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Why there is no such thing as a creative industries ‘ecosystem’

28 April 2015
28.04.2015

BOP Associate Director Iain Bennett argues that economic policy for the creative industries must be based on clarity of purpose, consistent measurement and precise terminology

The General Election is a critical moment for the UK’s creative industries. They have been recognised as a driver of innovation and economic growth, but there is huge uncertainty about which policies may be put in place to support them by any incoming government, or even which Minister should be responsible.

The challenges are many and diverse – from the creation of a million new jobs (Nesta); to the need to recruit and train a million software developers (Andy Green, Chairman of the Digital Catapult); to there balancing of the UK economy away from over-dependence on the financial sector and London; to the need to identify a sustainable mechanism for continued arts and cultural funding in times of austerity; to the threat to current business models of the audio-visual sectors posed by digital technologies.

These challenges clearly fall within different domains, including education, skills, regeneration, economics and regulation. At the time of writing, the UK Government doesn’t have an industrial strategy for creative industries that can address even the five issues identified above. How much less confident are we, then, that the ‘hard cases’ specific to industry sub-sectors, from performing arts to design, can be solved in anything other than a short-term and piecemeal way?

Any response to these 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. It calls for a response that distinguishes where the relationship between different sub-sectors is critical and adds value, and where there is simply no benefit in attempting to bracket them together as the ‘cultural and creative industries’ as a whole.

Some have sought to avoid making clear distinctions between the cultural and commercial aspects of the creative industries, or between sub-sectors within them. They have shied away from language that smacks of industrial processes and economics and describe the sector instead as an ‘ecosystem’. In the sense that an ecosystem is the interaction of the living and non-living elements of an environment, I have some sympathy with its use in this context: the creative industries recognises that human inputs are the element that transform its structural and market environment to create value.

My fear, however, is that the adoption of such ecological language is a threat to developing effective policy and industrial strategy for the creative industries. It allows people with responsibility for the sector to imagine that it is in some ways a self-regulating and inherently resilient system. That the creative industries are somehow governed by ‘organic’ processes separate from market forces. That creative industries can magically lead regeneration projects simply by the act of being placed in an environment that has proved hostile to other businesses, and in the process detoxify it for the cafe owners, retailers and property speculators who will inevitably follow. 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.

The conflation of cultural and commercial inputs in the UK Government’s preferred way of measuring creative industries is a part of that problem. When originally conceived in the late 1990s, the approach was seen as world-leading and, driven by a committed and energetic Minister of State, it certainly helped raise awareness across government departments of the economic relevance of a sector that had not been given its due credit as a driver of jobs and growth. However, the combined outputs of the sector as measured by DCMS – about half of which are generated by software-based businesses – have been too willingly appropriated by other parts of the sector, notably non-profit generating cultural institutions, as a justification for additional funding. This has distracted from attempts both to address the range of structural weaknesses and threats to the sector, and to identify diverse potential drivers of innovation. And it has obscured the fact that the creative industries still suffer from aproductivity problem every bit as great as that of the UK economy as a whole.

Funding for ‘the arts’ is often seen as a ‘victimless cut’ by politicians, who take a calculated risk that the number of people likely to change their vote because of reduced subsidy for the opera is unlikely to affect the outcome in ‘key marginals’. However, measures to develop the supply of talent, capital, innovation and infrastructure, whether applied directly to creative industries or indirectly to cultural activity that forms part of the wider pool of talent and resource from which they draw, are not ‘subsidies’. Properly directed, they are ways to increase the productivity of a sector that is larger than the arms industry, larger than the rail industry, larger than the whole agricultural output of the country – all sectors in receipt of far more direct support than has ever been imagined for the combined cultural and creative industries. They are investments; and there is strong evidence to suggest that strategic and long-term management of a balanced portfolio that includes creative industries is critical to the success of the UK economy.

Those of us who work in cultural and creative industries, and seek to influence policies for its development, need to revisit existing classifications and allow the diverse range of cultural and commercial activities within them to be measured against relevant benchmarks; which may be their equivalents in other European countries, for example, rather than other sub-sectors within the UK. We need to take this opportunity to reflect those differences in more precise language. We need to be at once unapologetic in making the case for public funding for the arts; and unabashed in asserting the need for investment in education, skills, R&D and infrastructure needed to increase the productivity of an industrial sector whose success is critical to creating jobs and wealth. We can best help that process by using precise terms to describe what steps need to be taken. We need to articulate a position of strength from which to lobby for an industrial strategy for the creative industries, and against legislation that will have negative consequences for its future productivity and growth; and we need to drop the pretence that we are amateur ecologists.

A version of this article initially appeared in _Connect, the Creative, Digital and Design newsletter of Knowledge Transfer Network, part of Innovate UK.