The first World Conference on Creative Economy (WCCE), an Indonesian government initiative, was held in that country in 2018, promoted as a “forum for policymakers and industry players to exchange ideas, resolve challenges and identify opportunities within the creative economy.” It attracted much interest in the cultural and creative industries’ policy community as an indicator of the enthusiasm with which certain countries in the Global South were beginning, pre-pandemic, to take a lead in taking forward the global creative economy agenda.
The second iteration of the WCCE took place, one year behind schedule, from 3rd-5th December 2021 in the new Dubai Conference Centre, delayed by Covid, like the huge, 438-hectare Dubai (World) Expo 2020 next door, situated on the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The event was lavishly funded, hybrid and audio-visually spectacular – an impressive blend of state-of-the-art production values and impregnable, Covid-mandated security procedures. (All Dubai’s public museums were closed at the time).
It was remarkable that the event happened at all, but WCCE 2021 was not without its challenges. A stellar international list of speakers (including UNESCO Secretary-General Audrey Azoulay, architect Santiago Calatrava, authors John Howkins and Malcolm Gladwell, and John Newbigin from the UK’s International Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) and ICCE, competed for attention on three juxtaposed sound stages with a roster of princely ministers, big screen cultural heritage presentations and, at times, each other: some distinguished speakers were left with very small in-person audiences as the physically-distanced attendees migrated around the cavernous arena. Because we had all been locked up for so long, the experience was nonetheless exhilarating, although it also felt at times more like an extension of the sensation-busting, adjacent Expo extravaganza, than a policy symposium. It, too, was a showcase of (Emirati) talent.
The event was ‘topped and tailed’ by Noura Bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, the UAE’s inspirational Minister of Culture and Youth, who does more than anyone to redeem the governance of what can reasonably be described as a benevolent autocracy, always rises sublimely to the occasion and, unusually for this part of the world, never forgets to thank her staff. The UAE, it is instructive to note, has also done more than most countries to monitor and respond to the brutal impact of the pandemic on cultural freelancers.
Participants came away from Dubai with a definite sense of the show being back on the road, but what road? Is the ‘creative economy’, some two decades after its popularisation by John Howkins in his book The Creative Economy, still conceptually valid? How successfully has it weathered the successive critiques of sociologists, economic geographers and business economists? How is it adapting and responding to the twin challenges of climate change and widening social inequalities?
These questions were indeed on the table in Dubai in the form of some now familiar rhetorical tropes (“Future Sustainable”; “Inclusion and Diversity”; “Education Unleashed”; “Reworking Work”; “Technology Transformation”; and, less self-evident, “Elevating the Media and Communications Landscape”.) The global appetite to explore these themes and capitalise on their potential to diversify economies and provide jobs, is undiminished. What was invented (largely) in the UK, is now being gripped and taken forward by others, not least Indonesia, to where the next WCCE event is planned to return late in 2022.
Perhaps, as one of John Newbigin’s interlocutors (from the West Midlands) cited by John on stage in Dubai, suggests, the ‘creative economy’ is actually a state of mind rather than a coherent construct of public policy. This will not satisfy the policy wonks, I suspect, still keen, as many of us are, to nail down something more economically concrete and more amenable to influence via the panoply of fiscal and other levers available to politicians and policy-makers.
From this perspective, one key challenge is to observe, codify and make sense of the many examples of divergent approaches to creative economy policy development visible around the globe. Two examples will suffice to make the point – two small countries, both mountainous, both with young populations, both largely devoid of natural resources and both with histories of imperial subjugation – Slovenia and Kyrgyzstan, both of which I visited and studied in 2021.
Slovenia is pursuing a largely design-led, publicly funded approach to creative development financed from two offices in Ljubljana and Maribor by the European Union to the tune of some 20m euros over a five year period, and managed by a dedicated Centre for Creativity. Small venture capital-type funding is available to start-ups on a competitive basis and some 100 companies have benefited to date. The presiding spirit is one of public-private partnership.
Development in Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, is entirely private sector led and is driven by the rapid growth of creative co-working spaces (in Bishkek, Osh and Issyk-kul) managed by the Ololo Group. This is a property development model with a creative twist, but it is this highly inventive “twist”, combined with exceptional entrepreneurial vision, that drives both sector profile and growth. The agencies of government are generally mistrusted so public-private partnerships are not a feature of this landscape.
The two models could hardly be more different, but are equally valid in context. However from a policy perspective many questions arise from even the most cursory examination. A few of the most obvious are these:
- What are the main policy objectives? Jobs created? Regional market share of cultural goods and services created? Other?
- What is the role of the state and of the market in stimulating growth? Where should primary departmental responsibility lie, and boundaries be acknowledged, including the boundaries between national and local government (city mayors)?
- How best to provide financial assistance and /or incentives to new businesses, often within the context of increased pressure on national budgets? Loans, grants, equity participation?
- How to reinvent state cultural organisations (eg museums and theatres) so that they operate more entrepreneurially and make their assets more widely available for public consumption?
- Competition and regulation: how to protect creative IP and ensure the growth of competitive markets?
The list goes on and on, but none of these questions were discussed in Dubai. I suspect, however, that they are well understood in the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth.
Finally, note that Dubai has its own well calibrated Creative Economy Strategy which aims to “double the contribution of the creative industries to the GDP of Dubai from 2.6 per cent in 2020 to 5 per cent by 2025.” Few would bet on this target not being achieved, pandemic or no pandemic, given the scale of the ambition on display in December 2021.
 John Howkins, The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas, Penguin, 2002, updated 2007 and 2013.
 Centre for Creativity – Culture of Slovenia
Written by: Dr Martin Smith, Visiting Fellow in Creative Industries