Creative clusters 'can’t be started from scratch'

A proposal for the government to establish ‘creative clusters’ across the UK should resist regions bereft of creative talent – or ministers risk repeating the “patchy” success rate of previous attempts to foster innovative hubs.

The warning, issued in Nesta’s creative manifesto, indicates that policymakers must be pragmatic in attempting to form creative clusters, by trying to build on “areas or niches of existing strength,” rather than picking locations because of geographical factors.

“Seeking to take a budding or ‘latent’ creative cluster to its next level is a better idea than trying to spawn one from scratch,” the group recommended. “Policymakers would be well advised to avoid wishful attempts to build clusters from scratch – successful examples are few and far between.”

To succeed with creative clusters, ministers must also resist merely taking a successful model of an innovative district and pasting it on, without due regard for the make-up of the new, UK area designated to host the hub.

Finding fault with this ‘template’ approach, Nesta reflected: “[Ministers have previously] erred by attempting to import lessons and models from other places ‘wholesale’, without paying sufficient attention to local circumstances and conditions.

“[For example] Silicon Valley and Bilbao have been used as the templates for ‘cookie cutter’ creative clusters and cities in some parts of the UK, with returns which are, as yet, far from clear.”

In coming up with potential locations for the clusters, policymakers were urged to make use of a range of data, in a bid to identify the area’s “existing strength” of creative talent, and to establish the number, size and trajectory of creative firms.

But relying solely on official data is not sufficient, Nesta warned, because such sources have “limitations,” such as not factoring in emerging trends or sectors and overlooking the population or activities of micro-businesses and freelancers.

As well as being data-driven and pragmatic, ministers keen to set up thriving creative clusters should also leverage existing institutions; consider investing in skills (not just buildings) and raise the profile of the chosen area. Learning from prior mistakes is another must, said the group, pointing to the need for policymakers to think systematically and listen to local businesses.

Even when its seven steps to successfully create a creative cluster are taken, Nesta said ministers still won’t achieve such innovative hubs overnight.

It explained: “[The government’s] track record of these initiatives is patchy to say the least. This is partly a consequence of unrealistic expectations among policymakers – experience suggests that successful clusters develop organically and over long periods of time.”


28th April 2013

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