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Rethinking the creative city: the role of complexity, networks and interactions in the urban creative economy / 6

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.

5.3 Connectivity, interdependence and self-organisation.

A complex system is characterized by interaction and inter-connectivity of the agents of the system and between the system as a whole and its environment. The level of interaction generates the complexity. If one looks at the culture offered by a city, it is easy to see how different organisations build partnerships and collaborate on events and projects. The private and public sectors often come together, and the connectivity in the contemporary art and cultural scene arises from the overlapping and exchange between different art forms. One element that is perceived as a key factor for the development of this connectivity in the context of Newcastle-Gateshead has been the joint bid for the Capital of Culture title. Although the title was eventually awarded to Liverpool, the process behind the joint bid started to build dialogue between different organisations, and fostered a new ability to work together. Matarasso (2000) stresses the importance of the bidding process itself, specifically referring to Newcastle-Gateshead. It promoted the debate on the importance of culture; it encouraged the networking of cultural institutions, created partnerships and common goals and provided a strong experience in terms of acquiring competences for cultural planning and management which is long-lasting legacy in the urban context.

In the first 18 months I was here we worked in shared public projects with almost every cultural organisation in the city it was a very deliberate policy, we also opened the building to creative people, young people in the region, people who had no real access to other venues […] the first people were not filmmakers but DJs, poets, people working at the fringe of this medium (Director, Public Cultural Organisation, Newcastle Upon Tyne)

But the connectivity and interdependence runs not only at the macro-level of agencies and institutions, but also at the micro-level in the creation of networks between creative and cultural practitioners (see paragraph 5.5). Responding to emergent properties or to particular innovative and enabling contexts, a complex cultural system can experience self-organisation. In the context of cultural and creative practitioners, self-organisation seems to be a common trend. In particular through collectives of artists, voluntary run spaces and galleries, but also through networks which are run organically and developed from the grassroots by artists (see paragraph 5.5)

 

5.4 Emergent properties, qualities, patterns or structures.

One of the complexity aspects which also characterized the creative and cultural infrastructure of the city, is the emergence of specific structure that regulate and inform the environment.

These emerging structures can be identified with creative clusters (Pratt, 2004) and the development of organic and institutional networks to support and govern the cultural actors and their agencies.

The fast growth of the sector as a whole can be seen as an emergence pattern: “The North East has grown faster than any other region except Scotland, but from a lower base than any other region” (CURDS, 2001, p.23). As Allen (1997) suggests these emerging structures are not determined uniquely by the context and its parameters, but are also dependent on timing and specific external intervention. This is where the public cultural policy seems to play a role in the complex development of a creative economy (Hesmondhalgh, 2005; Pratt, 2005). Nevertheless, this intervention can only provide non-linear impacts on the context. As Allen (1997) suggests in terms of the traditional beliefs in planning, the concept of what policy can or should do needs to be completely revisited.

Feedback is one central element of all the aspects and dynamics of a system. It can be read both as positive or negative feedback mechanisms that regulate the stability of the system. If we look at the cultural infrastructure of an urban context, there are many feedback mechanisms at various levels. For certain elements and commercial aspects the market represents feedback regulating production and consumption. In the cultural economy feedback is also provided by a variety of gatekeepers (Caves, 2000) and mediators (Albertsen and Diken, 2003) which regulate the access to the production facilities, even though the new technologies seem to have weakened the strength of formal gatekeepers providing direct access to audiences and markets.

There are a number of institutional organisations which provide feedback on the creative economy, and public policy and public funding appear to be a strong reinforcement

I felt the big thing we were getting from the Arts Council for the gallery business was their experience of similar ventures, it was almost like a vote of confidence, if they were willing to invest some funding it meant that we are heading down the right track, you never really know, it was reassuring to hear that (Commercial Art Gallery, Northumberland)

Nevertheless, peer-to-peer support and review seem to also be an important structure for the development of innovation. “The learning and innovation capacity of CI businesses depends to a high degree on the wider learning and innovation capacity of these surrounding networks” (O’Connor, 2002, p.9).

5.5  Networks as emergent properties or frameworks for public policy

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. Although in the economic argument networks are important mainly in terms of inter-firm trade, the creative industries seem to rely on networks for other aspects as well. The network structure in the creative and cultural industries seems to provide access to the market, but also to support the exchange of ideas and social interaction that is instrumental to the development of their work. Artists and craft makers rely on the network as a market building strategy and as a marketing strategy in itself. One example, in the context of the North East, is Designed and Made, which promotes designers and makers in the region and helps them to establish a brand and a way to promote their work and their practice.

I think it is really important for the North East to show that this kind of work exists in the region, that there is work here which is pushing the boundaries, and unless you have something like Designed & Made, other regions, and the rest of the UK and the world won’t know about the North East and what is going on here (Designer and Maker, Newcastle Upon Tyne)

Another example is Network Artists. Artists use the network to promote their practice and through the open studios Art Tour project they even get direct access to the market to sell their work. Cohesion, the glass artists’ network started by the local authority of Sunderland, has a specific focus on promoting the market for glass art and does so by specifically investing in exhibitions and the participation of artists in art fairs.

Networks are emergent structures which function in terms of support for creative practitioners. Another useful dimension of the network is the support that people get out of it. On one hand it may be moral and psychological support, which as suggested by a jewellery maker, is often a response to the isolated work of the artists / makers.

