Creativity and the city: Thinking through the steps


Is creativity by definition positive?



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Is creativity by definition positive?

Creativity is imbued almost exclusively with positive virtues. But should this be so? The creative impulse can be negative. It can produce weapons that kill as well as medicines that cure. The purpose and goal of creativity is equally as important as the process of being creative. Importantly too both the trivial and the profound are equally called creative. An imitative, formulaic design just because it appears funky might be called creative as can a deep new insight about human personality.
Creativity as a word, a concept, as a desirable state or aspiration has taken over from the word ‘cultured’. ‘Cultured’ appears to have an old fashioned ring and backward look. This need not be so. The best of cultured people now about history, seek to understand the present and are focused on the future too. Being creative has a forward ring, it appears to be about the new and inventive; about being on the pace; it seems to be glamorous.
And business too is tripping over itself to attract creativity in the ‘war for talent’ often claiming for itself how creative their company is.
With so much creativity cities should be exciting; that is not what we see in most streets, downtowns or neighbourhoods. Too often there is a blandness and sameness masquerading as difference and excitement: 32000 McDonald’s, which if lined up next to each other would take you from Washington to New York and back. They have 50millon customers a day nearly the population of the UK. Walmarts with nearly 5000 outlets world-wide employs 1,530,000 people the equivalent of Greater Birmingham Britain’s second largest city; its total occupied retail space is over 50 square kilometres a third of the size of Amsterdam.

The geography of misery and desire

The reality is that there is a geography of misery and desire. The divides are getting wider. The gap in global living standards is expanding, with per-capita income in the developed world having increased since 1975 from forty-one times that in the poorest quarters to sixty-six times. Migrants, in pursuit of wages that are twenty-to-thirty times what they could earn at home, are finding it ever easier to flow across borders. Gleaming towers co-exist side by side with dejection and abject poverty. The travel trade scours the world for the latest fashionable city as travellers become jaded and are in search for the constantly new. They project cities still as objects of desire and exotica neglecting too often their darker sides of misery.

There is pollution on an escalating scale. Just think of the smellscape of cities. It is that of petrochemicals, when it is claimed we are reaching the end of the oil age. Think of the soundscape of cities. It is full of motor hum, a continual din, screeching and beeping.
Many are working on these problems of inequality, poverty or pollution or sustainability. They are inventing new technologies or new social models to deal with development afresh. Their technologies and solutions are saleable products too and there are 1000’s of new products waiting to be invented that can provide cities with wealth. Yet in the creative canon these people are neglected. They are not deemed to be part of the creative arena. Little attention is given to this range of creativity in the fashionable media. Instead the focus is more likely to be on fashion, music or design.

Most creative city strategies are arts strategies


On closer examination most of the strategies and plans that call themselves ‘creative city’ are in fact concerned with strengthening the arts and cultural fabric, such as support for the arts and artists and the institutional infrastructure to match. In addition they focus on fostering the creative industries comprising those industries that “have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property,” such as advertising, architecture, art, crafts, design, designer fashion, television, radio, film and video, interactive leisure software, music, the performing arts, publishing and software creation.

This is fine as far as it goes. However, this is not what the ‘creative city’ agenda is exclusively concerned with – it is merely an important aspect. Indeed it would be great it artistic thinking fused itself into how traffic engineers, planners and others thought about their city. Clearly artistic creativity has its own special form as noted.

Creativity is legitimized in the arts and assumed to be a core attribute of what being an artist is about and the artistic community has been astute in putting itself at the centre of that debate. Think of all the books on creativity. A large proportion over the last decades have focused on artistic (and this includes much of what is covered within the creative industries) and scientific creativity and neglect most other forms, such as social, public sector or bureaucratic creativity. By contrast there is a plethora of business creativity publications. There is little work on the creativity of solving urban problems or urban development.

The Creative City idea is all-embracing

This is a pity as the Creative City concept is all-embracing. It is a clarion call to encourage open-mindedness and imagination from whatever source, it implies too a regard for tolerance a pre-condition for cities to foster inventiveness. Its assumption and philosophy is that there is always more potential in a city than we imagine at first thought. It posits that conditions should be created in cities or places for people to think, plan and act with imagination. . This implies a massive opening out process and has a dramatic impact on a city’s organizational culture. The style and ethos of such a place is one where a ‘yes attitude’ rather than a ‘no attitude’ is more likely to prevail so giving people the sense that there is opportunity. For example, ‘it is possible to put the highway underground; it is possible to fund an innovation incubator out of public funds; it is possible to develop a passionate participatory culture.

