Creativity and the city: Thinking through the steps

Artistic thinking and creative cities

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Artistic thinking and creative cities

The distinction between these arts and sports, writing a computer programme or engineering is that the latter are ends in themselves, they do not change the way you perceive society. The arts can have wider benefits by focusing on reflection, original thought, they pose challenges and want to communicate (mostly). Sometimes this is an explicit intention of the artist and sometimes not. If the goal of creative cities is to have engaged individuals you need people who think and here the arts help, other disciplines tends to teach you something specific. In these senses artists can be interpreters of reality, leaders and visionaries. The assumption is that everyone and every city can in principle be more creative, involved, engaged and informed and that this is significant in creating citizenship. This highlights the role of the arts in tapping potential. A useful question to ask is: What is the problem and can a cultural approach help; can the arts help? For example intergenerational communication or mixing cultures, clearly the arts are more effective than many other initiatives.
The out of the box, lateral thinking and use of imagination present in the arts is perhaps the most valuable thing the arts can offer other disciplines such as planning, engineering, social services or to the business community especially if allied to other emphases like a focus on local distinctiveness.

Creativity and local distinctiveness

Underlying much of the creative city debate is local distinctiveness, as most creativity is a response to local circumstance. The creativity debate itself emerged against the backdrop of reinvigorated globalization and the tendency to homogeneity. This takes the emphasis away from a continual concern with the new. It asks instead what is unique, special or different about this place. These are then some of the main resources a city can use to project its identity and to position itself in the wider world. These resources might be an old industrial sector that can be reinvented anew such as textile or ceramics; they might be a tradition of learning expressed in a university or a type of music or visual arts that itself might be the basis of a new creative industry.

Enemies of the creative city

Being creative as an individual or a city is a fragile affair. It requires seemingly contradictory conditions such as stimulation and calm. Great cities can provide opportunities for the breadth of human emotion. Vitality and vibrancy help creativity up to a point. If they tip over it ends up as noise and whirr and there is no chance for focus and reflection. Information overload is another problem for being a creative city; a fragmented clutter of out of context facts leads to confusion rather than clarity of thought and the hyper-mediated world does not help with its usual blast of unconnected information where one rarely comprehends a story in its completeness. Compare the visual landscape of cities today with 30 years ago there are 1000’s of messages shouting at you – they have probably increased 10-fold. Indeed people today see as many images in a day that people in the Middle Ages saw in a lifetime. Speed is another problem. Being continuously fast works against reflection and things simply become a blur. The capacity to reflect is central to imagining and innovation.

Creativity and risk

Being a creative city is a risky business and many will resist because risk aversion is a condition of our times. The evaluation of everything from a perspective of risk is a defining characteristic of contemporary society. Risk is the managerial paradigm and default mechanism that has embedded itself into how companies, community organizations and the public sector operate. Risk is a prism through which any activity is judged. Risk has its experts, consultants, interest groups, specialist literature, an associational structure and lobbying bodies. A risk industry has formalized itself. It is similar to how acute awareness of marketing emerged as a core idea to operate business over 30 years ago.

It subtly encourages us to constrain aspirations, act with over caution, avoid challenges and be sceptical about innovation. It narrows our world into a defensive shell. The life of a community self-consciously concerned with risk and safety is different from one focused on discovery and exploration.
Risk consciousness is a growth industry hardly a day passes without some new risk being noted. It is as if risk hovers over individuals like an independent force waiting to strike the unsuspecting citizen. This might concern personal safety or a health scare. In 1994 Factiva noted 2037 mentions of the term ‘at risk’ in UK newspapers this rose to over 25000 by 2003.
The notion of an accident seems to have gone from our vocabulary. Cleansing the world of accidents means scouring the world for someone to blame. Bad luck becomes culpable negligence with the foresight of risk taking being reinterpreted with hindsight into a consequence of negligence.
This drives a tendency never to blame oneself or to take responsibility. Instead many litigate leading to claims of a ‘compensation culture’, yet that culture feeds on deeper fears. The opportunity side of risk taking begins to disappear. There seem to be no more good risks, all risks appear bad. The mood of the times is averting the worst rather than creating the good. Guidelines are drawn up on worst case scenarios.

Consciousness of risk comes in myriad forms, some have been with us for a long time, such as assessing the financial viability of projects. Others concerned with safety and health are more recent and grabbing most headlines are safety concerns about personal injury in the public realm, such as tripping over a tree trunk, stepping off the road into an oncoming car or tearing your trousers on the edge of a park bench. Undoubtedly a perception exists that the public have a greater tendency to seek redress if they suffer an injustice or injury. People look for someone else to blame for their misfortune.

Without a degree of measured risk there can be no creative city. Risks in the city can be broadly defined, such as creating a new style of building, stopping traffic through a major thoroughfare, creating cycling paths, congestion charging, instigating costly environmental programmes, developing an outrageous arts festival and many more.

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