What does the future hold for Kent's creative economy?
Organised by a partnership team (namely Media Tree), with a Chair representative from Maidstone Studios, this evening (17/11/2010) I watched and listened alongside approximately 70 other people, as four keynote speakers (a local government statistician, an academic from the University for the Creative Arts, the founder of a Kent-based Business Forum, and WiredSussex the Brighton based membership organisation for companies and freelancers operating in the digital/media/technology sector in Sussex) delivered a set of informational building blocks, after which a short question and answer session took place, and it is hoped a larger long-term conversation will grow across Kent – the aim of such discussion is and will be focused on how to best develop and support the ‘Creative Business Economy of Kent’.
I attended the event because I believed, and continue to believe, that such conversations are necessary. I write this post for all those whom I wish had attended but seemingly hadn’t heard about it.
Media Tree is an organisation that has been around for quite a few years (I’m not sure exactly how long but tonight I got the sense its been no less than six years), to date its been funded by public money (though it remains unclear to me how much money? what its been spent on? or what has been achieved over the period?) but in light of a recent review and the vast cuts in previously available government funding, Media Tree is now redrafting its strategic ideas and is actively looking to engage participants to improve the future of the creative business economy across the region.
Those of you who read my blog posts will already know that I’m passionate and vocal about this subject, what follows is my honest summary of the evening – as with many of my posts I may ruffle a few feathers with my own viewpoint but I’m simply saying what I believe needs to be said and I welcome comments and constructive criticism from all…
Who was there?
Approx. 70% of the room was wearing suits. Approx. 20% of the room was academics. I knew approximately 25% of the attendees through some means or other – I knew 2/4 speakers. I’m a very active participant within the Kent Creative Community (and some might say Brighton and London too). I first heard of the Media Tree event a few weeks ago, the information was passed to me through both of Kent’s Arts and Regeneration Officers (one of whom I know). Media Tree appears to have a mailing list of 800-2000? But only 70 people turned up?
What was said?
In my opinion tonight’s Chair talked much more than he listened – the speakers, Media Tree team, and the audience were worth listening too!
First off, the local government statistician introduced the facts, he was sharp and to the point. From what I saw of his figures, public spending (in the related areas) hit unsustainable levels back in 2002 but continued upwards until recently. Future forecasts predict continual reductions in public funding on a yearly basis for the next six years until we’ll once again achieve the more sustainable 2001 levels. In alignment with these spending cuts the South East’s Regional Development Agency (SEEDA) has been shutdown and is now replaced by a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). This new LEP is a partnership across Kent & Greater Essex (a much bigger area than SEEDA covered, and currently the largest LEP in the UK – in my personal opinion scale provides a potential strong persona and loud voice but its often short on coherent sentences, hindered by hierarchy, gatekeepers and committee decisions – but we must work with what we’ve got!).
For those unfamiliar, the background to a LEP is as follows: “[…the ethos: where the drivers of growth are local, decisions should be taken locally using a tailored approach to local circumstances. In this regard, it is envisaged that LEPs will take on a variety of roles including, on the planning front, assisting in the development of national planning policy, working with planning authorities to develop strategic planning frameworks and potentially even taking on other planning related activities including ‘enabling’ the timely processing of applications for strategic development and infrastructure (although quite what that means is not clear)…]”
In short, it seems that any future infrastructure or funding towards the development of our regions (including the development of our Creative Business Economy) must now be negotiated through the new LEP partnership, as well as a Regional Growth Fund (RGF).
This provides the first clue as to why Media Tree invited a statistician along to the event (a very smart move which laid down the facts, many of which I was unaware of). It also provides an insight into Media Tree’s currently favoured strategic position – to become a recognised regional organisation, a member-based and member-funded lobbying body to help deliver the required future infrastructure etc. (Eg. Who knows, we might well need high-speed broadband across the region at some point).
Media Tree’s current team seem to hope it will soon become the Creative Business authority to the LEP – focused on the needs of Media Tree’s members and partners.
Now I’ll come to the academic speaker, whom I’ve met before and whom I respect for his work, but who’s presentation seemed less about how the University for the Creative Arts could help develop and support the regions Creative Business Economy in the future, and sadly more about how UCA do/continue to lead it – please remember that there were other academic institutions in the room and we’re supposed to be inspiring open-dialogue and relationship-building not closed-monologue or elitist membership clubs (this may just be my perception so I'd really like to see/hear your comments if I've miss-judged this). As alumni, a sessional-lecturer and a consultant to UCA I'm enclined to suggest that it may have appeared to others as self-interested propaganda (I don’t know if this miss-judgement might be down to UCA or a lack of briefing from Media Tree). I’ll simply justify my comments by saying that the evening was hosted inside a venue called the Joiners Workshop, during their talks the local government statistician, the academic and the Chair all made statements about how innovative the venue was and aligned some organisational self-interest to it but the harsh reality is that the venue has been a rather large flop and a miss-spent, over budget waste of cash in terms of the ‘Creative Business Economy’ both in Medway, and in Kent. Almost every guest I spoke to commented on how hard it was to find via car and how there are no direct public transport links, and there wasn’t one student in sight (surely they are part of the future of our Creative Business Economy and they should have been invited along?).