The Creative City idea claims that if conditions are right ordinary people can make the extra-ordinary happen if given the chance. Here a glance at the inventiveness of social workers, business people, social entrepreneurs or public servants in solving problems highlights the potential – and many of these activities are deemed to be dull. I focus on this type of inventiveness, because it is perhaps more significant than the creativity we usually focus on such as new music, graphics or fashion trends.

They harness opportunities or address seemingly intractable urban problems like homelessness, enhancing the visual environment. The principle that underlies so much creativity is giving power to those affected by what you do.

What is creativity?

Creativity seen in this light is applied imagination using intelligence and all kinds of mental attributes along the way in order to foster continuous learning. This implies a more open attitude to failure and distinguishing between competent and incompetent failure. In the first when someone tries hard to succeed but fails there is substantial learning going on which creates the foundations for possible success in the future.
The definition of creativity I like is to ‘think at the edge of one’s competence, rather than the centre of it’. In complex urban problems solutions are often discovered at the boundaries of what we know and when each specialist discipline works at its boundaries. The reason is that the shaft like focus of a narrow discipline tends to reveal less and less and give less insight as we become clearer that things are inextricably interconnected. This is not to put down the specialist, but it asks them to operate in a different way.
The Creative City idea is an ongoing process and way of going about things not an end result. It is dynamic not static, it is concerned with the mindset predominant in a city, its mindflow. It suggests that a culture of creativity should be embedded into the texture of how the city operates, that is its community members, tits organizations, its power structures.

By legitimizing the use of imagination in the way the city operates generates an ideasbank of possibilities. This process of allowing divergent thinking to occur within the worlds of specialists and those who find this approach more natural generates multiple options, choices and a pool of ideas. It needs aligning to convergent thinking, which narrows down possibilities from which innovations emerge once they have gone through the reality checker.


Hard and soft infrastructure

To make this happen needs infrastructures beyond the hardware – buildings, roads and sewage systems. The creative infrastructure is a combination of the hard and the soft, it includes the mental infrastructure, the attitudes of mind, and even spiritual infrastructure, the aspirational core. Such a combined environment can generate an atmosphere when fostered by enabling devices emerging from the regulations and incentives regime. The soft infrastructure is the informal and formal intellectual infrastructure – and too often universities feel production factories of the mind in style and content; the skilled working force of thinkers, creators, and implementers as there is the creativity of getting an idea off the ground and the creativity of knowing how to make it happen. The soft includes too the atmosphere which is allowed to exist by giving vent to the emotional realm of experiences, which is more visceral. We need to remember that essentially no city plans start with emotional words like ‘happy’. There are technically driven and conceived. No wonder there is little interest from the broader public. The soft milieu needs to allow space for the maverick, the boundary breaker as this person is often is one that looks at a problem or opportunity in a new light. The environment too fosters linkages within itself and the outside world as it otherwise does not sufficiently learn from the best of what others are doing. Collectively these attributes create a culture of entrepreneurship.

But creative places are not comfortable places. Those pushing at the edges continuously bump into vested interests, be that in their own organization or outside in the wider city as the new collides with the old. In these moments the purposes of good city making get lost in power struggles at the micro and macro level. It can be extra-ordinary petty things that kill off good ideas: A person in charge who doesn’t like an intelligent upstart and wants to protect their sphere of power or influence; alternatively a regulation that makes no sense in the current context, but which someone insists upon. One only needs to remember cities in transition from Florence far back, to Berlin in the Weimar republic to Shanghai today to appreciate that being creative involves power struggles. Creative places have a creative rub, they often live in a tense, but dynamic equilibrium.

Which cities are creative?

