The Arts and the Creative sector as role model for innovation

Last Tuesday, 22 June, Reinhardt Büscher of the EU’s DG for Enterprise and Industry formally announced the EU’s final recognition of the importance of the Creative and Cultural sectors in economic development. (Funny, that word ‘development’ – Schumpeter’s Theory of Economic Development was probably mistranslated – he used “Entwicklung”, which means both ‘development’ and ‘evolution’ – and heaven knows, arriving at this stage of recognition by the EU certainly feels like an evolutionary process!)
Nevertheless, one is grateful – very – that we have now got there and the three DGs (Enterprise and Industry (E&I) ; Culture and Education (C&E); and Development) all now formally recognise the importance of the sector. But it is DG E&I who are making the most significant contribution to the development and strengthening of the sector by creating a new framework and inviting us all to contribute to its implementation. One of the main reasons they have finally been persuaded of our significance is that they recognise the critical role the sector can play in both modelling and stimulating innovation across all sectors, and in particular for the service sector. Their own staff research has found that service sector businesses, unlike manufacturing businesses, do not rely so much on the university research and knowledge base, possibly because the universities are too far from the reality of the market place. Instead, services (and this obviously includes creative and cultural businesses) rely on customers and on tacit knowledge for their ideas and innovations.
This whole business of where innovation comes from is an increasingly critical area to understand and explore. For so long, we have been led down the technology driven innovation route (cf UK’s Technology Strategy Board) and yet we know that it is much more complex. Then there is the current emphasis on customer driven innovation – frequently a concept alien to those of us working in the creative sector. Instead, we tend to have the idea, we create the product and only then do we find the market – it’s one of our distinguishing characteristics. Now we need to hang on to that – have a look at Professor Roberto Verganti’s book ‘Design driven Innovation’ – at last a recognition that inspiration does not just come from the markets – it creates new markets! Verganti shows that, for truly radical breakthroughs, we must turn to what he calls ‘interpreters’ i.e. a group of people that is led by artists and includes designers amongst others, who can understand and influence how people give meaning to things.
In those circumstances, therefore, it is understandable why, at the boardroom in the London HQ of the Institute of Practitioners of Advertising (IPA), the walls are currently covered with big boards promoting Behavioural Economics. This is the economic theory that moves away from believing that consumer choice is based on rational decision making but believes that emotion, meaning and symbolism are key factors in making the decision to buy. Anyone wanting to sell successfully has to grasp this whole new way of understanding how and why people choose, and that it becomes a deeply personal decision which includes making statements about themselves, their beliefs, their values and so on. And this, of course, is the world in which we in the creative sector have always lived and worked. This is why an artist has an entirely different relationship with his/her customer from the one that Unilever or Sainsbury’s may have. When I am working with artists, and talking about customer relationships, I find they initially baulk at the idea of using direct mail to sustain a relationship with customers, fearing that, like all supermarket bumf, their correspondence will be seen as either an imposition or merely junk. Of course, in most cases, neither is the case – because the purchase of a piece of artwork, or a book, or theatre ticket, involves the emotions and the intellect, and frequently is about that individual’s own sense of self. Thus, usually, he/she is only too pleased to be able to have a continuing relationship with that artist.
So, as a sector, we have a lot to offer – as well as much to learn. We need to understand better our own processes so that we can share them. We need to be confident in demanding the relevant support, the appropriate resources to enable us to do our work better – and I’m not just talking about money. We all need to give greater primacy to the fact that we are part of the Knowledge Economy, the Creative Economy, and really make the effort to find space to use our brains, our imagination, our emotions and our tacit knowledge to think, to innovate ……. to create. The way we do this is what we can offer others.
At its best, the often unseen, unacknowledged work that artists and creative practitioners put into their work is complex, intellectually demanding, exploratory, revelatory and challenging. It pushes creative practice forward, leading to new work (and new types of work) which reflect and challenge contemporary experience. It exposes gaps in perception and understanding and it challenges the status quo. It allows creative innovation to be ideas-driven, people-driven, without having to be technology driven or even user-driven. It welcomes and embraces many influences, many disciplines. It can reach out to open source and it can be unashamedly elite. And, notably, it is true that much of the R&D takes place within the practice itself – within safe space, artist to artist, company to company, collaborating, sharing, experimenting.
The arts are at the very heart of the creative sector. And this is what the arts, the creative sector, offers other sectors. Innovation happens in many different environments.
But it is the sector’s openness to experimentation – which includes embracing failure;
to collaboration – which means experiencing new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding;
and to sharing – which means demonstrating mutual respect and recognition,
that gives it its special value. In a world where nothing is as it was, where the traditional generators of wealth now look less reliable and where customers increasingly look for meaning and identity, the arts and the creative sector offer a rich and rewarding way forward.