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Rethinking the creative city: the role of complexity, networks and interactions in the urban creative economy / 4

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.

3. The creative and cultural economy of the city as a complex system

The creative city model, as we have highlighted, has been used as an instrumental approach to developing cultural and creative economies in different urban contexts. Nevertheless, the limitations of this approach are clear in terms of sustainability, social inclusion and development of local grassroots cultural economies. It is important to see how support and cultural policy should therefore be developed without imposing strategies and characteristics which are extraneous to the local environment (Nathan, 2005), instead supporting and developing local assets and actors to enable them to build a sustainable cultural economy.

Much of the economic literature relating to creative industries and regional economic development mentions the importance of networks and co-location in order to build a vibrant economy (Coe, 2001; Coe, 2000; Gibson, 2003; Kong, 2005; Lange, 2005; Scott, 2004; Turok, 2003). The creative industries sector is comprised of small and medium size companies, and sole trading is typical. It is therefore easy to see how networking can have a role and an impact in the development of economic growth and support for the sector.

When investigating the potentials of the creative city, it is not useful to establish which kind of investment and assets are needed if we do not first understand how creative and cultural practitioners work, and what kind of agencies they require for their practices. It is important to investigate how culturepreneurs “act in order to build up networks, to arrange meetings, and to establish urban laboratories where new products can be tested and where experience and knowledge may be shared” (Lange, 2005, p.82).

Therefore, it is essential to look at the development of local creative and cultural economies, adopting a new approach. In this respect complexity theory can offer useful insight into the cultural dynamics of the city (Allen, 1997; Batty, 2005), particularly as it examines the importance of a bottom-up approach where the determinants of the cultural development of the city do not depend only on the political choices of the leaders, but on the complex network of relations which the cultural agents and practitioners of the city build and develop. In this respect, Florida’s (2002) study of the creative class  suggests an interesting correlation of the relationship between cultural factors and the development of creative economies, but the way in which these cultural factors can be implemented or stimulated has often been misinterpreted.

As many authors (Finch and Orillard, 2005; Mitleton-Kelly, 2006) point out, complexity theory is not a single unified theory, but has been developed through the study of complex systems in different contexts, such as biology, chemistry, computer simulation, mathematics and organisational science. Nevertheless, part of this corpus of study has focused on human systems, and suggests that complex social systems (such as an urban environment) share features with other complex systems, and are able to create new order and innovate. Complexity theory offers some useful suggestions regarding the principles which guide the evolution and development of complex systems, and how cultural factors and agents interact, respond and evolve in different ways in specific contexts. More recently, Martin and Sunley (2007) have investigated the potential and the challenges of using complexity theory in economic geography. The way in which the principles[i] developed within the context of complexity theory can be applied to the social and economic dynamics of a city or region has been questioned, and as suggested by Green (1999), even though we can have snapshots of the complexity of a system and its complex behaviour, it is more difficult to address its evolutionary nature.

Using the framework developed by Green (Green, 1999) the second part of the paper seeks to question how the cultural economy of a city needs be studied as a complex co-evolving system (CCES), 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 process is not unilateral but reciprocal or co-evolutionary. CCES have a set of interrelated characteristics that influence each other and enable them to create new order” (Mitleton-Kelly, 2006, p. 225).  In order to understand in which terms the cultural development of a city should be analysed through the lens of a complexity approach, we draw upon the case study of Newcastle-Gateshead and interviews carried out with cultural and creative practitioners of the North East region of England[ii].

4. Methodology and case study

The results presented in the following section were gathered over two years of research carried out in Newcastle-Gateshead and the North East region of England between 2004 and 2006. The project included 136 interviews with local creative practitioners in the region and people working in the cultural sector not only in the private but also in the public and not for profit sector. The central focus of the research was on the importance of place and networks in the creative economy, using both qualitative interviews and social network analysis.

