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In defense of a creative industries ecology…

A response from Martin Smith to Iain Bennett on why there is no such thing as a creative industries ‘ecosystem’.

A response from Martin Smith to Iain Bennett on why there is no such thing as a creative industries ‘ecosystem’.

The ‘creative industries’ are dead. Long live the ‘creative industries’!

Both these apparently contradictory declamations speak truth. The creative industries’ trope, positioned centre-stage for policy purposes by Chris Smith, John Newbigin and others in the late 1990s, has turned out not only to be a stunningly successful exercise in political marketing, but in addition become a significant UK export. It has also, in my view, outlived its usefulness for many analytical purposes, as its progenitors knew it would. It struggles to carry the combined weight of serious cultural, sociological and economic analysis. It is in this sense dead, or at least gasping for breath.

At the same time the ‘creative industries’ are very much alive, thriving indeed, and oversold – as in 2001 and again in 2007- but this time supported by a new or newish panoply of cheerleaders, including the Creative Industries Council (CIC) and the recently established Creative Industries Federation (CIF). There is something rather childlike about the language employed in current, official creative industries’ discourse. This is evident both in the promotional literature of the government’sGREAT campaign and the exhortations of the CIC, for example at its Parliamentary and public events: let’s give ourselves three cheers and tell the world how good we are!

There is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating creative and commercial achievements, or with taking credit for well-earned international successes on any level. The policy problem is partly one of hubris. A lot of Brits really do seem to think, unreflectively and without differentiation, that we are better at this stuff than the Indians or the Chinese – or for that matter the Americans and the Germans. On some measures they are right; on others wrong. But, to Iain Bennett’s main point, it is also a problem of language. In this sense Iain is – as we say in the commercial sector – right on the money.

This difficulty is not surprising however. In my 2013 Arts Council England/ RSA guest essay/lecture I wrote as follows:

The conceptual landscape is genuinely confusing. By combining a range of previously distinct creative, commercial and professional activities and bundling them up as ‘the culture industries’, ‘the cultural industries’, ‘the creative industries’ or ‘the creative economy’, analysts have elided certain concepts that sit together somewhat uncomfortably. One thinks of the contrasting notions of cultural value and economic value, private markets and public infrastructure, price and beauty, data and aesthetics, personal identity and mass media, and entrepreneurship and collaboration. Add in the ‘c’ word, creativity, and the ‘i’ word, innovation, and you are soon in awkward territory with lots of square pegs being banged metaphorically into round holes. (1)

Following Iain’s recent combative and passionate intervention, with which I mostly sympathise, we must now throw in the ‘e’ word: ecology.

This is where we part company. I completely agree with Iain that “Any response to …. complex policy challenges calls for precise language to describe the actions that need to be taken. It needs to communicate an understanding of the structural, competitive, regulatory, commercial and educational forces in the markets, supply chains and skills base of the companies and individuals affected.” However I also think that the metaphor of ecology provides a valid and particularly cogent way of communicating just such an understanding.

John Holden has made this point definitively in his recent study for the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) entitled The Ecology of Culture. “An ecological approach”, Holden writes,

concentrates on relationships and patterns within the overall system, showing how careers develop, ideas transfer, money flows, and product and content move, to and fro, around and between the funded, homemade and commercial subsectors. Culture is an organism not a mechanism; it is much messier and more dynamic than linear models allow. (2)

All metaphors have their limitations, but I think Professor Holden’s analysis is right, and that the ecological metaphor is greatly superior to the linear metaphor of ‘spill-overs’. Holden’s analysis, and language, is certainly consonant with my own experience as a practitioner in the worlds of film, TV drama, theatre, live events and music.

As regards public policy, I agree with Iain that we are confronted with multiple challenges, one of which, as he says, is a dangerous political reflex that “the process of growth in creative industries is a natural force that can take root in any soil, irrespective of its distance from the knowledge base, talent pool, investment capital and markets from which it draws its nourishment.” I disagree that the use of ecological language is a barrier either to greater understanding or to the design and execution of appropriate policy responses.

For the creative industries, dead or alive, investment is the key challenge, and in the UK chronic short-termism is the enemy. As to the trope itself, I find it increasingly difficult to support the use of terminology which has rested, almost since inception, on an intellectual land-grab involving large chunks of the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. But that, as they say, is for another day!

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1. “Yes, Britain’s Got Talent, but is that Enough? An Essay on Art, Commerce and the Creative Economy”, RSA/ACE, 2013, p.3.
2. John Holden, “The Economy of Culture”, a Report commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value Project, AHRC, 2015

Martin Smith is Managing Director of West Bridge Consulting Ltd., Special Adviser to Ingenious, Chairman of St John’s, Smith Square and the London Festival of Baroque Music, a former chair of the Young Vic Theatre Company and an adviser to the National Film & Television School (NFTS) amongst other bodies. He writes in a personal capacity.

Image credit: Duncan A on Flickr Creative Commons