But there’s a vast gulch of ignorance – and difference – among pundits and policymakers about what creativity really means. At the ostrich end of the debate – just before Australians discovered Richard Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class – I was told by a then-fellow staffer in the NSW Treasurer’s office that ‘no-one cares about the arts because there are no votes in it’. Now, at the opposite extreme, politicians are throwing increasing amounts of rhetoric – and Treasury allocations – into this concept.
The world needs clarity on how creativity is being diversely defined and manipulated. Through widespread misuse in public debate, this term is in danger of joining Don Watson’s dictionary of weasel words – and we risk squandering an idea with power to improve societies. More practically, we need to develop a reliable national – and ultimately international – system of gathering and mining data on the economic productivity of creative professionals.
Data definition difficulties
Current data on creative education and practice is scanty, unreliable and lacking in co-relativity. For example, my recent survey of 36 large architectural firms uncovered overseas fee revenue of $62 million in 2003, compared with the ABS figure of $22 million, claimed by the Government to be Australian architecture’s entire export income for the same year. When data-crunching creative economies, a prime question is exactly which contemporary professionals are allowed to call themselves creative professionals. The boffins are not aligned on this.
For example, Australian Bill Mitchell, an eminent architect at MIT, recently led the US National Academy of Sciences sub-committee which reported to the Government on the economic potentials of American creativity. Mitchell’s committee argued that the strongest advances towards a situation they called ‘beyond productivity’ would be made by mixing IT specialists – computer science geeks – with creative professionals – that is, artists and designers.
But that definition is too narrow for Richard Florida, the celebrated regional economist from Carnegie Mellon. In his books on the ‘creative class’, he has identified a new economic group whose members, he says, work to create ‘meaningful new forms’ – inventions in other words.
He reckons there are three categories of creatives. One is a core group including non-artist types like scientists, software programmers and engineers, but also novelists, artists, entertainers, filmmakers, designers, architects and various kinds of thought leaders. The other is a non-core group of creative professionals that Mitchell ignored – knowledge workers in the high-tech, financial services, legal and health care professions, and business management. Even technicians, Florida argued, are also using their intellect creatively and can often be added to his creative class. When all three of those sectors are lassoed in a data survey, his creative class can amount to as much as 40 percent of a population.
Melbournian Marc Spiller, of SGS Economics and Planning, seems to lump Florida’s first two types together under the heading of advanced knowledge services workers. This group, he suggests, now drives prosperity not necessarily because they are creative, but because they sell their personal capabilities to clients outside their own economies. They can come from any field of human endeavour, no matter how boring, so long as they export their intelligence and skills to foreign buyers.
Meanwhile Sasha Lennon, SGS’s Brisbane director, offers another cut on this issue in recent reports contributing to the Queensland Government’s creative industries strategy. He says that the creative sector comprises businesses (not individuals, we notice) whose products stem from individual creativity, skill and talent. Yet those sorts of businesses – eg the successful Brisbane fashion designers Easton Pearson – include staff like book-keepers and personal assistants, who are not themselves doing creative work.
Lack of space prevents explanations of similar anomalies and complexities in defining three other terms common in creativity debates: design, innovation and clusters. But all of these need to be understood, and exploited, with more precision as an important debate develops with the emerging challenges of the information age.