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Rethinking the creative city: the role of complexity, networks and interactions in the urban creative economy / 2

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.


2. Complexity thinking and the creative city

2.1. Complexity theory and its principles

While this paper cannot present a full account of CT, it attempts to explore how this theory might provide a new key for a deeper and more articulated understanding of the cultural dynamics that unfold in urban contexts. In order to do so a brief outline of the theory is provided and its main principles are introduced.

Secondly, the application of complexity to cultural economy is explored, in particular as related to creative industries and cultural production in previous research. Finally, methodological issues are addressed to explore the potential and limits of using CT in the creative city debate.

As many authors (Finch and Orillard, 2005; Mitleton-Kelly, 2006) point out, complexity theory (CT) is not a single unified theory, but has been developed through the study of complex systems in different fields, such as biology, computer science and organisational studies. The CT was first developed in scientific disciplines but has recently been adopted and integrated in the social sciences approaches (Byrne, 1998; Urry, 2003).

This new focus on human systems has suggested that complex social systems, such as cities or institutions, share features with other complex systems. CT offers some useful suggestions regarding the principles which guide the evolution and development of complex systems and how agents interact, respond and evolve in different environments. Nevertheless, it can be argued that its insights have not had wide adoption in social and economic geography although some seminal papers such as Thrift (1999) and more recently, Martin and Sunley (2007) have attempted to clarify its potential and challenges

Across different disciplines, a system can be considered ‗complex‘ when it displays the characteristics and specific principles outlined in Table 1. The key feature of the system must be that its elements interact in a non-linear way: it is not possible to forecast the behaviour and direction taken by the system as a whole by simply having knowledge of its components.

The first step to understand a complex system is identifying who are the agents interacting within it. These can be both human and non-human elements. This is particularly relevant to the cultural field as non-human elements such as a specific place, idea or cultural product can have powerful influences on a city‘s cultural development.

Complex systems are also open systems; therefore, external elements interacting with the cultural field must also be taken into consideration. Elements which might be marginal to the cultural development, such as the local environment and its economic development can have important influences on the system. Through CT we accept that there are no deterministic patterns that can be followed, this is one of the main criticism to the creative class theory.  The value of using CT lies in the possibility to understand the micro-dynamics of the system. This allows us to identify the emergence of structures and organisational forms that support and facilitate the connectivity and growth of the system will be addressed.

Another key aspect of CAS is their evolutionary nature; they develop through processes of trial-and-error, ―failures and successes are not primarily the signals of right or wrong policies but, rather, the by-pro duct of a natural learning process‖ (Lambooy, 2002, p. 1033).

Table 1:  Principles of CT and possible application in the cultural field (sources: Colliers (1998); Pavard and Dugdale (2000), Martin and Sunley (2007))



2.2. Complexity and the creative industries

As suggested, there are a variety of ways to read the development of cultural economies in cities as a CAS. To support this view, there are a series of other contributions, which are linked with the creative industries literature, which needs to be acknowledged. They also seem to integrate the complexity perspective at different scales: looking at interactions between creative industries within local clusters and, at the macro-level, in relation to the interaction between creative products and their global markets. The paper argues that these perspectives need to become part of the policy thinking also at an urban development level. The limits of the current debate, specifically in relation to the opposition between cultural production and cultural consumption, needs to be considered. When analysing creative industries production systems, the importance of patterns and dynamics of cultural consumption in the city is often overlooked. On the contrary, when cultural consumption (from the perspective of regeneration, image or participation) is studied, the system of local cultural production of that specific context is often ignored. [5]

At the micro-level (interaction among creative practitioners and local networks) there have been key contributions underlining the role of local intermediaries in facilitating interactions among local creative industries (Fleming, 2002), the importance of social dynamics in the interaction of creative industries (Kong, 2005) and the role of place as creating consensus among different agents (Julier, 2005). A large part of the literature relating to clusters and regional economic development suggests the importance of networks (Christopherson, 2002; Coe, 2000; Crewe, 1996; Ettlinger, 2003; Gordon and McCann, 2000; Grabher, 2002; Johns, 2006; Knox et al., 2005; Meusburger, 2000; Mossig, 2004; Neff, 2004; Sturgeon, 2003) and these arguments have been, on various occasions, interconnected with the urban cultural infrastructure through terms such as cultural quarters or cultural milieu.

