Popping-up everywhere

Choreographing local creativity

A colleague recently helped set up a creative collaboration between two friends: an architect and a visual artist. It took a couple of years to plot, and a few months to choreograph. It involved getting local permissions — mainly from land and building owners, rather than the local council. And there was plenty of other planning and logistics to ensure that the event — a sound-and-light show between buildings and across a couple of streets in North East London — was safe and fun for whoever bothered to turn up.

2000 people turned up! There was no marketing or promotion — just a flurry of emails and facebook posts a couple of weeks before. But some of these got picked up by local networking sites and a major on-line listing magazine — and suddenly they were inundated. Continue reading “Popping-up everywhere”

London – a deliberate disaster

Guest post from Tom Campbell.  

It is more than seven years since Kate Oakley and John Knell were commissioned by Creative London at the London Development Agency to write a report on the capital’s creative industries, based on roundtable discussions hosted by the Work Foundation. Entitled London’s Creative Economy: An Accidental Success and published at a time when public agencies seemed to be constantly launching strategies, visions and mapping studies, this thoughtful, sober, unheralded report received less attention than most. But, as is the way with these things, it now stands out as one of the few documents from the period worth returning to.

admin-ajax Continue reading “London – a deliberate disaster”

Tech City – the story so far

Ian Dowson shared his research on the Tech City cluster at a recent breakfast discussion, highlighting among other things:

  • The scale of new business growth in and around Tech City, nearly matching New York – although still dwarfed by Silicon Valley
  • The number of investment and exit deals in London compares well with both NY and Silicon Valley, but the amounts are tiny compared to both: angel investment deals average $1m in California but just a quarter of that in London
  • London start-ups illustrate a maturity of development and expertise – driven by multi-national, multi-disciplinary partnerships, with impressive educational and experience credentials
  • The Tech City business culture is also marked by strong creative businesses and experience, and a remarkably dynamic and open market-place of meet-ups and knowledge exchange.

This discussion followed the recent visit to Tech City which highlighted the notion of the ‘blended’ business (echoing the concept of the ‘fused’ or ‘superfused’ businesses found in Brighton), but also the pressures on workspace and the general problem around property prices in London.

The way in which creative businesses and others are moving out, on account of rising rents and other pressures, was identified as one of the inevitable by-products of a successful business cluster. Tom Campbell has blogged on that here, and the need for a more sophisticated approach to planning and housing policies was highlighted.

But in answer to the question ‘What have we learnt?’ (or better, ‘what are we learning?’ – since the transformation of the area hasn’t finished yet), a number of intriguing ideas and challenges emerged:

  • The relationship between corporate companies and investors and the start-ups and micro-businesses: In one sense, the big companies are key to fueling the profile and success of an area – but to what extent might they damage the energy and dynamism of a start-up culture? Are the corporates ‘providers or parasites’? How does the shift to a big-firm/uni/incubator model for start-ups affect the dynamics of the human capital networks?
  • Accelerating the inevitable: Has Government focus and investment on Tech City simply accelerated an inevitable transformation of an area which has been gentrifying over decades? Or has the injection of new money and profile created something more interesting – a unique combination of technology and creativity, which may not have evolved quite so successfully without that focus? Can it be replicated elsewhere in the UK, to catalyse investment and growth, without jeopardising the characteristics of the place which made it attractive to start-ups in the first place?
  • And what of cultural and creative institutions themselves? Rather than bemoan the fact that a creative ecology is turning into a tech-cluster – what can cultural and creative agencies and investors do to sustain the creative edge of places like Shoreditch, Hackney Wick, Manchester, Glasgow….?

Tech City – rhetoric and romance

Digging beneath the rhetoric

There’s plenty of rhetoric about the strength of Tech City and, actually, no shortage of data: Graeme Evans, now a Professor of Design at Brunel, kicked-off the recent Creative Breakfast session on Tech City, giving an overview of data he collected while Director of the Cities Institute at London Metropolitan University. Graeme’s data highlighted the fact that the growth of digital businesses in and around Shoreditch and Old Street was part of a growing trend – both geographical and industrial. The industrial trend was towards a new kind of business, blending ‘creative’ and ‘technology’ businesses which are not easily quantified using traditional data-collection methods, but where data does suggest a very strong agglomeration in East London – a phenomenon which has been progressing over recent years. The geographical element is twofold: a drift east from Soho and Clerkenwell towards cheaper properties in the City Fringe; and the fact that this ‘agglomeration’ is part of a bigger London creative and digital cluster which has a strong focus centrally and west of London, as well as here in the East.

The Breakfast Group spent the morning doing its own fieldwork, visiting a number of businesses and agencies, traversing east to west – from Mother and Ostmodern in Redchurch Street to Mother at the Trampery and City University in St John Street, via Berg, MakeShift, Google Campus and TechHub in Bonhill Street: a triangular journey which took in around 10 businesses. A snapshot, but a fairly full and intensive one.