Very few places are comprehensively creative, but every city can be more creative than it is. Those with a global reputation over a long time period, say 150 or 200 years, and where the sheer weight of creatives dominates the urban scene in a sustained way can be counted on one hand. They may include New York, London, Amsterdam, Tokyo currently. Over the next decades they may be joined by others such as Mumbai or Shanghai and Buenos Aires. At a slightly lower level there are places strong in niches that can be sustained over longer periods say 50 to 100 years. For example: Milan and fashion, Los Angeles and the media industry, Stockholm and public infrastructure or Zurich and banking. All these places are attractors and to sustain their creative power they need economic, technological, cultural and even political status and pull. It is the combination of these factors that drives their drawing power acting as a reinforcing agent to bring in talent and to generate talent endogenously. To sustain their positions they need to attract or self-develop leading research institutes often built on the back of existing universities, or cutting edge companies. They need too, today, a public sector setting and organizations that think long term, are focused on the key drivers of future wealth creation and can assess honestly and strategically their city’s relative positioning and potential assets in a broad minded way.

Today a city’s creativity is usually judged by its arts and cultural sector scene such as music or film or that of its alternative scene rather than its creative capacities in science, engineering or technology and other spheres where reputations take a longer time to evolve. These rely on infrastructure in education, research and business and their results appear less glamorous. The cultural scene appears in its media incarnation as exciting, yet it is fickle and is subject to fads and fashions even though a substantial museums and educational infrastructure helps in generating future innovative capacity. For example the 10,000’s of textile samples in the Victorian & Albert museum in London have for decades provided inspiration to young designers. The faddish nature of the media plays a significant role as to which cities we believe to be creative and cities move in and out of the news at a dizzying speed. At one moment Mumbai is the creative hub; at the next it is Taipei that is suddenly creative; followed by Seoul or Buenos Aires or Accra and now Moscow. This is the fashion roundabout and obscures a deeper assessment of the true nature of creativity and creative potential in any given city.
Bursts of creativity

Looking back at history cities have creative bursts and these can be for a short period and some places become trendy for a brief moment and others decline and it is their residue and creative resonance that remains in the public imagination. Take San Francisco as an example. Its long drawn out creativity from the 1906 earthquake on reached a certain apex in the summer of love of 1967 whose embodiment was found in Haight Ashbury. Long enjoying a bohemian reputation the city became a counterculture magnet in the second half of the 20th century During the1950s, City Lights Bookstore was an important publisher of Beat Generation literature. San Francisco was the centre of hippie and other alternative culture. The "San Francisco sound" emerged as an influential force in rock music, associated with acts such as the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. They blurred the boundaries between folk, rock and jazz and enhanced rock’s lyrical content. During the 1980s and 1990s San Francisco became a major focal point in the North American--and international—punk, thrash metal and rave scenes. Already known as a gay mecca at the beginning in the nineteenth century this reinforced during World War II, when thousands of gay male soldiers spent time in the city. The late 1960s brought a new wave of more radical lesbians and gays to the city attracted to its reputation as a radical, left-wing centre. They were the prime movers of Gay Liberation and they made Castro the gay mecca of the world, but in the 1980s, the AIDS virus wreaked havoc on the gay male community. In 1990s San Francisco was a centre too of the dot-com boom and growth of the internet. These movements shaped the world and pushed at the edge creating innovations in lifestyles, products and services along the way. Yet much of the creativity has gone as the dot com crash and hollowed out much of the industry that had grown up in Soma, south of the market. Many of those funky ex-industrial warehouses are turning from hubs of invention to upscale apartments. In effect the internet pioneers made the area safe for the next wave of gentrifiers.

Haight Ashbury lives awkwardly on its memories; merely a souvenir shadow. The hippie shops sit oddly in an increasingly middle class gentrified area; the remaining and new hippies look without a purpose. Castro inevtiably declined, its self-confidence dented. Ghiardelli Square considered first succesful adaptive reuse of an industrial building in 1964 is now a tourist mecca with little creative energy. True new areas emerged such as Soma, but the new media epicentre has shifted elsewhere to Los Angeles and beyond. Without economic, political or cultural centrality which leads endogneous talent to stay and external talent to come it is difficult to sustain a global position of creative power. Creative initiatives and projects still abound Yet in spite of everything the city has immense drawing power, but it is more the tourist who comes taking from the city rather than giving any creative force back. So the city increasingly resonates in its beauty, its memories and its past.

