Creative China, Managerial Innovation, Global Brands: Interview with John Howkins

By Urban China

Urban China: What prompted you to bring your model of creative industries into China?

John Howkins: It was the obvious next step for China. Creativity and innovation are the drivers of development worldwide. They are an essential part of human development, cultural development and economic development. They are the causes of Europe and America’s lead in art, design and technology. China could not stand aside. Understandably, the Chinese people want to understand this creative mindset, these creative skills, and take part in this global transformation. Actually, they want to take a leading part. So I was delighted to be asked to advise governments, businesses and creative individuals.

I provide two parallel strategies. The first is to bring the best of international expertise to China. This might be from Europe and America or it could be from Brazil, Australia, anywhere. The second is to work with China to develop the Chinese way of creativity and innovation. For me, this is very interesting: China’s ideas about creativity, collaboration, culture, copyright, freedom, management and so on. I will not have succeeded until I can teach Chinese creativity to the English!

UC: Which governmental sectors or organizations do you usually cooperate with?

JH: I work a lot with city and district governments. I work a lot with education organizations, both government officials and universities. A country’s capacity for creativity is dependent on its capacity to learn. I emphasize, to ‘learn’, not to be ‘educated’. Education is only useful if it helps us to learn. I believe the two of the most important factors in China’s creative economy are the reform of its education system and a new approach to the management of workers.

UC: How did you persuade the Chinese government to accept your propositions?

JH: I lay out my theories, backed up by hard evidence, and have a discussion. The evidence is overwhelming! Sometimes my ideas and suggestions are accepted, sometimes not. Some officials like a discussion, some do not. In general, the government is very enthusiastic about the importance of creative industries. It knows that China’s future jobs and economic growth depend on China becoming more skillful at creativity. If China fails to be creative it will remain dependent on US and Europe. Obviously, this is a risky strategy.

UC: How did the Chinese government respond your theory and conceptions?

JH: The government is very aware of the need to develop the creative economy. The leadership is positive. However, it faces a delicate balance between supporting free and open creativity and maintaining overall harmony. This balance between freedom and harmony is the major challenge facing us in the 21st century, whether we are in New York or Beijing. Every artist faces a quandary, every second, about when to follow the rules and when to break them. For each of us, it is a personal, aesthetic and even ethical matter. In a creative economy, these daily quandaries are magnified a million times. The whole system can turn inwards and stagnate or it can run out of control. Fortunately, there is an inbuilt tendency towards equilibrium.

The collapse of the global financial system means the government has to act quickly. It is very urgent. Now, it is difficult to rely on other countries. So China has to be very quick to develop its own resources. I believe that China has to take some radical steps over the next 12-18 months that it probably expected to take more leisurely over the next five years. It has a wonderful opportunity to seize a leadership role. But other countries are circling: Japan, the Gulf States, Russia and of course India.

Today, China assembles iPods that are developed and branded in California. The next equivalent to the iPod, or the next nano-Pod, will be designed and branded in Beijing or Shenzhen, if the government takes the right steps now.

UC: How do you see current creative industries development in China? How would you suggest China takes the next step toward evolving the creative industries?

JH: I am optimistic about creative industries in China. I am impressed by the people I have met, especially the young people: their imagination, ambition, skills, hard work, and willingness to learn. And their sheer personal likeability. So I think creative industries in China will develop very fast. My concerns are the education system and also the attitudes in some government circles that open discussion and open competition are a bad idea.

It is also true that creative companies will find it harder than manufacturing companies to make international alliances, both because they are smaller and cannot afford the necessary preparation and also because the language and cultural differences are more significant.

Western companies are very experienced in managing creative people, but Chinese companies are only just beginning to learn. I have found many excellent Chinese companies that need training in business and management. In Britain, government and industry provide lots of courses. China has hardly begun to do this. For me, this is the main priority. I want to work with some creative companies in this way to improve their international business skills.

John Howkins is Visiting Professor at Lincoln University and a British economist, leader of international creative economy, director of the Adelphi Charter on Creativity, Innovation and Intellectual Property, chairman and founder of Creative Group. He was recognized as the 'Father of Creative Industry'.