The Return of the Creative City

Posted on: 06/11/2016

Long before there were smart cities, there were creative ones. Are they really that different?

In February 2016, the Knowledge Transfer Network in conjunction with Innovate UK and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) ran a Smart Cities UK Showcase event.

This conference brought together more than 400 delegates across sectors and industries to understand the latest thinking and implementation of smart, connected cities in the UK and beyond. We asked Tom Campbell to share his views on what the creative industries can bring to this nascent space.

Long before there were smart cities, there were creative ones. It was as long ago as 1989, in the midst of de-industrialisation and inner city ‘no go areas’ that the planner Charles Landry argued that cities needed to reposition themselves around creativity. For Landry, this was more than the creative industries themselves as a distinct and newly important economic sector, but as a broader approach by which businesses, artists and citizens designed, planned and revitalised their cities.

Landry never went away: for more than twenty-five years he and others have been refining and applying their ideas, giving lectures and advising governments across the world. But in more recent years, the concept of the creative city has been displaced by the voguish and more obviously contemporary ‘smart city’. With its connotations of technological progress, computational power and data-led solutions the term has had an obvious appeal not just to the tech companies supplying such services but for city administrators and politicians struggling to tackle complex transport, health and environment issues.

Yet despite its cultural cache and corporate interest, the R+D expenditure, consultancy contracts and considerable promotion, the smart city has yet to be successfully realised. The term was coined more than a decade ago, there have been demonstrator projects across the UK, but it remains an illusive, and often confused, vision. Intelligent traffic signals and responsive street lighting are seen more as novelty projects than marking any great renaissance in urban living. For many, initial enthusiasm has given way to suspicion and scepticism: it is hard to think of another emerging sector that has been so strongly characterised by ‘technology push’ rather than ‘market pull’.

Along with the scepticism have come a range of concerns about what a smart city would actually look like and how it should be governed. It has been all too easy for current fears about data protection, surveillance and personal privacy to become conflated with dystopian visions of a city built by and for machines. In my novel The Planner set within a London planning authority, the transport and environment solutions delivered by digital technology are more dehumanising threat than gleaming vision of technocratic proficiency. Or in fact, they are both: more efficient services for a city that has become politically and culturally stunted.

Creative professionals don’t necessarily provide solutions. There again, ‘solutions’ aren’t always what are most needed. Or at least, before coming to a solution, it is invariably necessary to go through a number of other processes: framing problems, visualising information, developing metaphors, capturing diverse opinions, critiquing and iterating, curating and presenting. In some cases, the long sought-after solution might already exist, in others it will do more than harm than good. Occasionally, the problem isn’t really a problem at all. In all cases, the solution will fail unless it is developed with, rather than implemented upon, citizens themselves.

Instead of offering solutions, what creative professionals do provide are practices. Design, and the methodologies developed by designers are an obvious instance of this. But the potential is far greater than simply improving interfaces, and making smart cities applications that are more intuitive to use. Rather, it encompasses a wide range of attributes and practices which creative professionals can draw upon. Storytelling, performance, improvisation, visualisation: well-established techniques associated with all of these are the means by which challenges can be understood, knowledge unlocked and insight drawn out.

There are profound differences in how creative and technology professionals approach the challenges of urban living: practices rather than algorithms, tools rather than solutions, playing with a problem rather than breaking it down. While technologists tend to emphasise solutions that are scalable, robust and universally applicable, the creative city puts value on the importance of distinctiveness and the individual character of an urban realm – crucial elements of civic identity and quality of life.

Whatever these differences, it isn’t as if being creative and being smart are mutually exclusive. But for far too long, the technology and creative sectors have failed to engage, and as a result we have had alternative rather than integrated models for how to improve our cities. On the board of Smart London, the Mayor’s technology advisory group, there is little design, or even architecture, represented and not a single artist or creative entrepreneur. All too often, the policies, contracts and projects are exclusively mediated by tech service companies on the one side and planners and procurement officers on the other.

It doesn’t have to be like this, and in many cases it isn’t. As the World Cities Cultural Forum has shown, cities around the world are working their creative professionals harder. Artists and creative businesses are being asked not just to inform their cultural policies, but to actively shape the cities themselves in terms of planning, infrastructure and local services. Whether it is the regeneration of run-down neighbourhoods, animating public spaces or designing recycling schemes, it is artists as much as the technocrats who are at the forefront. It is time that the UK, a leader in both technology and creative sectors, did the same. For it is only through harnessing the potential of both sensors and composers, network analytics and writers, big data and visual artists and much more besides that we will build the creative cities that the 21st century demands.

Tom Campbell – Specialist, Creative Industries.


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