Ebb and flow

The San Francisco story is repeated a thousand-fold elsewhere. The creative impulses ebb and flow and depend on fortunate coincidences of circumstance where creative individuals and an open institutional setting and various power brokers are in good alignment. Individual acts of creativity naturally also occur without propitious situations, but for creativity to build upon itself and become self-reinforcing it needs a milieu where people, resources and encouragement can come together. Usually cities are open in parts and closed in others and this changes over time, but it is rarer for all aspects of openness to come together so that the city feels full of possibility. There is always a lead and lag situation. At one moment the university may turn its back on its city, whilst the municipality is opening out or the business sector is neutral and little concerned about the strategic future of the city. In another phase the roles may be reversed. On occasion too a set of individuals may burst through setting the tone for the city, reaching far beyond their area of expertise, as did the zany group Leningrad Cowboys for Helsinki. The joke from the outset was that they were 'the worst rock n'roll band in the world' who with their striking unicorn hairstyles and long pointed shoes had a naff Eastern European interpretation of western rock n'roll. Playing on the irony of Finland’s past Russian connection they performed with the Red Army choir in the famous Total Balalaika Show in Helsinki’s Senate Square in 1993 in a breakthrough concert in front of 70,000 people sponsored by Nokia so linking to the city’s technological innovativeness. They later extended their activities to films, restaurants and megastores. Their initial joke whilst increasingly unfunny as they themselves recognized was self-effacing yet confident so projecting a sense that Helsinki could just be what it wanted to be.

In open cities there is an iterative relationship between the institutions driving the people by setting model roles through its corporate culture and in turn open-minded people affecting the institutions.
Agglomerating power

When political, economic and cultural power agglomerates in one place significantly it can act as an incapacitator and a means of reducing potential for certain kinds of creativity. This is because power battles can drown out the ability to innovate as can high property prices which make it difficult for people to get onto the first ladder of opportunity. The existing mainstream will be powerful in whatever sphere and will tend to encourage the creativity it can nurture, control and that it feels is tried and tested. The media too is too attentive perhaps endangering the fragility of innovation. On the other hand in such power centres in a self-reinforcing process the largest museums, galleries, shopping centres or entertainment centres, universities, company headquarters and some of the newest ideas will be found, because the power brokers and the ambitious will feel it is their right to have them there. These in turn attract the most aspiring, successful and most wealthy people thereby sucking in the talent from surrounding areas thereby draining and drowning the identity and potential of those places. Crucially capital cities have the greatest capacity to insert themselves into global arenas, most obviously initially through political structures like embassies, trade missions and other representative structures. When allied to economic and cultural foreign policies it is a potent mix.

Once launched the agglomeration of resources, talent and power accelerates and reaches a critical mass which makes it difficult for other cities to break in especially in smaller countries, where the core city might have 25% of the population. Once a tipping point is reached whereby a city gets its dominant position this tends to escalate. Seoul, for instance has just over 20% and to a large extent determines the global identity of Korea. This makes it doubly difficult for Busan, Daegu, Inchon, Gwangju let alone Jeonju or Pyeongtaek to insert themselves into international circuits and gain recognition. Nationally and regionally they may be significant yet if international recognition is important something unique, but internationally recognized, or a strong niche an area is vital.

Away from the spotlight

Yet being away from the spotlight can have advantages, indeed as Peter Hall points out many historically innovative cities such as initially Los Angeles, Memphis or Glasgow nurtured their talents and experiments away from the central hub. The first contemporary art gallery in the sense we understand it today was in Lodz in Poland and later Hannover in Germany rather than in Warsaw or Berlin. Smaller cities can try out things a central city may find unimportant and furthermore the core city will find it difficult to operate in every sphere. The difficulty for the smaller, upstart city is inserting itself into international circuits and meeting the aspirations for their creatives once initial success has been achieved.


The point is that every city can be more creative than it currently is and the task for the city wanting to be creative is to identify, nurture, harness, promote, attract, and sustain talent and to mobilize ideas, resources and organizations.
Qualities of creative places

Creative places are able to overcome most obstacles and have key qualities. They know where they are going, they have a vision, that is in broad terms agreed by key players; they take measured risks, which empowers people to try things and push boundaries; they acknowledge that a creative place needs many leaders, at least 1% of the population and that would mean Seoul has 100,000 leaders. There may be a few super leaders, but their essential role is to pave the way for others to achieve things and to trade their power for influence. That is to be more concerned with influencing positive outcomes than exerting power.

Creative cities have an ethical purpose that guides and directs the mass of energies present in most places. These ethical goals might be to generate both wealth and to reduce inequalities or to grow economically but to focus on sustainability or to focus on local distinctiveness. The ethical code is more likely to be based on secular principles which guarantee freedom of enquiry and tolerance and where the state and religion are separated. Fundamentalism does not help develop the imagination because everything has already been imagined.

