Harare, Brussels and Liege

I’ve been away, working in Zimbabwe and then in Brussels immediately afterwards. It’s been a pretty remarkable two weeks. The first thing that strikes you as you step out of Harare airport in October is the fantastic purpley-blue of the jacaranda blossoms. The trees stand tall with the flowers displayed in great profusion against the blue skies. These beautiful trees virtually line the long road from the airport to Harare, and the unrelenting colour – a slightly strange, ethereal colour, offering a considerable contrast against the more robust purples and reds of bougainvillea and hibiscus – seems to create an air of gentleness framing some of the harsher realities of parched grass and dusty roads. As you near the city, the neglected fields become stone sculpture parks, with the numerous exhibits of local craftsmen standing proud and stern, reflecting the national craft at every size and shape and quality of work, and all mostly without an audience.

But, remarkably, Harare is a city of optimism. Even in the last year, the economy seems to have improved. Shops are full, hotels seem to do good business, the good restaurants are packed at lunchtime and in the evening. The people, as always, are gentle, warm and friendly. Everyone says hello to you and there is no sense of threat to your safety, even as a woman walking through the city in the early evening. (No wonder most of the people I talked to who had been to the UK to study had found us a cold and unfriendly country, where no one talks to you!) Of course, I don’t want to seem disingenuous. Things are still not as they should be, even more so outside the city. But the fact is that, in the city, everyone I met, from hotel staff to CEOs of major companies, seems to share a sense of optimism for the future. In fact, we were conscious of it when we were there last year, but it is stronger, more evident, more talked about today.
I had a full week: a two day course on Creativity and Innovation in Business for 35 business people from every sector; a 90minute public lecture on Creativity and Innovation, originally intended for 200 people but which in the end attracted over 450 attendees, including the CEOs of some of the leading listed companies in Harare; and a two day workshop for 18 creative practitioners on mentoring and facilitating artists and creative entrepreneurs. When the British Council and Sweden’s Culture Fund commission you to do some work, there’s never much breathing space! Happily the reaction to all three events was positive – ‘overwhelming’ in the British Council’s words – and we are in discussion about doing more in the near future. The people I worked with, both as support staff and as participants/audience, were amazing – full of energy, willing to take intellectual risks, open and generous in their acknowledgement of each other’s contributions, and grabbing the opportunity to push boundaries and think differently with a hunger that was constantly challenging and stimulating in equal measure. I think we all had a great time!

From Harare to Brussels and then Liege: I was invited by Ruhr 2010’s creative network, ecce (European Centre for the Creative Economy, http://www.e-c-c-e.com), to participate – with about 20 others from across Europe – as a founding member of their new Creative Industries Policy Academy (CIPA) . Our task was to determine the process and categories for new Creative Industries awards for policy makers, all the better to encourage enlightened policies across the continent. A wonderful range of nationalities were involved and the cultural exchange was, as usual, quite remarkable. One of our aims to is to encourage cross border collaborations and, as I said at the end, we really ‘walked the talk’!

Then on to Liege, for the fourth INNOVA conference. This is run by the DG Enterprise and Industry Innovation Unit which has only this year begun to understand the potential of the creative industries in stimulating and supporting innovation in business. They were focusing on three key areas: the creative industries, sustainability and the green economy, and entrepreneurialism. I couldn’t help feeling that the last of those three was a ‘horizontal’ issue and could have been threaded through the other two topics, but still….! I had been invited to present on ‘How creative industries can stimulate the use of creativity in other industries thereby contributing to their innovation and to raising their competitiveness’ so I was able to talk about it philosophically but illustrated with examples of real practice taken from the work we do with our own Innovation service ‘In Smart Company’ (www.insmartcompany.co.uk) . The first comment from the audience afterwards was to describe the presentation as ‘inspiring’ but she also went on to say it reinforced the impression that the UK is streets ahead of the rest of Europe in this field. But actually I’m not sure that is true – I think when CIDA started ten years ago, we found that UK thinking was pretty much ahead of the game, but now I think there is genuinely interesting and groundbreaking work going on in many different countries and it makes the whole field so much more stimulating – the sheer pleasure in the exploration of ideas that was such a characteristic of the two days in Brussels with the CIPA group was strong evidence of that. I think we need to look to our laurels!