Next is WiredSussex, the Brighton-based membership organisation for companies and freelancers operating in the digital/media/technology sector in Sussex. This presentation explored how an organisation might develop member networks and services, and explored the needs of diverse creative communities and the development of a collaborative infrastructure. Its focus was on supporting an existing community, not the development of one from scratch – it also recognised that much of its Brighton-based creative economy starts off as non-profit driven, a personal passion or an attempt to improve a CV. It also explored Brighton’s culture of open-dialogue and collaborative innovation and introduced the fact that some of Brighton’s greatest successes have actually been started and continue to be driven by community catalysts and entrepreneurs (I smiled when The Skiff got name-checked because I'm a cofounder). In short, WiredSussex does its best to understand and support its community without wanting to own or constrain it – the presentation also covered how the organisation itself began as a funding partnership between business and a regional development agency but this actually hindered its progress so its now run solely as a business with active participants.
Last, but far from least in my speaker rundown, comes the founder of a Business Forum, who gave a brilliantly inspiring presentation. This was not your average business network, at least it certainly didn’t start out that way. The story began with a highways dispute outside a local set of shops/businesses and a successful two-thousand strong petition to stop the building of a roundabout which would have removed the parking bays from an entire row of shops/businesses, thus reduce their trade and likely close them down. A later attempt by the same council to put bollards in place ignited the same catalyst business owner to call to arms a group of local people and businesses (large and small) to fund a lobbying campaign – this campaign focused on local value and therefore bought a community together with a common goal (it just so happened that many of the supporters were business people). Not only were friendships and understandings found and built, but also the campaign proved successful. Since this point the business minds within the group have developed a sustainable financial and network model in the form of a Business Forum that not only encourages local economic growth but also has local and social value at its heart.
Finally I come to the Q&A Session and my summary.
The Q&A session was short, the Chairs voice overshadowed the speakers answers, and most of the questions used traditional business and policy language: LEP, Infrastructure, Growth, Creative Sectors & Corridors, Strategic Bodies, Business Resources, Entrepreneurial Education, Partnerships, Tender Opportunities, Advertising, Members… etc. – and reading between the lines it seemed many attendees wanted to know about the depth and breadth of the future funding pot rather than discussing what the future might require, or more importantly what has been required but not delivered since 2002. And as much as I heard the term success mentioned, I didn’t once hear anyone ask what it might look like or even how it might be measured?
I must admit that I got to ask the final question of the evening and took the opportunity to make what I felt was a very overlooked point – I got what seemed like a verbal brush off by the Chair – I’ll close this post with the very same point, if not a little longer:
I’d like to draw a distinction between two very fundamental issues that I feel need to be considered and discussed in much greater depth. Much of this evening has been framed around developing Media Tree into a business network supported by paying members (using the Business Forum and WiredSussex as successful case study examples) and developing that same network into a regional body to help build links and partnerships across education, enterprise and the new LEP (using UCA and Government Statistics to show capacity, want and need) but as I see it a rather large problem remains… Wired Sussex has been built upon Brighton’s open-culture, and the inspirational Business Forum found its strength and unity through uniting people in active participation for social and local good – both are successful and valuable to their members because they support and build upon pre-existing core values and culture. I feel it safe to say that WiredSussex and the Business Forum recognise their true value and USP isn’t based on financial growth or even business, its based on an open-culture and peoples relationships one-to-one – if both organisations shut down tomorrow the membership income would stop but the culture would likely remain.
Kent on the other hand has no such culture. E.g. every design company sees another as competition instead of an inspirational sounding board and support group, and they pitch against each other instead of in partnership with each other – they compete on price instead of value for all. And in my experience many Universities do the same; their focus has shifted from student selection and retention through an inspired culture and social campus, to a recruitment model that focuses more on assets and stakeholder income than it does on student development and graduate quality.
The final point I’ll make in regards to UCA’s position, and quite a few others in attendance last night, is that they appear to have what I find to be a rather odd definition of ‘Creative Business’. Sure UCA caters for the ‘Creative Arts’ but from where I’m standing this is only a small cross-section of the future creative economy. What many need to learn is that imagination is not the same as creativity. Creativity takes the process of imagination to another level. Creativity goes beyond linear and logical thought to involve all areas of our minds and bodies. People (you) can be creative at anything at all – anything that involves intelligence. It is because human intelligence is so wonderfully diverse that people are creative in so many extraordinary ways… writing, music, dance, theatre, math, science, computing, philosophy, business etc.
In my view every business, employee and citizen has the potential to be creative, and if we’re trying to inspire and develop the regions creative economy the first thing we need to focus on is inspiring a creative culture, not a membership network or Creative Business authority.
I argue, as I have done for a number of years now. If we wish to inspire the Creative Business Economy across Kent, we must first support creativity at every level – we must first identify all the individuals, circles, groups and networks that are already doing good work – we don’t need another network or to recreate another wheel, we just need more transparency, support, participation and sharing across those we’ve already got.
We need to inspire open-participation, not elitist membership. We need to encourage transparency and creative expression – a culture of learning through doing and it being ok to make a few mistakes as long as they’ve been learned from. People need to wake up and realise that there isn’t such a thing as creative industries, every industry has the potential to innovate – creative economies create themselves, and in today’s world its often business, government and education who are the last to notice the change.
Writing this shows my own direct interest to get involved in the re-development of the Kent Creative Business Economy (towards making it fit for future purpose and twenty-first-century enterprise). My current community-driven focus isn’t for everyone but it is for anyone.
In my efforts toward 'Creatively supporting sustainable enterprise™' I’ve also set out my thinking for A Disruptively Better Economy.
I am not knocking last night or anyone involved, these discussions need to be had and I urge everyone to get involved and drive things forward for the future, and for the better. More information about Media Tree, making a Formal Expression Of Interest to get involved and join their mailing list, can be found here: http://www.mediatree.org.uk/shaping