At the meso-level (the urban development and its cultural dynamics) the contributions have been weaker in reference to identifying key structures and dynamics but the need to a better understanding of the interaction between consumption and production in the creative city as been acknowledged (Chapain and Comunian, 2009; Hall, 2000, 2004; Pratt, 2009).

At the macro-level (the markets dynamics in the creative economy) there has been a growing recognition of the specificities of the creative sector, particularly: its social contagion dynamics (Kretschmer et al., 1999); the thin boundaries between the creative, knowledge and information sectors (Cunningham, 2004); its evolutionary dynamics and the role of social network markets (Albertsen and Diken, 2004; Potts, 2007; Potts et al., 2008); the role of consumer and meanings creation (Hartley, 2004) and the breaking down of barriers between producer and consumer (Uricchio, 2004).

The nature of the creative industries, as described by the literature mentioned, seems to suggest a potential role for CT, without directly acknowledging or applying it.  In fact, while creative industries are embedded in closely linked local networks (Banks et al., 2000; Coe, 2000) they also are part of a global cultural production system (Scott, 2004). The interactions between public and private in the sector also implies a strong openness and instability (O’Connor, 2002). This is further accentuated by the bifurcated structure of the sector where few multinational corporation co-exist with a miriade of micro-enterprises, freelancers and sole-traders (Jeffcutt and Pratt, 2002). All these features inevitably add to the complexity of the sector and its relation with the urban context.

The understanding of micro-dynamics among creative industries and other agents at the local level is key in the understanding of the development of creative cities. This needs to be also integrated into the bigger picture of the creative economy and its global dynamics, although for space constrains this paper will only superficially consider this.


2.3. Methodological implications and limits

The application of CT encourages a stronger focus on process rather than outcomes. It does so by exploring the interaction among agents alongside the changes taking place in the context. We must consider what the manifestations of these interactions are and how they can be capture by the researcher. This is one of the most challenging aspects of CT. Most of the changes and interactions are hard to identify as they involve micro-interactions within the system.  It can be argued that this long-term complex perspective should be embedded in most of the academic research, but the reality is that the ‗short-term‘ policy (Jayne, 2005; Oakley, 2004, 2006) does not take into account this complexity perspective.

The application of CT allows for a variety of research methods, from qualitative approaches to mathematical modelling and network analysis. In this paper, the results from qualitative interviews and ethnographic materials from NewcastleGateshead are used to demonstrate the way in which the cultural development of the city behaves like a CAS. The findings imply an awareness of the agents of the complex network of interactions in the cultural economy of the city. The manifestations are very different across different sectors of the creative industries [6] as well as across public, private and not for profit sectors.

The way in which the principles of CT can be applied to the social and economic dynamics of a city has been questioned. Green (1999) argues that, although we can have snapshots of the complexity of a system and its behaviour, it is more difficult to address its evolutionary nature. This is a limitation which could not be overcome in this research, as it would require revisiting the context over time. Using the framework developed by Green (1999) the last part of the paper seeks to question how the cultural economy of a city needs be studied as a CAS, meaning that creativity and the cultural aspects of the urban context do not just adapt to changes in the environment (such as a specific policy or a large investment) but they also influence and affect that specific context.

The results presented in the following section were gathered over two years of research carried out in NewcastleGateshead and the North East region of England between 2004 and 2006. The project included 136 interviews and collection of social network analysis data with local creative/cultural professionals in both the private, public and not for profit sectors.


[5] I acknowledge the suggestion of one of the referees in the necessity to point out this limit of the current debate.

[6] Although it would be interesting to explore these difference among creative industries sectors, for space limitation the paper will not aim to do this.


*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.


Previous chapter :

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

  • Introduction
  • 1 Definitions and limits of the ‘creative city’
  • 1.1 What is the ‘creative city’?
  • 1.2 Contradictions and limits of the creative city policy



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

One Response

  1. Fascinating! It seems to describe the sector as I know it – why, I wonder, has the use of complexity theory not received more attention? Think this could be a significant contribution to some of the current thinking on the creative sector that is going on in Europe at the moment (but you probably know that already!) Looking forward to the 17th!

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