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Key Concepts: Creative Clusters

The Creative Ecology

A distinctive feature of creative enterprises is that they thrive best in each others’ company, in places that have both a strong local identity, and are also open to the world. In the creative economy, place matters. At every level, from the media centre in a small town to global centres like Hollywood, creative enterprises gather together in visible hot-spots which, when fully established, become self-sustaining clusters of creative activity.

Tate ModernThe creative industry ecology is one of whales and plankton: a handful of high-profile global players, stars and multinational companies, dependent upon vast shoals of project-based micro-enterprises. From the surface, only the bigger players are visible, but these big fish are wholly dependent on the small fry further along the supply chain.

New value is created in this sector when technical innovation, artistic creativity and business entrepreneurship are deployed together to make and distribute a new cultural product. Content-creating enterprises must be quick to respond to changes in fashion and technology. Their assets are invisible and volatile: reputation, skills and brands. They operate in global niche markets. They evolve by getting better rather than by getting bigger. Key players are rewarded by lifestyle and reputation as much as by money. A good deal of their critical infrastructure is external to the firm. All this adds up to a business profile that is not widely recognised by banks, investors or government.

Although new creative content tends to be made by small enterprises, most of the distribution channels are controlled by large multinationals. Many of these are household names: Fox, Time Warner, Sony, the BBC. Because of the disparity in size and scale between creators and distributors, communication along the supply chain is often problematic.


ZollvereinThe principal strategy that the creative sector as a whole adopts to address these structural issues is to pool resources and band together: into networks, clusters, quarters and other kinds of partnership. The usual definition of a business cluster is Michael Porter’s, in The Competitive Advantage of Nations:

…geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, specialised suppliers, service providers, firms in related industries, and associated institutions (for example, universities, standards agencies, and trade associations) in particular fields that compete but also co-operate.

Silicon Valley in the United States is often cited as an example.

Across the world, economic development agencies have identified the Creative Industries as a growth sector, and most are supporting them through some form of cluster-based economic development strategy. But Porter’s model is proving problematic.

The UK’s Department of Trade and Industry notes that ‘dividends from creative clusters can be enormous in terms of civic image, training and engagement in the economy as well as purely economic terms.’ However the sector also faces special challenges: ‘creative clusters are not the same as other clusters, and common strategies will not work’. In other words, the creative sector is booming, but not thanks to mainstream economic development strategies.

Creative Clusters

A cluster of creative enterprises needs much more than the standard vision of a business park next to a technology campus. A creative cluster includes non-profit enterprises, cultural institutions, arts venues and individual artists alongside the science park and the media centre. Creative clusters are places to live as well as to work, places where cultural products are consumed as well as made. They are open round the clock, for work and play. They feed on diversity and change and so thrive in busy, multi-cultural urban settings that have their own local distinctiveness but are also connected to the world.

798 BeijingThe term ‘creative cluster’ is used to describe (at least) four kinds of related but very distinct spatial entities.

1 – Creative workspaces underneath a single roof: which encourage the kind of community you get when you don’t need to put on your coat to go to meet someone (eg your local media centre or market).

2 – Creative districts in towns or cities: the kind of community you get when you can walk from your workplace to meet someone (eg Distillery District in Vancouver, or 798 (Dashanzi Art District) in Beijing).

3 – Regional creative clusters in the sense defined by the economist Michael Porter: the kind of community you get when you can get to a meeting and back in a business day (eg the Novo Hamburgo shoes and leatherwear cluster in Brazil, Bollywood in Mumbai, or ‘Nollywood’, the Nigerian film cluster in Lagos).

4 – Virtual clusters online. Despite what some commentators seem to believe, the rules and dynamics of online communities are very different from physical communities. The term ‘cluster’ usually implies spatial co-location at some level. For clarity, ‘network’ rather than ‘cluster’ is the term used here for virtual communities.

These four kinds of community are characterised by distinct kinds of connectivity, collaboration, competition and identity. This means that lessons learned in any of the three kinds of physical cluster do not necessarily transfer to the others. Each type of cluster has a distinct SWOT profile (Strengths, Weaknesses Opportunities, Threats).

Glasgow Graffiti

Identity, Reputation, Brand

The identity of a creative cluster is a particularly elusive factor, but it is often the critical ‘glue’ holding a cluster together.

The key feature of a cluster’s identity is its creative scope.

– There are narrowly-focused, highly specialist clusters devoted to (say) computer-generated animation, artisan food, gold jewelry, circus production, designer furniture – almost any creative specialism you can name. This can be found at any of the three spatial levels: from Songzhuang, an artists’ village close to Beijing, to a single address in London shared by a dozen actors and writers agencies.

– There are so-called ‘sector-specific’ clusters, devoted to broader creative sectors – such as workspaces aimed at games design companies; or Paris, for fashion.

– There are yet more clusters in which any creative business is likely find a competitive advantage: broadly-based media centres, or all of London.

Mass Moca

Can We Build Our Own Creative Cluster?

There are planning and regeneration initiatives to encourage the growth of creative clusters all over the world. The evidence is that they work to the extent that they go with the grain of a place’s already-existing economic and cultural dynamics.

What emerges (or what will work, if you are starting from scratch) will depend on the local circumstances. The key factor for the leaders of cluster development is to base their efforts on distinctive activity that is already rooted in that place, and then build an identity that makes sense both to the businesses the cluster hopes to attract, and to the people already there. Culture, geography, politics and market all play a role in shaping a creative cluster’s identity.

Local Social Inclusion

Girl with TrumpetDespite the intentions of the people that start them, creative clusters of the first two kinds usually become an agent of gentrification and social exclusivity. This is an unwelcome thought to the (usually) young, not wealthy, creative individuals who initiate such projects. It is a common pattern to see disused buildings and poorer city neighbourhoods being improved by creative cluster projects, to the extent that they become so successful that the original creatives are either priced out, or (if they had the luck or foresight to buy up some property when it was cheap) find that their buildings are worth a lot more than their businesses are. Even if the creative businesses themselves do not sell up, the owners of the surrounding properties usually do, and so the original (and poorer) ‘non-creative’ residents and businesses get pushed out into even more marginal districts. In recent years this has become a major social dynamic that has contributed to a wide politics of disaffection – most evidently in the USA and Europe, but also in China, Russia and India.

This all might seem a long way off to a group of young artisans and artists trying to get the windows of their old factory building fixed, but the lesson everywhere is clear: unless local social inclusion is factored in right from the start, and kept in plain sight as one of a creative cluster’s day-to-day aims, it never gets onto the agenda. Until one day the creatives (now older and more successful) look out of their windows (now double-glazed) and are surprised to see a protest against them in the street outside.

More Key Concepts:    Creative Industries   |   Creative Economy