‘Knowledge alone will not solve the world’s challenges’

In this introduction to our special feature, Culture and the creative economy, Deborah Bull asks why creativity and the arts should matter to economies, communities – and individuals 

Throughout history, the arts have been required to justify their existence using any number of different measures. But the idea of quantifying culture is relatively new, and comes from the notion of a “creative economy” – distinct from the creative industries, and defined as being made up of economic systems in which value is based upon novel or imaginative qualities, rather than traditional resources of land, labour or capital.

Around the beginning of the new millennium, governments became intent on requiring culture and the arts to justify themselves through their contribution to the economy. Naturally, that became an attractive thing to do, as it seemed to offer a guarantee of government support – as long as the justification, be it raising tourist income or increased inward investment – was sufficiently strong scally.

Though undeniably worthwhile, measuring the economic value of any intervention is complex and often overlooks the inherent benefits provided by the arts. These intrinsic benefits should not be underestimated. The personal development that comes from engagement with the arts delivers value to communities and to society more broadly: art helps you to reflect on yourself, on your relationship with others and your contribution to the environment; art helps citizens become more engaged with the world around them; and it develops empathy for others.

As an artist, I often saw at first hand these individual impacts – young people inspired to believe in themselves and to achieve more, or communities brought together across divides of race, religion or culture. Given the importance of all these qualities to a healthy and sustainable society, we must not favour economic value above any of the other impacts of the arts.

One important contribution of art is to the development of creativity – and it’s now universally accepted that creativity makes a major contribution to healthy economies. It’s a mistake to think that creativity is a quality that’s reserved for artists – it is as fundamental in science and engineering as it is in art.

Everyone reaches a point in their lives when they begin to think about who they want to be and what impact they want to have on the world. It is
 so important that educational systems and society more generally actively encourage young people to use their imaginations while this window is open

Through the practical application of creative solutions to real world challenges, great inventions are made and economic value unlocked. Take, for example, the iPhone. Creativity is embedded throughout that device’s entire lifecycle: from its initial concept; to its subsequent development; execution; marketing; and then further adaptation through usage and users.

And arts and culture makes places more attractive to live. Vibrant cultural quarters boost property values, income and employment and help communities come together in new ways. Research has shown that arts projects help in the development of communities, and they can have a positive impact on health. It can also be argued that a lively cultural offering can also make an area safer, due to the presence of a night-time economy.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao is
 a great example: it became a huge draw for visitors and attracted investment into its surrounding areas as well as the sectors serving it – from restaurants and hotels to public transport.

So what are the ingredients needed for a truly creative economy? It starts with an education that doesn’t favour science over art, or vice versa. Instead, a forward-looking society must develop in young people the imagination and the creativity to enable them to apply their knowledge in innovative ways to address the challenges of the future.

Everyone reaches a point in their lives when they begin to think about who they want to be and what impact they want to have on the world. It is
 so important that educational systems and society more generally actively encourage young people to use their imaginations while this window is open; encouraging young people to take risks; to think creatively about the big challenges facing the world and to imagine what they might achieve by working with others.

Next, a creative society must honour its traditions while embracing the new. In places like Dubai, there is an exciting potential to link a rich historic culture that prizes storytelling, music and colour with a more recent history of extraordinary growth. Traditional cultural activities, when given space on a contemporary city’s art scene, show the evolution of an area and of a culture – and help to make them attractive destinations to live in and to visit.

Finally, but of key importance, is the creation of a space in which people are allowed to fail. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and the Global Leadership and Organisational Behaviour Effectiveness study in 2013, which took data from 42 countries, explored how our fear of failure is contingent on national culture. A society that prizes high performance above everything else is unlikely to produce the risk-takers that the future requires. If the price of failure is too high, the workforce will become risk-averse – an attitude that is not synonymous with creativity.

As the English writer and historian RH Tawney said, “The purpose of an education worthy of the name is not merely to impart reliable information, important though that is. It is still more important to foster the intellectual vitality to master and use it so that knowledge becomes a stimulus to creative thought.”

Put simply: knowledge alone will not solve the world’s challenges. It is creativity that will help us take existing knowledge and apply it in new and imaginative ways – to imagine and then to build a better future.