Keeping a creative focus

Tom Campbell

A decade ago, there was barely a part of the UK that didn’t aspire to be world-leading in the creative industries. Every Regional Development Agency prioritised the sector, and dozens of areas, from Cornwall to Sheffield, adopted the ‘creative’ prefix and associated strategies to boost their creative economies. Much has changed, and much has been learnt since then. But while funding is far from the level it once was, cities and regions continue to develop initiatives to support creative clusters.

An important difference, however, is the greater emphasis on focus and the use of evidence. This is well demonstrated in Coventry and Warwickshire where the LEP is implementing a growth strategy not for the creative industries, or even the audio-visual sector, but exclusively the video games industry – building on the strengths of what has been dubbed ‘Silicon Spa.’[1] While this might have risked upsetting the region’s wider creative industries, it has enabled the LEP to invest its resources more strategically with a bespoke programme of support, skills and trade promotion tailored for its games businesses.

There are several cities in the UK that can claim to be leaders in certain creative industries – or rather, distinctive elements and supply chains of industries. Oxford, for instance, is arguably the global centre for academic journal publishing. Cardiff’s television production industry is thriving, designer-making in Stoke is undergoing a renaissance, Liverpool has recently launched a strategy for growing its renowned music sector, while both Warrington and Dundee have nurtured significant games production clusters.

This more granular approach to economic development is known within the EU by the term ‘smart specialisation’[2], with a recognised process for identifying place-based interventions on the basis of mapping existing strengths and stakeholder engagement. Central to this is the prioritisation of knowledge domains and market niches – specific activities where regions have a competitive advantage and the potential for growth. Through this approach, innovation support programmes in small urban areas have enabled countries such as France and Germany to successfully build up knowledge-intensive regional economies in fields such as advanced manufacturing, chemicals and aerospace.

Given the alarming, and worsening, regional imbalance in the UK’s economic performance[3], a similarly fine-grained approach is badly needed. By contrast, the UK’s large metropolitan centres are competitive because of their breadth and do not need to focus: London’s strengths in a dazzling range of creative industries, from advertising to fashion and film, give it a scale that fosters innovation, attracts skilled workers and captures investment. Strategies intended to replicate this and simplistically boost local creative economies will not work for the likes of Coventry. Not every city can be a centre for feature film production or home to multi-national advertising agencies. But through an approach rooted in depth rather than breadth, and an understanding of distinctive strengths, markets and supply chains, there is real potential for cities, whatever their size, to flourish in the global creative economy.

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