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Culture is Center Stage in the Need to Rethink Economic Models


By Alison Tickell

The creative industries are thriving. In 2012 they were worth £71.4 billion ($120 billion) to the U.K. – not bad for four years after one of the worst banking crises in its history. It’s a result that legitimizes the country’s claim to be world-leading, unlike most other parts of the U.K. economy.

Beyond the balance sheet the knock-on value generated by the creative industries has been noticed too. Creative innovation, excellence and Britain’s reputation for culture are key drivers of inward investment. The social impacts of cultural activity – education, skills, entrepreneurship, health, and community cohesion and regeneration – are ever-widening spirals of added value. Culture has emerged as a critical net generator of social and financial capital. It embodies value.

These positive externalities are the force behind an international movement to put the arts, heritage and creativity at the heart of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. The recently signed Hangzhou Declaration predicts that cultural and creative enterprise will, in time, compare with the agrarian, industrial and service epochs that have been milestones in global economic history. Culture should be at the heart of policy. “Culture is our most powerful force for creativity and renewal," according to UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova. In her vision, it is “precisely what enables sustainability – as a source of strength, of values and social cohesion, self-esteem and participation."

The need to rethink economic models – prompted as much by climate change as by the financial crisis – has moved culture to center stage. This is because technological, political and economic solutions on their own will never provide complete answers. The ‘invisible hand’ of culture which got us here in the first place needs to get us somewhere else. The argument goes that by fostering certain values we can live sympathetically with the planet’s capacity to cope. This is contingent on the idea that culture can embody values that support a natural equilibrium. Can culture help to match our lifestyles to the resources we depend on?

This is an epic drama unfolding fast, and it challenges us personally and politically – as individuals, communities and countries. Only with acts of generosity, forgiveness, empathy and a general drenching in common sense will all this be peacefully resolved. (The irony is that nature, without us, does equilibrium rather well.) Cultural value rests on the premise that culture is a force for good, and that the experience of art which plunges us into other realms – of complexity, identity, community, joy, empathy – can help us solve commensurately bigger issues.

Sustainability, and not art per se, is forcing the convergence of these ideas, and so alongside the creative sector’s newfound confidence, the mood music is reflective and gritty, questioning the parameters of value, of growth as it’s currently defined, and whom and what it all serves. Artists are scrunching up the scripts and breaking away from norms in just the same way that circular thinking is turbo-charging design. Citizen science is pulling down ivory towers, and the ubiquity of the digisphere shows just how rapidly disruptive movements can change everything. This is the stuff of creativity in its purest, surest form, a new cultural age which articulates the experience of oneself in relation to other; interdependency and diversity; relativity and uncertainty; and the embodied state. This is what the Hangzhou Declaration is attempting to enshrine in the post-2015 Development Goals.

Julie’s Bicycle is poised at this interface. Working with arts practitioners from all over the world, we have felt the desirability, the fizz of culture’s contribution. There’s an easy link between culture and arts, creativity and sustainability, and some superb examples. There is also consensus that sustainability matters and is relevant to art and that creative partnerships can rapidly accelerate positive change. National and international clusters are creating the conditions for scaled, responsive leadership. We have gathered data on environmental impact from almost 2,000 organizations, representing a new value set which we can use to hot-house good ideas, reconfigure how we work together at scale and unite art with broader impact. The creative industries are finding new meaning as they collide with the pressures facing the rest of the world.

However, for a bunch of people who deal with imagination, we are not working nearly intelligently nor fast enough. Too many cultural leaders have yet to recognize how profound and relevant this is, and how total a response is needed; too many are still thinking that switching house lights to LEDs will do the trick. It won’t. We need to dig critically into our core before we can claim that culture has a part in this. Timing is everything. The sooner we muster the purpose, partnerships, data, debate, energy and critical mass of creative noise, the sooner we can construct a proper framework for value. Any vision of the future relies on creativity of the highest order, and culture should have a pivotal role.

Image credit: The Pregnant Messenger by David Buckland, Cape Farewell

Alison Tickell is CEO of Julie's Bicycle.

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