This implies bending the market to public good objectives. Places can develop creative initiatives without such a framework, but I would not call places like that ‘creative cities’. For example Silicon Valley has intense creativity in a series of narrow engineering based fields and this has transformed how the world works. However the physical environment they have created out of Silicon Valley is quite unappealing and soulless, which is why San Francisco nearby is important as a playground and to stimulate the senses.


Fine judgement and the formula


Being a creative city is not a formula that can be picked off the shelf. It is not a science that can be learnt from a textbook. It is an art. Art in its broadest meaning connotes a sense of doing something well, having ability, pursuing a skill by study and practice There are some core principles that apply across cultures and to most situations for creative city making, these include: A willingness to listen and learn; the capacity to be open minded; to encourage enquiry; to reduce ego; to be more concerned with influence than power; to grasp the essence of different disciplines; to think across disciplines; to imagine the implications of the present for the long term; to understand the dynamics of change at a trivial and deeper level.

The art of creative city making involves fine judgement based on experience and for example the ability to know when to push for innovation and when to hold back. The city maker is an artist of the highest order, because they have a grasp of all the arts concerned with city making and it is complex. At its best city making is the highest achievement of culture. Our best cities are the most elaborate and sophisticated artefact humans have conceived, shaped and made. At their worst they are forgettable, damaging and destructive. For too long we believed that city making involved only the art of architecture and land use planning. Over time the arts of engineering, surveying, valuing, property development, project management began to form part of the pantheon. We now know that the art of city making involves all the arts; the physical alone does not make a city or a place, they include: The art of understanding human needs, wants and desires; the art of generating wealth and bending the dynamics of economics to the city’s needs; the art of creating three dimensional space; the art of circulation and city movement; the art of trading power for creative influence so the power of people is unleashed; the art of facilitating and winning community support; the art of helping people be healthy; the art of triggering inspiration, harnessing motivation and will; the art of putting the physical pieces together as urban landscape; the art of blending and weaving the exterior landscape into the city; the art of moving forward without erasing memory; the art of celebration and much more. Most importantly it involves the art of adding value and values simultaneously in everything undertaken. Together the mindsets, skills and values embodied in these arts help make places out of simple spaces. The city is an interconnected whole, it cannot be viewed as merely a series of elements, although each element is important in its own right.


10 ideas to start the creative city process

If a city wanted to focus on being a creative city what would it do?




  • A crisis helps because this opens the opportunity to rethink and re-assess. A crisis does not need to be negative, it can be a declining industry, but the crisis can be pushed ahead by creating very high expectations. Then the gap between existing realities and what you want to achieve creates the self generated crisis that can be a spur to action.




  • Identify a large group of project champions from different sectors who are interested in the broader creativity agenda. If this is not possible pursue some of the work listed below with a more narrow grouping, but constantly with a view to building wider alliances




  • Undertake an audit of creative potential and obstacles. This would assess creative projects across the whole spectrum in your city as well as the incentives and regulatory regime. Are there any incentives or policy initiatives that foster creativity? Who and what is creating the obstacles?




  • Identify some key projects in your own city that stand as examples of good practice. Visit these with mixed teams and promote how they work. Similarly identify key projects elsewhere, this is recognized as creating one of the most transformative effects.




  • Develop the evidence that proves your arguments about the value and impact of the nexus of culture, creativity broadly defined and the arts. Highlight examples from parts of the world and especially those you perceive to be your competitors.



  • Seek to influence the city ‘master’ strategy. This is usually spatially or economically driven. Try to insert to cultural and creativity agenda within it. If this fails develop your well-publicized, alternative strategy. Show an appreciation of all the issues a traditional plan would have but go well beyond it. Show by example the power of working across boundaries in interdisciplinary teams.





  • Create a series of pilot projects that can be seen as experiments, perhaps under the cover of a major event, such as an Expo, a festival or large physical regeneration project.




  • Assess how the story of your city is told internally and externally. Is the story still true and relevant to what you want to achieve? Generate a new story.




  • Create an advocacy lobby group that embodies in the way it acts, holds meetings or arranges seminars the creativity you are aspiring to.




  • Do not call yourself a creative city – let others do that by respecting what you have achieved.





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