The magic formula for a creative economy

In order to thrive, creative economies need not only business incentives and expertise, but a geographical hub that brings innovative minds together. Kate Dobinson considers what constitutes the ideal environment for a creative economy to flourish

You can view creativity through two lenses, says Cyril Zammit who aptly, in his role as Fair Director, often wears a rather stylish pair of spectacles to pore over the development plans of Design Days Dubai – the first fair of its kind in the Middle East and South Asia.

Like a complex origami that unfolds into a flat sheet of paper, the genius of visionary work often has hidden simplicity, he says. In fact the collectible and limited-edition designs that make the best impression on Parisian-born Zammit are “totally revolutionary (but) look ordinary and lead to a new era”.

“One should never forget that before being an artistic statement, design is functional, design is practical – and design should enhance our lives,” he says.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) scales up this idea to present a blueprint for creating not only artworks but creative economies from scratch.

This is relevant not only for burgeoning collectives of designers and architects like Zammit’s, but to centres of creativity such as Beijing’s Legend Town – first established in an old textile factory – and the Barracas neighbourhood, the design district in Buenos Aires, which was pivotal to the Argentinian capital being awarded UNESCO City of Design status.

In addition to a pot of entrepreneurs acting as catalysts in creative hubs who inspire and train others – such as those harboured in the 2016 European Capitals of Culture in San Sebastian, Spain, and Wroclaw, Poland – the WEF recommends a carefully calibrated environment of practical infrastructure in its 2016 white paper.

“No single determining force drives success in the creative economy, but commonalities exist in many creative hubs,” says Stefan Hall, Project Specialist and Council Manager, WEF.

“In studying the creative economy, the Global Agenda Council on the Creative Economy has identified five simple factors that policy-makers should take into account when aiming to stimulate creative economies in
their countries.”

In Beijing, lucrative creative hubs have emerged out of the city’s bustling population of art practitioners, which numbers 900,000. These include the world-famous 798 Art Zone – an artists’ community housed in a complex of decommissioned military buildings – and the world’s largest painters’ village in Songzhuang, which is now home to around 2,000 artists. The artists here capitalise on the city’s proximity to academic, research and cultural centres, which includes 47 public libraries, more than 170 museums and over 300 theatres.

Technological enablers are another element cited by the WEF, and means that creative entrepreneurs increasingly resemble tech companies in their use of data and content to scale their businesses. In San Francisco Bay Area, for example, the creative economy grew out of technological innovation – at Stanford University, Hewlett Packard, Intel and others – during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Indeed the next generation of Google, Twitter and Facebook has had to attract talent beyond its traditional core of technical engineers and base them in the city. In his book How Google Works, Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt argues that good ideas can come from anywhere and that companies need to attract “smart creatives” who are a happy mix of both the liberal arts and hard science.

The public sector has a clear incentive to invest in the creative economy. The MENA Design Outlook report expects the sector to be worth Dh116.7bn (US$31.7bn) by 2017, registering an annual growth of 4.5 per cent between 2013 and 2017. And locally produced design goods and services make up 35 per cent of total MENA market size.

As of 2016, the UAE design market is the largest in size in the MENA region. From the top down, the government of Dubai, led by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, has supported entrepreneurship and given young businesses the ability to grow and thrive, says Vilma Jurkute, Director of Alserkal Avenue, an industrial arts hub in Al Quoz. The Al Quoz area evolved as artists, craftsmen and designers colonised empty warehouses and is where, Jurkute says, “we take a risk on risk-takers”.

“Creative industries abide by the same principles of economics as any other industry. It is a business at the end of the day, the hard part is to grow when the infrastructure is not available, or is still in developing stages,” she says. “Whether it’s navigating legislation to get operating licences, or reading the market and developing products and services that are useful, business people can only make projections and assumptions. Being part of a self-sustaining community can go a long way to mitigating the risks associated with starting up a new business.”

In Buenos Aires, the successful Creative Districts Initiative combines urban regeneration and tax incentives to attract creative businesses to run-down areas within the city.

Zammit says the “creative economy will settle where administrative boundaries are not a never-ending challenge. It needs to spend time on research, not on paperwork”.

Zammit’s creative fair is installed each year in d3, where over 320 creative partners such as Zaha Hadid Architects and NAKKASH art gallery – and over 120 local creative organisations – interact, collaborate and learn from each other in the free zone. Here, they benefit from access to state-of-the-art infrastructure, no custom duties, exemption from corporate or income taxes and 100 per cent foreign ownership.

The city is itself an important source of inspiration, says Mohammad Saeed Al Shehhi, Chief Operating Officer at d3, alluding to the final WEF factor that is “power of place”.

“The diversity of people and the vibrancy of activities provide an endless source of treasures to discover”, he says. “Consequently, we see that the Dubai-based designers who have captured global acclaim have been in this city for more than a decade. These are the people that have learned to navigate all of the sources of inspiration that this city has to offer, from the souks and heritage buildings of old Dubai, to the innovation and technology of Dubai Internet City and the luxury of Downtown.”

Jurkute agrees that Al Serkal has emerged as a peculiar result of Dubai’s historical and geographical characteristics – which are difficult to replicate intentionally. This is also the case with creative communities in Taiwan, London or Paris.

“This physical movement into the more gritty, industrial zones of the city draws in other elements of the creative industry as well, from design and film to literature, fashion and performance art, giving rise to a neighbourhood that forms the bedrock of the creative economy. As these areas become magnets for the most prominent creative talent, new industries begin to form and a new cadre of skilled workforces emerge, invigorating both public and private sectors and ultimately shaping the identity of the city itself.

“Our focus is truly on community and relationship-building,” she adds. “Our aim is to provide promising
young businesses within the creative industries an opportunity to set up and grow, while at the same time bringing a very unique experience to Dubai’s community.

“This all falls under the ecosystem of Dubai, and its tendency to always harbour and support the most
prominent talent with big ideas,” says Jurkute.

This means that the role of government is to stimulate the development of a cultural ecosystem, rather than impose top-down development.

It requires working with artistic, cultural and educational institutions to make the most of their potential, agrees Zammit.

“I believe in good forces connecting to each other because there is a fertile ground,” he says. “The vision, the infrastructure put in place by the government of Dubai has prepared the ground and attracted new pioneers to settle here.

“I believe that we are an amazing point of convergence where you meet and exchange. If you are the owner of your company, you want to succeed; if you live in Dubai, you want the city to succeed. What would benefit you will benefit the city and you will harvest back.”