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Different strokes

Written by Josh Russell on Monday, 03 February 2014. Posted in Disruption, Analysis

In the wake of the downturn, it has become increasingly important to broaden the UK’s economic horizons. Fortunately, the creative sector is offering a particularly vibrant opportunity

Different strokes

It’s hardly surprising that Britain has begun to look for other flags to fly on the international stage. The financial sector, long the jewel in the UK’s economic crown, has begun to look a little tarnished in light of a decade dogged by controversy and near-collapse, which has forced us to broaden our palette. “Essentially, if you look at the industrial revolution, the same thing happened,” says Guy Armitage, CEO and founder of Zealous, the collaboration and opportunity hub for artists. In the wake of the demise of our old agrarian way of life, the British adapted by migrating to the cities and getting to grips with new forms of work. “That’s how all these things happen – wherever jobs are hard to come by, people will find solutions,” Armitage adds.

Exporting financial services may not be as lucrative a market as it once was, given the increasingly dynamic BRIC economies are becoming ever more financialised in their own right. “It’s clear that the economy of the world is changing,” comments Jason Kingsley, co-founder and CEO of Rebellion, the European games developer. This means we need an increasingly diverse portfolio if we are to maintain our ability to export. And whilst our domestic manufacturing industry is coming into its own, it still isn’t a match for the force of countries such as India and China.

Fortunately, we have another ace up our sleeve. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport recently announced that the creative sector in the UK generates £8m an hour, totalling some £71.4bn per year, and accounts for 1.68 million jobs. In a recent keynote speech, culture secretary Maria Miller commented: “I absolutely believe that our arts, culture and creative industries here in this country are not only the best in the world, but that they are vital to our future national well-being and prosperity.” 

Evidently, for Britain, creativity is a serious business indeed.

Amongst the international community, the creative work coming out of Britain is certainly held in high esteem. “We’ve got a global network of directors and what they all say is that the work that we produce in England is over and above,” says Trine Pillay, UK MD of films at B-Reel, the international multimedia production company. “They say that what we’re producing is way more interesting than that in most other countries in the world.”

Trying to dissect what it is that gives us this creative credibility isn’t the most straight-forward task but there are certainly some unique factors that help set the UK apart. “We’ve got freedom and the diversity and multiculturalism that comes with that freedom,” Pillay explains. “As a result, you just take influence from so many different areas.” 

Even compared to a country like the US, we have a culture that rejects formulaic approaches. She continues: “We’re not pigeonholed into thinking or working in one specific way and that just naturally encourages creativity.”

And it’s clear that some of our recent cultural products have only served to bolster our reputation around the world, with Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, Grand Theft Auto V and 12 Years a Slave still looming large in people’s memories. “These things are fantastic,” says Kingsley. “They’re high watermarks.”

However, there is an inherent risk to focusing on only the highest peaks of British creativity. “The slight danger is that we get seduced by the single events like nice films,” explains John Mathers, CEO of the Design Council, the body representing the design industry. Undoubtedly, a product like 12 Years a Slave has brought a huge amount of attention to the British creative industries but Mathers feels it means we can miss out on details, such as the significant growth the UK design industry is seeing. He continues: “Actually the reality is that the industry is very disparate and very diverse and we’re in danger of missing a lot of what’s going on.”

 

Identity crisis

Artwork from London creative scene: Manos Chatzikonstantis 

Outside of these watershed products, it is true that the creative industries have perhaps struggled to attract the recognition that’s their due, in light of the power they lend to our economy. A part of this is down to the way we delineate what creativity entails. For Armitage, the issue is in part a semantic one. “Essentially, we’ve never had a stable measure of creativity,” he says. “We’ve always measured it wrong.”

This isn’t helped by how variegated and diverse our creative industries are. “That range of organisations is what has always made it quite difficult to measure and made it hard to have a collective voice,” remarks Mathers. The result of this is that for some time the creative industries have been suffering from something of an identity crisis.

Pillay provides an example of how widespread this confusion around the creative industries has been. She recalls that when she was at school, children were encouraged to use careers guidance software that asked questions to match kids to their ideal career. “It didn’t really matter what you put into it, you’d get the same result,” she says. “I’m sure I was told I was going to be a landscape gardener.”

This was indicative of a rather pervasive mindset at the time; that creativity didn’t really have a place in the contemporary workplace. “Art was always seen as: ‘you’re not really doing one of the proper subjects’,” Pillay continues. “If that attitude is inherently encouraged at that level then how are you ever able to progress past that?”

Fortunately this is something that has changed significantly in the last decade or so. “Definitions of creativity are certainly in flux,” comments Jason Goodman, CEO of Albion London, the creative agency. And this means that we’re already in a position to meaningfully challenge some of the confusion that has traditionally surrounded the industry.

One source of this confusion is the fact that importance in the political sphere is often based on what is immediately quantifiable, something to which, given his past experience working for the stock exchange, Armitage can easily relate. “Numbers speak and they speak a simple language,” he says.

However, as with any other metrics, we can often become preoccupied with framing the figures in a better light than really probing what they mean. “If you look at the various documents that have been printed by the government, they do try and put it in their favour in terms of how growth is working and what’s valuable,” Armitage continues. “But they haven’t really spent enough time establishing ‘this is creativity’.”

