Create or die, business guru Charles Leadbeater tells Birmingham bosses
Creative industries and innovation expert Charles Leadbeater is to deliver the keynote speech at The Big Debate in November. He explains to ANNA BLACKABY why Birmingham needs to prioritise creativity in order to stimulate its flagging economy
Charles Leadbeater has advised cities around the world on innovation strategy, drawing on this experience for his book We-think, which examined the rise of participative approaches to innovation in fields like open source software, computer games and political campaigning.
And in November, he will be in Birmingham delivering the keynote speech at The Big Debate, an industry-focussed event which poses the question: “Can the creative industries revolutionise the UK economy?”
Mr Leadbeater believes that cities such as Birmingham should have a particular interest in developing their creative economies.
“Creativity is becoming more important to more parts of the economy, especially city economies,” he said.
“Cities live and die by their creativity in many ways.
“If you look around the world the cities that are successful are those that are able to attract and retain creative people and create the right environment where they can work.
“Increasingly cities aren’t primarily places of manufacturing they are places that stand out for their ability to innovate.
“Culture can give you an added multiplier and project a city, for example with things like fashion in Milan, music in Liverpool and film in Hollywood, which spread around the world.
“It draws people to cities as tourists or as consumers but also creates an environment where other people can be creative.
“The more vibrant a cultural sector, the more it creates an atmosphere which I think will mean more innovation for smaller businesses as well.”
Cities such as Barcelona, Milan and Melbourne were examples of successful global cities creating the conditions for a flourishing cultural sector, according to Mr Leadbeater, while here in the UK, London, Bristol and Manchester stood out to him as creative cities.
But he admitted it was significant that Birmingham did not feature on his list.
“I think it doesn’t yet speak in that kind of way as a place that’s full of thriving cultural businesses and creativity and dynamism and buzz and all the rest of it,” he said.
“I don’t know why that is. It might be that there isn’t enough or it might be that the story’s not being told in the right way and it’s not being communicated.”
“But the most important thing for Birmingham is to have Birmingham’s distinctive approach.
“It’s alright to learn from other places but I go round the world and listen to people saying, ‘I want to be the new Silicon Valley or Barcelona’, but the really important thing is to have a distinctive story about where you come from and what you’re particularly good at.
“You can bring in talent from the outside which can have a catalytic effect – Manchester International Festival is trying to do that.
But the track record of cities like Glasgow, which has had festival after festival, is they come, they have some impact, but they don’t leave lasting change.
“To create lasting change you need to connect with what is rooted in your culture. You can’t connect with something you’re not. Often, quite small things can be turn out to be big even though often they remain just a connection of small things.”
He gave the example of the Shoreditch area of London, regarded as the capital city’s creative hub and home to a community which sprung up largely because of the decision of a group of artists to set up in the area in the eighties.
“These things often start from very small beginnings,” he said.
“If you look at Shoreditch, that started 20 years with Whitechapel Gallery and Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin and it’s just grown and grown. Small beginnings can create the starting point for much bigger things if they are nurtured.”
But he said assembling the components of a creative city was not enough on its own – there had to be demand in the local economy for the creative offering.
“One of the important things is what kind of demand there is, as it’s very difficult for small businesses which depend on cashflow.
“Shoreditch was close to the City of London and also big media business of the traditional kind and that helped.”
So where does that leave Birmingham, which has suffered disproportionately from the recession and now has the highest unemployment rates in the country?
Mr Leadbeater believes the adverse circumstances affecting the city don’t necessarily mean it will be on the back foot in developing its creative industries.
“One of the hallmarks of good leaders is their ability to mobilise crisis to bring about change. There are lots of good examples of cities that have responded to crisis and charted a new course to growth by focusing on entrepreneurship.
“The key thing is they have a very strong coalition of interests, both public and private, which has a strong shared ambition to do that.
‘‘Crisis can trigger renewal but it depends on leadership.”