The context of Newcastle-Gateshead and the North East represent a somewhat challenging case study for research into the development of local creative and cultural industries. On one hand, the region’s growing attention towards this sector is part of a long-term regeneration commitment, and on the other, Newcastle-Gateshead, unlike many of the famous case studies addressed by the literature, missed the cultural summit and missed the opportunity to be European Capital of Culture 2008 in favour of Liverpool.

The region’s focus on cultural investment began in the early nineties when the region attracted the Year of Visual Arts in 1996. The ability of some regional actors (lead by Northern Arts, now the Arts Council North East) to attract large public investments to the region in order to revitalise the local economy and develop local participation in arts activities is widely acknowledged (Bailey et al., 2004). These investments enabled the creation of large publicly funded cultural infrastructures, not only in contemporary art (The Baltic) and music (The Sage Gateshead) but also in theatres (refurbishments of the Northern Stage, Theatre Royal and Live Theatre), crafts (National Glass Centre, expansion of the Shipley Gallery), literature (Seven Stories), dance (Dance City) and other important events. Nevertheless, the question of whether and to what extent public sector infrastructure has benefited and boosted the local creative economy is not a simple one to address. The region, and specifically Newcastle-Gateshead have definitely benefited from a new image as a ‘creative city’[iii], but local development followed different patterns when the Capital of Culture event was no longer to take place in the city and new motivation and reasons to keep the city’s commitment to its cultural investments needed to be found.

At the beginning of the 2000’s, the RDA, local authorities and support agencies started to look at the potential economic impact of the creative economy locally and regionally, with a strong commitment to the idea of ‘cultural quarters’ as a hub of the city. At the marketing and promotional level, a first formulation of the ‘cultural quarters’ map of the city was developed by Newcastle-Gateshead Initiative (NGI), the city destination agency. In this first presentation 5 cultural quarters[iv] where included: the Quayside, Grainger Town, the Haymarket, Chinatown and Jesmond. The interpretation of what a ‘cultural quarter’ is was based mainly on the consumption of culture either through the presence of large cultural institutions or trendy shops. In this classification, no mention was made of the Ouseburn Valley, the largest co-location of artists and creative practitioners in the area.  Since 2002-3, a second ‘cultural quarter’ strategy has been led by the University of Newcastle, which developed a new master plan and major refurbishment initiative for its cultural facilities, but also addresses the role of cultural production (specifically through the Culture Lab and the Northern Writer’s Centre).  Additionally, investments in the Ouseburn Valley as the cultural production heart of the city, on the opposite side of the shiny Quayside buildings, started taking place.

More recently, a wider focus has been developed, based not on clusters, but networks. Specifically, various networks and infrastructures have been put in place to address the needs of the various creative sub-sectors. Agencies like Codeworks (for media industries), Northern Film and Media (for the moving image sector) or New Writing North (for writers) and others have been in charge of developing schemes and training to boost the local creative economy.

In the following paragraphs, we use the material collected through interviews and ethnographic research to address how the cultural and creative development of a city should be read from a complexity perspective. In particular, within this complexity perspective, we try to present a system which interacts at a variety of levels and the different ways in which changes and structures are experienced and understood by people acting at different levels in the system, particularly practitioners and policy makers.

[i]  For an useful overview on the principles of complexity theory see Martin and Sunley (2007) p. 6.

[ii] The field work undertaken for the present research included 136 semi-structured interviews with people working in the creative and cultural industries (within the private and the public and not for profit sector) in the North-East region of England. Interviews took place between November 2005 and April 2006. Furthermore, social network analysis has been used to test the role of networks and infrastructures.

[iii] Newsweek Atlantic Edition on 2nd September 2002 wrote “Newcastle-Gateshead listed as one of the world’s eight most creative city”.

[iv] The information are present on-line and include a map of the city cultural quarters  (accessed on 5 January 2008)


*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 chapters :

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

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

Rethinking the creative city: the role of complexity, networks and interactions in the urban creative economy / 3

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