It’s real

It’s clear that the Tech City rhetoric is not just hot air. As one of the participants put it: “Clearly there is something real happening, neither just hype nor a flash in the pan. Undeniably impressive.”

The agglomeration of businesses represents a significant new cluster. And the new blend of creative and technical was very evident – sometimes in the form of collaborations across sectors – for example Mother, an established advertising agency, hosting the MiniBar meet up of small digital businesses and ‘geeks’; or, more frequently, start-ups and some established businesses deliberately exploiting the mix of skills from different sectors, to create new cross-over businesses with new, sometimes as-yet unclear, business models. It was notable for example, that businesses talked about the need for a combination of design and making skills, drawing on London’s strength in both. And, as another participant put it, drawing on “London’s pre-existing status as a global leader in sectors including advertising, TV & film, publishing etc – a leadership which provides a foundation, along with plentiful supply of graduates from art colleges as well as more conventional graduates, to mix into the cement.”

That mix of skills is one of a number of factors which have helped to fuel this growth:

  • New technology providing new working models, the need for new applications, economies of scale.
  • Cheap, open, office-space
  • Shoreditch at the heart of an buzzing East (and North, and South) London.
  • There has also been a lot of money coming from China and India, despite the economic slow-down in the West.

What of the challenges?

We identified a few:
* Getting products to what feels like it is a buyer’s market, with thousands, millions of applications and ideas to choose from. The risks are they fail, or sell out to somebody with a pre-existing brand/distribution channel, and it gets smothered…..
* Business model:  It was not always clear what the new business model for many of these start-ups would be. And the tendency towards complacency was very noticeable: “there was an was an odd unwillingness among the funky start-ups, and start-up-site managers, to acknowledge the major role of corporate ‘welfare’ as well as public sector support… There is already a new techcity ‘mythology’ – we must have heard at least 3 times that they were ‘the first to offer space here to digital start-ups’”
* Workspace: not enough and, inevitably, getting more expensive.

Richard Holt summed it up thus:
“There will be a range of outcomes, from the very successful at one end to those who fail and end up doing something very different. The danger is that too high a proportion are too ruthlessly weeded out.  The point here is that the sector depends on a critical mass of companies and players, sufficiently numerous to provide the networks and connections and innovations. Most of these, by definition, won’t do hugely well, but they will still be important to the success of the whole project. So most (not all) of the less successful enterprises need to be able to tick along, earning enough to make it worth the effort, to act as sub-contractors to the others, to inject ideas into the mix, to offer specialist skills, and also to keep the coffee shops and bars buzzing and the romances blooming.”

For Tech City to survive, thrive and grow, it will require the support and intervention of a range of partners – public and private. As Stian Westlake has noted recently, there has already been a move against complete de-regulation of the market, with local authorities successfully resisting Government attempts to loosen planning regulations which would encourage more residential property in an area crying out for cheap studio and work space.

At the same time, others have noted the need for a smart approach to planning – which retains some of the distinctiveness of the current environment – with its mix of uses and activities, rather than lots of shiny new office space. And it’s also worth placing residential property into this mix (notwithstanding the point made above), given the often prohibitive cost of housing in London. As one of the group put it: “What’s the point in working in Shoreditch if you have to commute to the last stop on the tube and then take a bus to get home to an overpriced bedsit?”

Where’s the romance in that?


Localism and leadership

Tristram Hunt led off the most recent Culture and Creative Industries breakfast session, bemoaning the lack of clarity in government policy on localism and democratic renewal.

He wasn’t against much of what is being developed – and, indeed, the Local Economic Partnership (LEP) model was identified as a potentially ground-breaking way of focusing energy and resources around industrial and demographic requirements, rather than arbitrary borough or regional boundaries – bringing together public and private sector to develop long-term programmes for growth. Continue reading “Localism and leadership”

Is cultural regeneration classless?

I’m grateful to Triston Wallace and his blog here, which has prompted this short reflection on culture and class.

Some years ago, Richard Florida’s concept of the Creative Class was all the vogue – the idea of a whole stratum of society, a ‘class’ of artists, teachers, and a mix of other very broadly creative professionals, which was beginning to congregate in a number of US cities and generating economic growth and urban regeneration.  Florida made much of the tolerance and diversity which characterised this group.

I’ve always harboured an anxiety that Florida’s thesis is innately ‘classist’ – celebrating the values of an educated middle-class, while implicitly denigrating the values of traditional working class urban communities.

This doesn’t undermine a core part of his thesis:  that the economic and social dynamic in many of our most successful cities is being shaped by a new group of creative businesses and individuals.  But Florida’s approach stikes me as worryingly straightforward, failing to engage fully with the tensions and community conflicts which cultural regeneration butts up against.

Triston’s piece, referred to above, cites Hoxton – frequently referred to as an example of cultural and creative-led regeneration on the fringes of the city of London.  Hoxton was traditionally a very poor white area of town.  And, the chances are the locals are not as tolerant and diverse as the new creative types moving into their neighbourhood. The transformation of Hoxton into a buzzing creative district will have generated some trickle-down benefits for the local community, in their poor quality social housing.  But to what extent are they, or have they, been involved in the changes taking place.  Are they now setting up their own cultural enterprises, or hanging out in the cool cafes and bars?  Or, more likely, do they continue to experience high unemployment, and shop at places like Iceland?

