature suggests that the grassroots development of creative industries can provide a long-term view: “the development of a viable  indigenous sector is crucial to providing a long-term basis for employment in the industry.” (Coe, 2000, p.392). Moreover, this could lead to the possibility of many investments and projects attracting the creative class towards a city or town causing the progressive exclusion or displacement of local artists, especially when they are forced out of the regenerated area due to rising property values (Catungal et al., 2009; Zukin, 1985, 1995).

    These contradictions and dilemmas present in current policy are the result of a limited understanding of the system of relations and interconnections of the complex system which is the cultural development of the city. This has led to the wishful thinking that one policy solution can cater for all cities cultural development. As García (2004) suggests, in the lessons to be learnt from past examples of culture-led urban-regeneration « the hype is surrounded by a strong pressure among policy-makers and cultural practitioners to find the perfect model of action […] there are no straight answers, or clear models to follow » (Garcia, 2004, p.322).

    However, in this fast-policy world, it is suggested that a careful reflection on the features of the promoters and beneficiaries of the « creative city » model is needed “until we have a serious debate concerning values and ethics, the creative city will remain a comfortable ‘feel-good’ concept for  consultants, policy makers and politicians rather than a serious agenda for radical change” (Chatterton, 2000, p. 397).

    The next paragraph will introduce CT, its principles and its possible application to a better understanding of the cultural development of cities. It will be argued that a complexity perspective can help to better understand the interactions and dynamics concerning these different dilemmas.


    Next chapter : Complexity thinking and the créative city


    [1] Glasgow is the first city to be given the title that had not been a culturally recognized leading European city; previous hosts had been cities like Florence and Paris (see García 2005). The choice of Glasgow was motivated specifically by the potential to improve of its image and regenerate the city.

    [2]  In Florida’s own words at the core of the creative class there are ‘people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and/or new creative content’, but also ‘the creative professionals in business and finance, law, healthcare and related fields. These people engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital’ (Florida 2002b, p.8)

    [3] This is articulated further in the three Ts indexes: technology, talent and tolerance are the proxy by which the ability of a city to attract creative class can be measured and implemented.

    [4] For example, Montgomery (2005) suggests how Leicester becomes the second most creative city in UK, just because too much weight is put on that it has a large non-white population even if its creative economy is not developed more than other UK cities. He argues that “the only indicator that matters is the strength of a city’s creative economy, measured in the number of businesses and employees, and by the wealth they produce » (Montgomery, 2005, p.339).



    *Dr. Roberta Comunian is Creative Industries Research Associate at the School of Arts, University of Kent. Prior to this, she was lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Southampton. She holds a European Doctorate title in Network Economy and Knowledge Management. She is interested in: relationship between public and private investments in the arts, art and cultural regeneration projects, cultural and creative industries, creativity and competitiveness. She has been visiting researcher at University of Newcastle investigating the relationship between creative industries, cultural policy and public supported art institutions. She has previously undertaken research on knowledge transfer and creative industries within an AHRC Impact Fellowship award at the University of Leeds.


    Filed under: Analyses, Expériences, Gouvernances, Ingénieries, Politiques culturelles, , , , , ,

    2 Responses

    1. How do I access the next chapter?

      Excellent article – how good to see such a considered response to the ‘quick fix’ solutions that seem to have become fashionable over recent years. As a creative practitioner operating in the infrastructure/intermediary areas of the creative industries, I am concerned to help win substantiated credibility and investment for the sector. I also want to see the sector’s impact, in which I wholly believe, actually being experienced by all levels of communities. And frankly I think it is right, and I love it, that we are part of the broader ‘Knowledge Economy’. But I just worry that an oversimplification of the idea of the creative city means that the creative industries are suddenly seen as a panacea for all our urban ills and that we offer a short term fix. In reality, we CAN help but we are not the whole solution. In my 30 year experience of the sector, positive impact is essentially a long term process and results are ineluctably tied to the quality of the creative work and its strategic leadership, formal or informal. It is, as Roberta indicates, a highly complex process and it is great to see that recognised. Incidentally, Roberta, Professor Calvin Taylor was my founding Chairman and remains on our board. I wish we had met!

      • CEG postmaster dit :

        Thanks for your comment ! The next chapter will be published this week-end.
        Kind regards,
        CEG postmaster.

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