 

Arts and minds

Artwork from London creative scene: Manos Chatzikonstantis

This can have severe ramifications for how much attention and investment certain areas attract. When Michael Gove, the education secretary, first introduced the concept of the English Baccalaureate, the Design Council found itself having to push to ensure design was one of the subjects covered. “If it wasn’t included, it wouldn’t be measured and wouldn’t be valued,” Mathers explains. “There is a constant battle to make sure that the creative industries are represented in our schools and our further education system.”

And, of course, the education system is really the front line of the battle to ensure that the creative industries are taken seriously. “The important thing is that the humanities are still encouraged all the way through school, in what is increasingly a STEM-focused education,” says Mathers.

That’s not to do down the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills. “It’s vital to have a framework upon which you can build your creativity,” Kingsley says. We have a fundamental idea in our culture that arts and sciences are two opposing ends of the spectrum but actually this hasn’t always been the case, with some of the world’s brightest minds, such as Leonardo da Vinci, embodying both. “It’s become clear now that distinction is a little artificial,” Kingsley adds. “There are many scientists who are hugely and fundamentally creative.”

What is important, however, is ensuring both areas are effectively represented. “You have to have a grounding of an all-round education,” Pillay says. “Arts and humanities should be encouraged in the same way and have as much emphasis placed upon them as the sciences.” Securing our legacy as one of the world’s leading creative economies does depend on us not allowing subjects in the arts and humanities to fall by the wayside.

But quibbling over which academic disciplines are taught probably detracts from a more fundamental issue with our education system. Armitage feels teaching the value of creativity runs much deeper than what’s in the curriculum. He explains: “The problem isn’t so much the subjects themselves: it’s how we measure people’s success.”

Perhaps the most vital thing for the UK’s education system to embrace is encouraging young people to think differently. Despite a lot of exploration around different teaching methods, there is still an overwhelming focus on teaching the ‘correct’ way of doing things, rather than on finding better solutions.

“What a teacher will do is say ‘actually, that’s not the way you do it’ and then they’ll bring you back to a set way of thinking’,” Armitage says. But supporting Britain’s innate capacity for creativity means allowing children the space to adopt creative ways of thinking. “Give them time to experiment,” he continues. “I think that’s the real enemy: the fact that people don’t get time to create.”

And creativity’s ability to encourage people to challenge norms and find new ways of doing things is precisely where it can add the most value to our society. We’re living in a time of massive change and this means our definitions of what creativity means must also change.

 

Following the thread

“What we do is we tend to associate creativity with the high arts,” Armitage says. “We say fine art, opera, theatre – this is creativity.” But this entirely ignores the massive impact that creative skills have upon the economy and how essential a creative mindset is to areas as diverse as advertising, science, engineering and technology. He continues: “We forget that creativity is actually a thread throughout everything we do.”

Such is its bearing on modern business, innovation has become so commonplace a demand in modern entrepreneurialism that it borders on cliche. But it is true that without it, any sector will stagnate. “Creativity is, by necessity, a component of moving all areas forward,” explains Kingsley. “Without creativity it’s always going to be very hard to make a leap forward.”

This should be a familiar notion to anyone working in the enterprise or start-up space. One only has to look at our current business climate to realise the extent to which disruption and creativity have come to be prized. As Goodman comments: “The entrepreneurial challenger mindset is starting to become an accepted norm.”

Start-ups, alongside a wide range of sectors, are beginning to get a firm handle of the huge value creativity can bring. Mathers says: “Businesses – big and small, multinational and very local – are increasingly recognising that if you’re using creativity as part of your DNA and it becomes something you embed, the results are very positive.”

No longer is creativity the sole domain of painters or musicians; it’s a fact of life in the modern world of business, with many creatively driven individuals as likely to bring their talents to an app as an opera. “Creativity isn’t just about throwing paint around in expressive swooshes on a massive canvas – that’s one extreme end of creativity,” Kingsley says. “But it covers many people who are writing applications or are building engines – there’s a very large component of creativity there.”

Some of the most interesting opportunities for creatives are those that specifically involve working with others outside of their learned discipline. Armitage points to artists he knows helping to visualise scientific data and use their existing skills in new ways. He explains: “The craft is the same – it’s the collaboration that’s different.”

“You can collaborate with people who are beyond creatives,” Armitage says. “The people that would scare the crap out of you.” Even areas that may seem incompatible with artistic expression provide potential avenues: an artist could potentially collaborate with an accountant. He laughs: “It’s cringeworthy but you could do it.”

And perhaps the area which is obviously benefitting most from an infusion of creativity is that of the tech space. B-Reel has found its relationship with Google to be particularly fruitful and this is, in part, down to the way the tech giant connects with creativity. Pillay comments: “What’s really amazing about them is the way that they’ve taken both the creative industries and technical industries and married them together.” 

This has become increasingly important as technology has become more consumer-focused. “A creative approach makes technology more accessible to people,” she continues. An example she highlights is the recently Google-acquired Nest, whose product Protect takes the functional smoke alarm and uses a creative approach to make it more intriguing and practical for their consumers. “It’s the most boring, basic thing that you need in your house but they’ve made it pretty and interesting,” explains Pillay.

In this respect, the creative renaissance that is currently happening in Britain really could be seen as influential as the industrial revolution before it. “Back then Britain was obviously introducing all sorts of new technologies and approaches to industry,” says Goodman. And the sheer ingenuity and drive of our modern creative nation contains more than an echo of those pioneering times. “It’s really exciting,” he concludes. “Before this generation, that sort of ambition hasn’t really existed for some time.” 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

Our former editor, Russell was the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our former digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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