Too often the ‘creative class’ which transforms neighbourhoods does so at the expense of local people, and sometimes local values and culture.  And, by implication, the values underpinning that cultural transformation are far from tolerant and appear only to engage with ‘diversity’ so long as the diversity does not include the poor (very often white) communities left untouched by the gentrification of the area. That’s the challenge, by the way, in places like Hackney Wick, where it is planned that there will be a creative and digital cluster post-2012.

There are, of course, examples of a more integrated – if not indigenous – cultural-led transformation, and I am certainly not arguing that cultural regeneration, and cultural and creative development are harmful for communities.  Rather, my beef is with Florida and with others who push the importance the concept of the ‘creative class’ but who appear not to have much of a concept of ‘class’ at all.

I’m not sure who it was who once said that ‘urban regeneration begins with poetry and ends with real estate’.  While simplistic, there’s something very profound in here about the disempowering force of urban development which most ‘poets’ would want to resist.

Making London beautiful

Arguably the most important set of documents affecting the culture and creative sectors in London have just been published.

No, not the Arts Council’s funding plans, nor the Mayor’s Culture Strategy.

Published today are the Mayor’s Economic Development Strategy, and his London Plan – or, at least, a draft of both.  The latter setting out a strategy which seeks to make London’s shared space “more beautiful”.

They are both available here.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Culture Strategy is more important:  in practice it is the London Plan which dictates how local government in particular, and a host of other local, regional and national governmental partners operate to support creative and cultural development. Setting out guidelines for cultural quarters, creative workspace, and for public space, the London Plan will have a significant impact on the health of the creative and cultural sectors over coming years.

I’ve only had a skim read, but initial viewing suggests that Boris has a good handle on the issues – notwithstanding the predictable emphasis on assisting outer London.

The Economic Development Strategy, meanwhile, appears less forthcoming about the role of culture and the creative sectors in supporting, stimulating and enriching the London economy.  Despite passing references to London Fashion Week and Film Festival, it’s hardly teeming with ideas on how best to support and promote London’s second biggest sector.   Given the parlous state of the LDA over recent years, maybe that’s no bad thing.  On the other hand, even the Party of small government will know that public spaces don’t get beautiful all by themselves.

Cultural regeneration (again)

I am grateful to John Thackara and his excellent monthly newsletter for this piece on cultural regeneration.

He writes of Berlin’s ‘Poor but Sexy’ approach to cultural regeneration, as presented by Anna Krenz.  Anna owns a tiny 20 square metre shop-front and art space, Galerie Zero in Berlin,  which has produced 100 pioneering art shows, installations and events over a six year period.  Thackara calculates that these 100 events cost “less than building the men’s toilets in a Frank Gehry-type art museum”.

This re-ignites an always fascinating debate about the pros and cons of major project regeneration, as opposed to micro and social business economic development.  In places like Manchester there have been apparently successful examples of both:  on the one hand the Lowry, which has helped transform Salford, leading to its being able to attract the BBC and a host of other businesses, people and jobs;  and, on the other, the regeneration of the canal district, into a lively, buzzing area of businesses, restaurants, and a hugely diverse resident and working population.

But John’s piece highlights questions not just about environmental impact but sustainability.  Many would argue that the success of major regeneration project like the Lowry Centre is that they can act as a magnet for new developments, attracting in much-needed investment;  others would say that developments like those around Canal Street are much more longer-lasting and have a more significant community impact, led as they are by local businesses, creating a mushrooming local and indiginous economy.  As Thackara says:  “The importance of projects like Galerie Zero is not just that they cost less than fancy museum buildings; their activities, being created in and by a community, also create a lot of the social capital that policy makers are so keen to foster”.

There are plenty examples of both in London.  Deptford has both – a vibrant local creative community and whole street of artists’ workspace, just a few yards from the fantastic Laban building;  the O2 centre on the Greenwich Peninsula is, at last, leading to massive redevelopments, including the impressive Ravensbourne College;  Shoreditch has seen creeping gentrification over a 20+ year period, but is managing to retain its profile as a creative community, despite being fringed by the City.

There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with any of these, of course.  But it is instructive to reconsider them, particularly in the context of planned developments such as those for the Olympic Park.  The chances are that the more successful, longer-lasting and, in John Thackara’s terms, more sustainable developments will be those that work with a local creative community – small voluntary groups as well as new digital businesses.  Many people think that the big blue fence around the main Olympic site is there to protect a Lowry- or Gehry-type development, closing out the local creative population.  But while we’re waiting for 2012, there’s nothing stopping local partners injecting a bit of energy and support into the Anna Krenz’s of this world, who might just help ensure that what emerges the other side of the fence worth the wait!

Hackney Wick 2009

Hackney Wick, 2009