On the personal level it was really good for me because I was new to the region and I did not know many people so I found it quite a life-line because it got me involved with the artistic community and it made me feel part of something […] I think it is really important because as an artist/designer people work on their own and feeling quite isolated, it makes you feel there is other people out there that you can share experiences with, you get ideas bouncing ideas to people, it just helps” (Designer and Maker, Newcastle Upon Tyne)

Creative industries hardly identify themselves with the mainstream business support offered by local agencies. On the contrary, they believe that the best people to provide support or business advice are the people who work in the same sector or have experience in their field; therefore the peer–to-peer support through formal and informal networks seem to be a means to create the personal support infrastructure which a creative practitioner needs.

The most important thing is mixing with other people, you can make do without all the services provided and business advice but the most valuable information comes from other people doing the same things as you who are a year or two years further down the line and can remember how it is like to be in your position but they worked through those problems and they can advise you on how to do things (Jewellery Designer and Maker, Newcastle Upon Tyne)

Creative industries tend to rely on different types of networks. Although they would attend events and be within the network of specific formal organisations, they also have a smaller network of peers with which they talk more often and from whom they would seek advice.

It seems that sometimes formal networks are considered useful but impersonal and too structured; they are more like professional development organisations than actual networks. As Kauffman (1993) suggests in reference to biological systems “ecosystems are not totally connected. Typically each species interacts with a subset of the total numbers of other species; hence the system has some extended web structure » (Kauffman 1993, p.255). One element which seems central is the social dimension of the network and the type of bond and experience that holds people together. In this respect, it is often the case that within large formal networks people form smaller and closer social networks.  “Connectivity between individuals or groups is not a constant or uniform relationship, but varies over time, and with the diversity, density, intensity and quality of interactions between human agents” (Mitleton-Kelly, 2003, p.6). As an artist who started a network in the Newcastle area suggested:

I thought the network would grow and become more established, but it remained quite organic and it is made by how much people want to interact with it. It is very organic, in this sense because, as a living organism, sometime it is very active and lots of things go on, some other times it is more quite and slow but this is how it should be because it is organic and it follows the will of people to interact with it (Visual artists network manager)

The emergence of organic networks alongside institutional ones presents some critical challenges. In fact, institutional networks seem to force the social networking, while in the organic networks the social aspects are spontaneous. Furthermore, as an artist suggests, organic networks seem to respond more directly to the need of the people involved in the sector, 

Yes it is very important, because it is artist-led we are making it what we need, we know what we need and we are making it that, coming from us it is going to be more relevant than if it was coming from people in the public sector, who have the best intentions but they do not work in the sector and they do not exactly what we need (Glass artist, Newcastle Upon Tyne)

Although networking is often considered part of business practice, people working in the creative industries do not always perceive the need to network as part of their business development. The traditional idea of networking is often considered conventional, and frequently implies mixing with people from very different contexts or business sectors, thus making it seem irrelevant. Conversely, the social dimension, and the trust relationship which can be built (Banks et al., 2000) are perceived as very important for the person and their work. Therefore, networking often takes place informally and as part of normal social interactions, such as sharing common spaces, meeting down at the pub etc.

it was a voluntary organisation, it was founded by two writers and had come from grassroots level, we used to have a meeting once a month, we would have a speaker in and then go down to the pub, it was fantastic, then when Northern Arts decided to have a new full-time officer, a professional came in […] it seems to me that everything now is so much more formal rather than informal, that kind of social network disappeared (Freelance scriptwriter, Newcastle Upon Tyne)

As suggested by O’Connor (2002) “these networks are underpinned by infrastructures of knowledge and expertise which do have formal, institutional dimensions, but equally are embedded in more amorphous social and cultural infrastructures – described as ‘soft infrastructure’, or ‘critical infrastructure’, or ‘creative infrastructure’. These last terms concern those informal networks, those place specific cultural propensities, those ‘structures of feeling’ which are very difficult to grasp, let alone strategically direct, but which nonetheless are crucial to the urban regional ‘innovative milieu’” (p.27).

 

5.6 Networks and support to the creative economy: new planning for the creative city

Considering the general use of the local networks of local creative industries it could be argued that supporting different networks and communicating through them could provide an effective structure for support. In fact, if we think about the development of some formal and informal networks in the North East, it seems clear that public policy and funding have considered them a strategic way to support and sustain the sector.

Some examples of this would be the Cohesion glass artists network, started by the Sunderland City Council, Designed and Made, started organically by a group of artists and makers and than supported by public funding from the Arts Council of England North East, the Aurora Project (a development network for arts and crafts) supported by Northumberland County Council and European Regional Development Funding, and New Writing North, which started organically, and was then institutionalised and supported by the Arts Council North East, and has become the writing development agency for the North East of England. The public sector sees these networks as a useful support infrastructure for a number of reasons. First, it allows the public sector to delivery information and support to different people by supporting one organisation. It is an efficient way to spread relevant information, organise meetings and seminars and involve the larger sector. Secondly, it creates a critical mass for people coming from the outside and looking for information or deciding whether to start up in a specific sector. It presents the region as a place where creative people are sharing knowledge and are supporting each other. Lastly, it makes public investments more sustainable: instead of investing in one single person the sector can present its investment as sustaining the whole sector. It is an efficient and effective way to promote the regional creative industries to the outside, presenting strength and the potential for further development. However this public support has also caused some undesirable side effects. On one hand it makes the network much more institutionalised and bureaucratic. In fact, if we consider how much interaction, support and participation come from social networks, turning them into public support organisation to deliver specific outcomes can be risky, and can change the nature and quality of the network itself. Another problem is the thinking that the network encompasses the whole sector and all of its actors. Because there is a network of artists or designers, the public sector tends to invest in the network and support it. The risk is that people who do not want to take part in the network, or simply do not fall into the remit of a specific network feel like outsiders, cut off from the possibility of further interaction.

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*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.

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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

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

Rethinking the creative city: the role of complexity, networks and interactions in the urban creative economy / 5

 

 

 

 

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