Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Portrait of the creative economy as a dog

I recently had a contrary discussion with a friend about whether science should be considered part of the creative economy. On one hand it is a component of the creative economy, or rather technologies are, but I make the distinction between discovery and invention. The Americas existed before Columbus ‘found’ them. Ask any Native American.

My friend, who has a brain the size of a planet and who is a chief science officer for a leading biotech firm, will earn millions of dollars for her work developing a vaccine for HIV (which has begun the testing process in the US required by the FDA). She will create wealth from her knowledge and discovery. But, and this is just my opinion, that doesn’t place her endeavour within the frame of the creative economy. The reason for my exclusion of science is that science resides within the knowledge economy. That is an important part of New Zealand’s future too, but it is not the creative economy. Most human activities require some creative thought. But we should distinguish between creative process and outcomes/outputs.

Why is it important to make the distinction? I believe that, if we are going to measure the extent and growth of the creative economy then we need clear parameters, rather than a blurring of the edges—if nothing more than to ensure the right resources go into the right areas for development. In addition how will we compare our performance internationally if we don’t use common metrics?

The UK Government Department for Culture, Media and Sport defines the Creative Industries as: “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property”. Their list includes the following sectors:

* Advertising
* Architecture
* Art and antiques market
* Crafts
* Design
* Designer fashion
* Film and video
* Interactive leisure software
* Music
* Performing arts
* Publishing
* Software and computer services
* Television and radio

I would strike out the antiques market, as I can’t see where the creation of IP lives in that category, but, by and large, I am comfortable with the list. I also believe that the emphasis on individual creativity, skill and talent are pivotal. Creative breakthroughs typically don’t emerge from consensus.

Influential commentators like Richard Florida argue that a wider, more inclusive view should be taken. Maybe so. I believe science and technology support creativity and innovation. If you are a glass blower you need to understand the nature of the process. But Louis Comfort Tiffany, widely regarded as one of the most creative exponents of glass art ever, was not skilled in the technology, only the conception and marketing—the creation and distribution of intellectual property that was distinctively attributable to him—even if he did not make the thing itself (a contemporary parallel might be Jonathan Ive, the chief designer of Apple computers. He is responsible for the phenomenal success of the iPod to a large degree, though one would never expect him to have a command of the circuitry.)

One of the wonderful and unnerving aspects of the creative economy is that it is unreasonable or unpredictable. Jerry Seinfeld earned an estimated $267 million in 1998 according to the 1999 Forbes Celebrity 100 list, the highest annual earnings ever by a television or film actor. Who could have known? Would it be unreasonable to imagine that the creators of bro’Town could earn millions if the show ‘clicked’ with an audience on a US cable channel ... maybe they do already?

To illustrate the wonderfully random nature of the creative economy: I watched the story of The Lonely Dog on TVNZ’s Sunday programme. A character created by Queenstown artist Ivan Clarke. Because I am an elitist snob I think the paintings are twee rubbish with about as much value as velvet paintings of poker playing dogs. But I hear the wisdom of P T Barnum echoing down the ages: “There's a sucker born every minute” and “Every crowd has a silver lining.” More power to maestro Clarke.

I love his story. He has invented a character. He uses his craft ability to realise his concept. He has connected with others to help infect the market (notably Richard Taylor of Weta Workshop) and found a world market with which to build a franchise in all sorts of media—from movies to all of the collateral merchandising that goes with it. Better still, the only real capital Lonely Dog consumes and creates is intellectual capital.

I would argue that this stark, barking-mad example of commercial creativity is a better beacon for others than capital-intensive labours with ten-year horizons. Which is not to say that the participants in the knowledge economy should not pursue those ends or that they are mutually exclusive if we are to have a rich (literally), vibrant and diversified national economy.

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