Sunday, February 21, 2016

What Makes Creative Places?

Creativity was perhaps never been more glorified. We have appreciated art, music and literature, enjoyed the fruits of scientific research and technical invention, indeed, but never before we have considered Creativity as the sole source of progress as well as redemption. Governments never wilfully proclaimed the goals of building creative economies, city planners never before had an explicit mandate for creative cities, and here is the clinchers, accountants never concerned themselves with creative output. Creativity, seen in context, is a modern religion, a source of collective well-being when all other prospects have failed.

Accordingly, there is a stampede for making creative places. Start-ups have taken the place once Public Corporations had in public imagination - the mainstay of a middle class economy! Governments now divest in public sector, they are so last century, and proclaim policies to encourage start-up making. Economists write about idea economy and collective IQ. Institutions of Higher Education fall over each other in finding and promoting creative ideas, as do local governments.

The key question in our age is, therefore, what makes creative places.

There are some ready answers which we love to hear. Richard Florida loves the T words, Talent, Technology and Tolerance. It paints a neat picture, and reverse-engineers the Silicon Valley. However, this may have got the causation backwards: Talent congregate, technologies appear and a tolerant culture may develop around a creative place, but someone do not will such things to come together. Besides, it is perhaps too simplistic as well: If those things could be willed, then we could create Silicon Valleys at will, just as Real Estate developers wish!

But, then, here is the thing: Going by our track record, we could not really plan, predict and enable making of creative places. They come up seemingly at random, making fools of all those government proclamations and million dollar business parks. And, indeed, the regularity with which all those dreams of building creative places falter, and enormous sums of money disappear, makes one think whether we are staring at the bottom of the barrel - is Silicon Valley indeed the 'last great place', as one travel writer calls it - and whether all the attempts at making creative hotspots are doomed at the very conception.

To answer this, it is useful to reflect how it happened in the past. Different creative hotspots appeared and disappeared through history, Athens, Florence, Vienna, Kolkata, Paris and Modern Silicon Valley, seemingly randomly but with some consistency in how they happened. Usually, it hardly ever started with someone proclaiming - 'let there be' - or, much less, rolling out one initiative or a policy for creative flowering. The consistent thread has been that it started with disruption: Not the benign sort that has now become a buzzword, but rather the violent kind, usually a defeat in a war or a revolution. It needed a defeat in hands of the Prussians for Vienna to really prosper, Florence rose from a string of battles and defeats in the hands of the other Italian republics, and Paris from the complete humiliation of Prussian incursion and Paris commune! Otherwise, it is the new places, that was outside the structures of power - Calcutta in the early Colonial Bengal or the sleepy towns of California in United States - places that, when it all started, can not be imagined to attract the best talents and best technology, really make it. One good indicator perhaps, at least in the modern examples, is a good education structure, perhaps an elite institution (Stanford made Silicon Valley, it is claimed), but it may be a necessary, but no way a sufficient condition. 

The common sense explanation why disruption helps is that such creative flowerings usually comes from the outsiders, immigrants, outcasts and disadvantaged. Creative flowering is necessarily a process of unlocking the talents of those, rather than the pretencion of the polite society. This is precisely why making a place creative is so difficult: This means deliberately undermining the privileged, allowing the space for ideas to emerge, creating opportunities for all rather than lucky few. By nature, governments and policies defend the privileges and try to limit social churn: By definition, they are anti-creativity!

As Jane Jacobs observed, such creative flowering is also associated with low road. It is no accident that Soho, the ugly underbelly that Regent Street was designed to hide and which was a place to throw the dead bodies during the London plague, became such a creative hotspot in time: It is places like that, rather than one with shiny and expensive real estate, that make creative places possible. One may visualise shiny steel-and-glass IT Parks as great symbols of IT progress these days, but it is safe to assume that when the real estate has become premium, the centre of creative activities have taken a flight. Because creativity is essentially risky and unrewarding (rewards often come later), an IT city is hardly the place where such experimental models can prosper. It necessarily needs the 'Low Road'.

Finally, Creativity often needs, and in turn results in, schema variation, odd or unacceptable ways of doing things. Fred Turner and others have pointed out how Counterculture led to Computer revolution in Silicon Valley; other creative spaces, and creative lives, are full of similar examples: Often shocking experimentation with living coexist with great new thinking. Using Fred Turner's word, it therefore needs a 'Democratic Surround', a culture of experimentation and toleration, to enable a creative place. Often, it needs a Cosmopolitan hotchpotch, not built around the 'Best and Brightest' that modern British politicians pin their hopes on, but rather the 'Give me your tired, your poor' kind. Again, it is not something Governments and policies can really aim to - such experimentation runs against their grains, and their mandate to keep a society stable!

All this points to the stupidity of all those government efforts to create 'Creative Hotspots' and their hopes of achieving economic growth through innovation and creativity! When a government simultaneously try to provide sops for entrepreneurial risk-taking and want to wall off the migrants, they are simply wasting public money in more than one way! Studying the history of creative places would help, though it would basically say that the government can do very little other than keeping out of the way. 


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