Manifesto Destiny?

Professor Philip Schlesinger – Deputy Director, CREATe discusses the recently launched NESTA Manifesto for the Creative Economy. Update: see Schlesinger’s follow-up post for a correction and additional reflection.

NESTA launched A Manifesto for the Creative Economy on 23 April. Its meeting room was packed to capacity, with prominent members of the great and unco guid well in evidence.

The timing was rather opportune. NESTA set out its stall for redefining the creative economy just a day before Maria Miller, the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, spoke at the British Museum about culture and the arts in an age of austerity.

Affirming her belief in the civilizing effects of culture and its centrality to Britishness, Ms Miller emphasized the contribution of the arts to economic life. She talked – in a phrase redolent of the New Labour era – of public funding through the Arts Council acting as ‘venture capital’. Indeed, in my view the speech as whole was entirely consistent with the previous government’s thinking, although not everyone will agree.

The Arts Council, of course, is banging the drum of relevance and utility – sensible austerity politics, as an astute Peter Bazalgette has made clear.

What proved to be an action-packed week for the cultural policy wonkerati actually began on 19 April when, the UK government offered a consultation on proposed changes to classifying and measuring the creative industries.

It was just like the buses coming in threes, combining the predictability of a reassuring procession with relief that there’s actually something to talk about.

Back to NESTA’s Manifesto, which plainly has been launched into an interesting context.

NESTA’s initiative has been very self-consciously positioned. It reflects in chapter 2 – ‘How Creative Britain lost its way’ – on a history of disappointment at the UK government’s failure to deliver consistent and transformative policies for the creative industries.

The lead author, Hasan Bakhshi, apart from being highly prolific and influential in this field, was also co-author of an earlier attempt to move the conceptual ground, Staying Ahead, published in 2007 and sidelined by the DCMS as too radical. Ian Hargreaves, as a co-author (alongside Juan Mateos-García), is of course well-known for his journalism and wider role in public life, but in this context for the 2011 Hargreaves Review, aka Digital opportunity: a review of intellectual property and growth, the proposals of which are still in play.

The Manifesto’s acknowledgements round up many influential players in the battle for ideas. So we should take this initiative seriously, even if the eventual destination is not known.

Why do definitional and classifying exercises matter? The obvious answer is that they can be consequential. Many authors would be delighted to be cited as half as often as the DCMS’s categorisation of the mystical 13 creative industries; and their delight would be unsurpassed by the global renown the Creative Industries Mapping Document 1998 has enjoyed.

NESTA’s Manifesto is a reformers’ charter. The ancient creative industries’ carapace is worn out and we need a new one. Where better to start than with a redefinition and reclassification to help us imagine a new world? This exercise is undertaken in Chapter 3, ‘What is the creative economy?’ This is a key part of the manifesto for future debate and it contains a definition of a creative occupation as:

‘a role within the creative process that brings cognitive skills to bear to bring about differentiation to yield either novel, or significantly enhanced products whose final form is not fully specified in advance.’ (p.29)

This chapter then specifies 5 criteria of creativity ‘with which to score all the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) Codes in the UK workforce’.  These are novel process, mechanization-resistant, non-repetitiveness, creative contribution to the value chain, and interpretation (p.29).

And – acknowledging that there are problems in the criteria taken in isolation – although arguing that together they constitute a whole, the argument moves on to a calculus of ‘creative intensity’ for each SIC industrial code – the basis for saying who is in the creative workforce.

After applying their criteria, the authors conclude that in 2010 ‘8.7 per cent of the UK labour force worked in the creative economy’ and that ‘the creative industries accounted for 5.3 per cent of UK GVA’ (pp.31, 33)

The underlying assumptions will doubtless attract expert comment from labour economists in due course. Meantime, NESTA has a ready-made package in answer to the DCMS’s call. But what will be remembered from the Manifesto launch, it is doubtless hoped, will be the headline figures that affirm the previously under-estimated importance of the creative economy.

Given the undoubted clunkiness of the definition of a creative occupation cited above, a more user-friendly definition of ‘creative industries’ is proposed as:

‘those sectors which specialise in the use of creative talent for creative purposes’ (p.34)

With ‘creative’ appearing three times in one definition, we might consider this to be a mite recursive or otherwise entirely dependent on criteria that lie outside the definition itself.

And this goes with an allied definition of the ‘creative economy’ as:

‘those economic activities which involve the use of creative talent for commercial purposes’ (p.34)

Provided we know what ‘creative talent’ is – and how this both differs from and relates to ‘creative occupations’ – that might carry more weight.

There is no doubt that this is the really crucial part of the document because it leads to Proposal One, which is:

‘The Government should adopt our proposed new definitions of the creative industries and the wider creative economy. These are simple, robust and recognize the central role of digital technologies’. (p.34)

The last point is key to this reformers’ exercise. Part of the regretful history supplied is that New Labour inventions such as the DCMS and Ofcom did not get the internet.

Proposal Two is a plea for governmental rationality that the authors themselves evidently doubt (given the chequered history recounted) but still harbour hopes for:

‘Policymakers should establish a “creative innovation system” framework within which strategic priorities can be addressed in a coherent and effective manner.’ (p.50)

The other eight proposals range widely, meriting a chapter apiece, including tax relief for creative businesses, creative clusters, finance, valuation of public arts and cultural spending, incentives for experimentation, and expanded role for Ofcom vis à vis the internet, re-balanced copyright rules and a Schools Digital Pledge.

The Manifesto is profusely referenced (it runs to 127 pages, with no less than 617 footnotes).

Lets’s see how it plays.

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