Creative Milieux - RSA

Creative Milieux

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  • Social innovation

For the past 1000 years or so, certain cities have come to be associated with great periods of wealth creation, innovation and technology and artistic breakthroughs. Venice in the 13th century opened up trade to the east; the Renaissance in 15th century Florence developed from the artist workshop system; the opening up of trade with the East Indies and the Northern Renaissance of the 17th century; the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century; the breakthrough of modern art forms in 19th century London and Paris; and Modernism is 1920s Berlin and New York in the 1940s. These were the great creative milieux of western civilization and capitalism.

But why these cities? Hippolyte Taine originated the concept of the “creative milieu” in 1865 (Philosephie de l’Art, 1865, as translated by Peter Hall, in his marvellous book Cities in Civilisation, London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1998). He argued that where creative milieux exist, these tend to be underpinned by “a general state of manners and mind”, producing in turn a "moral temperature" which allows talent and artistic creativity to develop in particular places at particular times. Taine asserts that artists and creative innovators always exist within human societies, and so the question becomes one of whether they are allowed or encouraged to pursue their art. Moreover, such people tend only to innovate, at least in their early years, where they have access to stimuli, opportunities to meet other people and freedom from censorship and heavy-handed regulation. This suggests that not only is creative genius itself essential to progress, but so too are the economic, cultural, moral and even built environments in which artists and inventors live.

Conceptions of such “creative milieux”, to be fair, were developed in the modern literature by the Swedish urban historians Gunnar Törnqvist and Ake Anderrson over 25 years ago. Törnqvist developed his own concept of the creative milieu in 1978, arguing that there were four key features: information (which must be exchanged and inter-traded); knowledge (bodies of work and data-bases); competence in certain activities; and creativity, which combines the other three features to create new products, ideas and processes (in his essay “Creativity and the Renewal of Regional Life” in Buttimer, A (ed) Creativity and Context (Lund Studies in Geography. B. Human Geography, No 50, 1983). In this way, creative places have a set of characteristics that, in most cases, take a long time to evolve and develop. It takes time to build up libraries, archives, data-bases and traditional skills. Such places come to have a recognised set of creative specialisms, and these in turn act as a magnet to attract further generations of creative people. This is what happens in London and New York, but also Milan and Helsinki.

Ake Andersson argued in 1985 that creative milieux are cities that have developed almost subliminal abilities to produce new work in art, technology and science. Such places tend to be culturally diverse (in terms of tastes and preferences, rather necessarily than ethnic variety), rich in knowledge, have a store of skills and competencies, and are well-connected through communications infrastructure. For Anderssen, creative milieux are predicated on six essential conditions. The first of these is a sound financial base, so that capital is available to develop new products and services, but regulation and taxation must be light. This side of the equation is often overlooked by social and cultural theorists: wealth needs to be created.

There must, as a pre-requisite be an existing base of original knowledge and competence, but incentives to encourage experimentation and the exploration and exploitation of new opportunities will also be necessary. Good communications and infrastructure are important to transport goods and services to export markets, but also to enable inter-trading and the development of myriad producer service relationships. Uncertainty over the future direction of scientific and technological progress is also helpful, paradoxically, as this encourages trial and error. Finally, creative people welcome the stimulus of the arts, entertainment and even opportunities to transgress.

These latter attributes especially, suggest that it is quite likely that creative milieux, particularly in the artistic fields, will tend to agglomerate around places – usually cities – which are themselves interesting in terms of their cultural life, entertainment, street life, urban form and architecture.

Creative milieux are comprised of clusters of industries, networks of firms and individuals, social relations and cultural life; and that they tend to occur in geographical space, that is to say cities and city regions such as the Third Italy. Successful creative milieux become self-generating urban and city-regional economies, in that they export, import, replace imports with new work and generate goods and services for local consumption. Without this, creative milieux can lose their dynamism, and eventually their economic advantage.

The leading cities during the coming “Upwave” will be London, LA and Seattle, Milan and Barcelona, Dublin and Helsinki, Berlin perhaps, and Tokyo; while Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Bangalore, Mumbai and Taipei have great potential the more open their societies become, and as they develop domestic as well as overseas markets. As in previous great waves, wealth creation will be driven by technology, new industries, products and services and the opening up of trade.

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  • Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.

  • Fascinating post. I am interested in how this can be utilised successfully by smaller cities to try and create opportunities for growth. London and its ilk are essentially countries in terms of their financial and population resources, allowing for activities which are beyond the scope of smaller regional hubs.

    To take one example, Glasgow is a booming city, picking up international recognition which is fuelling, and being fuelled by, a growth in the economy, a support for cultural activities and concerted efforts to overcome deep-rooted structural problems. Glasgow is therefore achieving a significant amount of positive action yet to take this forward as this article promotes would be challenging due to the relatively small population and therefore restricted financial resources.

    The key is probably to recognise that these creative milieux will occur on different scales according to the environmental context they evolve in, with smaller examples being equally deserving of support, recognition and encouragement as those found in larger conurbations.

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