Clustering Creativity in the City

As creativity becomes, arguably, the most valuable resource, city planners do their best to cultivate creative neighbourhoods where innovation can thrive. However, there is more to cultivating creativity than building coffee shops and craft supply stores.

In Dr. Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay and Dr. Angelo Battaglia’s 2012 comparative study of El Raval and Mile End the ideas of urban regeneration, creative clusters, and the power of interaction are unlocked. Dr. Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay graciously agreed to come and discuss these concepts with us.

AR — What started this exploration?

Dr. Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay — I have training in economics and socio-economics, and for the last ten years I've been interested in local economic development and community economic development. Obviously, Montreal is changing, it’s going from industrial to more service sector, and of course there are all these ideas about creative cities and the creative class that came out with Richard Florida , so basically it was really, “Let's look at the Montreal economy and see where it’s going.” I'm very inspired by the work of some Italian colleagues I work with. There is a really good group of researchers, that aren't well-known because initially they mainly published in Italian but have started publishing in English over recent years, and they’ve worked on the concept of culture-driven regeneration. I find that really interesting, the idea that culture and artistic or creative activities can pull the economy. Whereas it used to be industrial, then it was services, and now the idea that creative ideas and jobs can pull the economy is very interesting. To me that goes way beyond the artistic sector.

Interesting concept. What does it mean exactly?

The idea is to have creative and cultural communities develop themselves and have interactions with other activities in the city and in the economy. Cultural-led regeneration is the idea that these activities are going to pull or develop other activities. Rather than having them on the side. The goal is to have it integrated and leading the regeneration of a district or city to a certain extent. Now, we’ll have to see if that really can work. Can it really lead? It’s not clear, but possibly…

Downtown Las Vegas has been undergoing a transformation in that direction; with Zappos for instance moving their HQ into the former City Hall and buying out the surrounding real estate to essentially curate a city of innovation to work and live in.

I heard something about that, it looks interesting. The only thing that I find we have to be conscious of, is maybe the risks of—because this seems kind of like a top-down approach—you know “Here I am, I’m coming in and I’m going to transform things.” My question is, ‘Is it possible to do this if there’s not already a terreau or a milieu that’s favourable for that?’ In some of the French theories or the Swiss, they also have this theory of milieu innovateur, or innovative milieu, which is precisely that, if you plant a seed it needs to be in the right place. If you drop a seed on cement, nothing is going to happen. I worked a lot on Japanese organizations for a while, and they also have this idea of nemawashi and it’s kind of that same thing, the idea that you have to prepare the soil before you put the seed in. So, I think, I’m hoping this kind of thing will work, and it possibly will if there is a lot of investment and money and everything. But then, can it be replicated? Because I’m not sure that that kind of funding or possibilities is available everywhere. I think we need to work on how we’re regenerating areas using things that are already happening and encouraging and supporting their growth.

You wrote in your study about the danger of over-gentrification as well, driving out the original populations, could you tell us more about that?

I’m really conscious of this risk. For instance, the Quartier des Spectacles, the entertainment district [here in Montreal]. They’ve done a lot of plazas because basically it’s festivals around here throughout the summer, from mid-June to mid-September, or so. It used to be that there were a lot of parking lots, so they could put up stages very easily. Over the years there were discussions and the idea was to make the place a little better looking than just parking lots where you put things. Now there is a lot of lighting and light effects; in the wintertime they have these huge globes that are lit and change colours. The idea is to have some animation for the festivals but also to have nice spaces year-round. The issue is that the rents go up, and owners tend to put in condos because they generate more profit, but it does push the artists away. So to what extent will this place be really creative? Some people put forward that kind of criticism and it’s an important question to be addressed.

The idea is to have some animation around culture, not just consumption. I think that’s a challenge, not just consumption of shows… but participation in arts and culture.

Are there any other areas beyond the Mile End that are working towards this?

The other case that we’re working on, beyond the Mile End, is the area around L'École de Technologie Supérieure (ÉTS). I think there are possibilities there because that region’s CDEC (Réso) is now working with ÉTS—where it’s basically engineers and things like that. The idea is to see what could come from the exchanges between the artistic cultural sector and all these engineering guys. Some of them are in computer engineering and they might be closer to Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, but a great majority of them are in more traditional engineering sectors. It’s interesting to see that they’re really considering that in that district… to have an innovation district.

Bringing different types of people together, and having ‘thinkers and doers under one roof’

That’s the idea. There is another image we have in innovation theories which is the bee going from one flower to another. Innovation will come because it’s moving around and it’s bringing pollen, or ideas, to different places. It’s a new interpretation of innovation. Traditionally, and I think in some large firms it’s still like this. There is the R&D lab, you have an idea, a hypothesis, you test and so on… but more and more we’re realizing that in many sectors, biotech, IT and all that, innovation comes in different ways; more from people moving around. Sometimes firms will say ‘We’re losing people to other firms...’ but the positive aspect is that new people are coming to them, then there are more ideas and different ideas circulating. If you put all these similar people together, they’re all going to think of the same solution. Whereas people from different backgrounds will come up with different ideas and when they clash and collide they have to defend their ideas, so more creativity comes from that kind of perspective.

Do you think there is a formula or framework for creative clusters or mixing people that could be used in businesses?

Perhaps firms may see this and begin to think less in terms of a large hierarchical organization and think more in terms of having a lot of, if not completely independent businesses, then maybe having parts of the organization being here and there, and to a certain extent, more independent and working together as if they are small/medium-sized businesses. One of the things that we do observe is that there are more exchanges in different sectors between small/medium-sized businesses. So how does the traditional large hierarchical business change? I think that’s a big challenge for a lot of these organizations because over the years they have become very bureaucratic and not necessarily open to creativity and innovation. For them to be creative and innovative, I think they do need something like what is happening elsewhere. I think some of them will manage to do it, but others will have a lot of difficulty because they have really turned into huge bureaucracies. I would go so far as to say that the public sector should try to be inspired to use these ideas, but I think it’s more a question of people, and the fact that within these bureaucracies are people who are comfortable with this. They’ve gone up that way and once they’re at the top of the ladder they feel that it’s very comfortable for them and they’d rather keep on controlling people rather than look for creativity, which can be a bit of a risk for them.

I’m involved in work organization issues as well, and you find that sometimes things as simple as communities of practice, which are pretty much that idea of ‘let’s have exchanges between people from different places working on a temporary basis on specific projects’, are overall successful when proposed to organizations. But we found that the very large bureaucracies reconsider and pull back, possibly because the intermediate level managers and engineers are not comfortable with the idea; the fear of losing power and losing the control of information in such a context. I think that as much as we can say how it would be interesting to open up organizations and allow creativity, there are certain organizations that find this very uncomfortable. It’s unfortunate because obviously creativity-led and culture-led regeneration, not only on the local sphere but within organizations, it really works with giving more independence, a trusting relation, where you let people work and eventually you control at the end of the process, or mid-term, but not micro-managing.

Has this been a focus for your current research?

Actually, yes! I work a lot on ‘work life’ issues and so I’m also working on ‘working time arrangements’ and think that that is part of the issue of innovation. Firms are very confined with the full-time sitting-in-an-office kind of job, but I think that if they opened up a little bit on working time arrangements, working place arrangements, they would probably find more creativity in individuals. So it’s really the issue of working time and working spaces, how we organize these to have more creative work environments.

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