Realising the value of creativity

Worldwide creative activity is worth £1600bn and its value continues to grow according to a new book. Mike Exon expresses himself

Does the fact that creative activity around the world is worth £1600bn mean anything? If you are a creative, then probably not.

Would it make a difference if you were told that the UK probably creates more wealth from its creative industries than any country outside of the US? Maybe a little, but anyway, what about that film last night?

Trying to communicate with creatives using economic principles is a challenge for anyone. But this is something John Howkins, author of The Creative Economy, published last week, would no doubt be the first to acknowledge. The world is changing and questions are being asked about our creative sector and its mysterious arts, bubbling with possibility.

Our inclinations that this is a “happening” industry are now supported by hard data. Creative work, we are told, represents an enormous 7.3 per cent of the global economy. It is growing at 5 per cent a year, far over and above other fields of work. Over three quarters of a million people describe themselves as working in the UK’s creative industries and the number of creative sector jobs has grown by 32 per cent over the past ten years.

Much of this growth can be attributed to personal factors and Howkins examines what is special about the creative mindset and the marketplace in which it is set to work. His thesis paints an enticing picture of unfulfilled potential and it tries to draw on the successes of creative personalities such as Terence Conran, Richard Rogers and Trevor Bayliss, to see how potential can be unlocked. It seems to assert that while there may be no rulebook about how to think creatively, it takes further qualities such as dogged determination and self-belief to take things to the next level.

There are conditions in which creativity can be nurtured and encouraged. But the key challenge is often overlooked, he explains. We should be thinking about a sort of creative alchemy – turning creativity into wealth. Howkins makes some good observations about the need for harnessing creative ideas and turning them into hard money – into what he calls creative products. Without this transformation, “creativity has no economic value – it needs to be embodied in a tradable product, if it is to accrue commercial value,” he says.

Quantifying creativity is no easy job, which is probably why most economists leave it well alone. Howkins attempts to explain something about esoteric processes with his Rider Model – standing for review, incubation, dreams, excitement, reality checks. These are functions critical to having ideas and seeing them through to fruition. They are loose, rather transient actions that are magically mixed by individuals in no particular way.

One assertion, that “creative people never seem very interested in the question”, can actually be applied to more than his query “are creative people born or made?”. His argument is that “the right question is whether the person was born to take charge of their own intellectual assets”.

What is called for is having the imagination to create your own destiny and the nerve to bank on yourself, is his argument. And it is a convincing one. “The individual who takes charge is the starting point for the management of creativity,” Howkins writes. “All individuals who want to be creative, whether they work alone or with a large organisation, must take control.” It is his clear challenge to the creative workforce.

At the collective level, Howkins argues strongly for building alliances through flexible communities, networks that are not necessarily tied to one organisation, building or process. This must be balanced, he suggests, with periods of personal isolation for reflection and thinking, though it is through “creative collaboration” that professionals such as designers make their biggest impact.

Collaboration is not just about working with other creatives either. Creative businesses are characterised by high numbers of short-term projects, making the art of mastering what Howkins calls “deals and hits” more important than for ordinary economy businesses. The consequences are that the “role of the individual” is emphasised, “since deals are always between people”. This also places a higher onus on legal expertise, allows assets to rise and fall in value much more quickly, and puts pressure on permanent fixed employment.

The upshot is something that some will have witnessed in the design industry: older, stable institutions are replaced by smaller organisations, with a mix of employees and external contractors. Companies are “changing from being a block of workers to being a marketplace of deals”.

Most of this is good news for designers and creatives. For people used to challenging accepted ideas, the fact that a “business” need not be a grey building with a boardroom and a string of dull functions is excellent news. In fact, it recognises there are people who perhaps never considered themselves to be “businesses”, but who certainly are. But more importantly, it recognises how much more the creative sector could offer, if we challenge ourselves individually to take things that little bit further.

The Creative Economy: how people make money from ideas by John Howkins is published by Penguin Press, priced £18.99

John Howkins’ Rules for Success (Abridged)

Invent yourself, then build up momentum around your unique talents. Dance as if no one is looking

Put the priority on ideas, not on data. Be more worried about losing your ability to think than losing money

Be nomadic – choose your own path, exploit both solitude and the crowd by thinking alone and working together

Define yourself by your own activity. Don’t be pigeon-holed by somebody else’s job title

Learn, borrow, innovate, use networks – if they don’t exist start them. If you are bored, do something else

Exploit fame and celebrity. Become a name

Mix dreams and reality to create your own future

Be kind, admire success openly and be ambitious

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