Creative Clusters: Out of Nowhere?

By Michael Keane

Chinese cities are currently undergoing extraordinary transformation. Much urban land, particularly on the fringes of cities, has undergone re-zoning in the past decade. Three spatial manifestations of development have dominated: these are spaces of globalization (development zones, industrial parks, convention centres, etc.), spaces of elitist consumption (shopping malls, supermarkets, five star hotels and golf courses) and spaces of differentiation and marginalization (gated communities, urban villages and migrant enclaves). The accelerated urbanization process is driven by multiple forces but in particular by local bureaucratic entrepreneurs who are embedded within ‘growth coalitions’. These bureaucratic entrepreneurs have established relationships with government officials, developers and investors and other ‘movers and shakers’.

The re-valuing of urban space is an important element of social transformation, and this no more evident than in the recent fascination with creative clusters, which aim to be both spaces of globalization and spaces of elite consumption. By the late-1990s, industrial clusters had overtaken science and technology parks as the default economic setting for regional development. Clustering is currently a policy panacea for economic development commissions and local governments looking to create new enterprise and wealth. An important benefit of clusters is the trade-off between competition and cooperation. Firms locate in particular regions or centres to gain benefits of labour, knowledge and ideas. When they are co-located, firms, research institutions and enterprises create an excess of services and knowledge; the former is used in creating more specialised services (e.g. expansion) while knowledge is diffused, acquired by people working in the milieu. This is the ideal cluster scenario.

These days the economic logic of clustering is distilled into creative parks, bases, incubators, industrial districts, creative cities, and creative regions. In China, as elsewhere, the terms ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ are often used interchangeably, and this in turn affects the way creative clusters are imagined. Both creativity and innovation occur in clusters. However, it is important to note that creativity is directly associated with novelty and human capital, whereas innovation is the ability to utilise, exploit or adapt someone else’s creativity – improving on a design, for instance.

A creative cluster is a place for creative enterprise: a geographically defined area in which there is a linked group of creative industries, businesses (predominantly small and medium enterprises), or cultural activities. Such clusters have historically tended to include educational institutions and R&D agencies; governmental agencies or public bodies; public and privately financed arts and cultural venues and facilities; entertainment, leisure and shopping facilities; and accessible public spaces for socialisation and events. The combination of these multiple dimensions means that creative industry clusters come in a great variety of different shapes. Most creative clusters hope to be knowledge clusters, places where there is a creative spark, where there is a flow of ideas. From this perspective creative clusters are inclined to high-tech small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and rather than sourcing knowledge from universities, they associate heavily with street fashion.

In reality, some self-styled creative clusters are best defined as cultural quarters, places where there is a high degree of not-for-profit activity (museums, art galleries, libraries) and fragmented production or consumption (artists’ lofts and markets). While these clusterings of activity may engage with street fashion they are often complicit in perpetuating the sale of shabby mass-produced tourist artefacts containing little or no creative input. In places where cultural and arts policy has played a leading role in national discourses, particularly Canada, France, China, and to some extent Australia, there are strong preservationist attitudes underlying a belief that 'arts and culture' are somehow beyond the realm of the market. Because of inherent market failure an obligation is placed on government to support and determine best policy, and because of the power of influential elites there has been a tendency to promote high culture forms over popular culture. From this perspective, cultural quarters are less about innovation and more about tourism and the reproduction of tradition.

Clusters in China: Real Estate or Real Creativity?
The question of what makes a cluster creative is central to the development of China’s creative future, as it seems the government’s current Five-Year Plan (2006 – 2010) has determined there will be a creative industries and creative cluster-led renaissance. Indeed, the term ‘creative cluster’ (chuangyi jijuqu) was only coined in 2006. The question in the current climate of enhancing Chinese soft power is: just what makes a cluster creative? The first key idea that China needs to embrace is ‘boundary spanning’: that is, people from outside – from different disciplines and fields of endeavour – should be included wherever possible. Boundary spanning also implies there is value in integrating international ideas and personnel into projects.

This ‘boundary spanning’ is different from established ‘knowledge communities’ where researchers, developers or R&D personnel have similar interests. The importance of breaking out of the knowledge community is revealed in communication. Within a group of individuals flanked by a boundary we more often than not observe similarities in skills, attitudes, educational backgrounds, and subsequently in norms and values. This leads to a tension between efficiency and originality. In the animation industries, for instance, we can distinguish between making profit from merchandising (bottom-line efficiencies) and creating new original content that has potential export markets. As I have argued elsewhere, this is currently a huge problem in China’s animation industries because the lack of value in the content market drives businesses back to manufacturing.

Planning is important to the success of creative clusters. However, planning ultimately depends on the kinds of cluster model, the industries located there, and the kinds of innovations sought. Sometimes government intervention is the catalyst for new development (as in the construction of a new area or district); other times government plays an important role after the cluster has been developed organically. For example, disused factories are often occupied by artists; industrial spaces become popular venues for hip-hop concerts. Government can assist in ensuring that there is ‘responsible management’ of such spaces, although there is a danger that the original creative spirit moves elsewhere as a result, as has occurred in Beijing’s 798 art district. In some models, governments have partnered with corporate management to ensure that there is a balanced mix of participants, in turn facilitating a learning and cooperative environment. However, while policy-led ‘top-down’ creative cluster development is important, ‘planning’ and ‘creativity’ are not necessarily opposites or mutually exclusive. There is a need for new models to allow planning to productively engage with creativity.

The idea of the ‘learning region’, one in which knowledge is absorbed and readily transferred, is often advanced as a reason for governments to promote the development of clusters. However, there are some problems with knowledge transfer under such policy environments, and these certainly apply to the creative cluster fever breaking out in Chinese cities. Many poorer regions that are currently pursuing the cluster approach to development have ‘thin’ knowledge bundles when compared to global benchmark regions like Silicon Valley, which are 'thick' in the areas of exploration (research), examination (testing and trialling) and exploitation (commercialisation). The problem is that fear of being left behind pushes the formation of clusters. As clones, they are incapable of producing what is called ‘generative growth’ – growth that interacts with the surrounding system or ecology of sociable, creative, collaborating and competing agents. New cluster models should look closely at ‘soft infrastructure’; in doing so they can exploit the advantages of information and communication technologies, in particular networked interactive platforms for creativity.

A further problem is associated with catch-up learning. To achieve generative growth, knowledge needs to act on existing knowledge: in other words, discovery involves a process of ‘unlearning’; it entails stepping beyond codified knowledge. It is imperative therefore that both creative regions and creative clusters avoid unnecessary duplication and ‘follow-the leader’ strategies. Moreover, they need to identify their own strengths and critical success factors through knowledge accumulation and innovative thinking. This then needs to be customised to regional assets and needs. If these factors are considered the pay-off from clustering will be here for all to see; if, however, clusters are conceived as real estate developments, there is unlikely to be any real creative ‘added value’ in the long term. And such a scenario seriously brings into question the idea of a ‘creative economy’.

Associate Professor Michael Keane is a Principal Research Fellow at the ARC Centre for Creative Innovation (CCI) at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is author of Created in China: the Great New Leap Forward (Routledge, 2007).