A creative future: trends, opportunities, and how to miss them both

What would you expect from a report produced by Dubai Future Foundation in collaboration with Dubai Culture? It could well be something with the title Future Trends: Culture and the Creative Sector. And it might well be a report that looks at the restrictions imposed on the creative and cultural sector by the pandemic, using the current situation to assess responses and identify what happens next.

To some degree that’s what you get from the modest 16-page large-type pamphlet that the two organisations published a few days ago. In other respects, though, it completely misses the opportunity to take a critical look at what’s happening now, to gather some key data, and to extrapolate some potential developments.

Now that might have been a useful contribution to an important debate. Instead we have a pleasantly designed, anodyne, uncritical box-ticking exercise with little to say about the kind of anticipatory moves that might be made by individuals, organisations or state players.

The report does list some headline numbers – what the report terms “the creative and cultural industries (CCI)” contribute 3 percent of the world’s GDP and employ 1 percent of the planet’s working population (8 percent in the Middle East); the global market for “CCI goods” had an average annual growth rate of 7.34 percent between 2002 and 2015; COVID-19 “may” affect about 7.3 million jobs in the sector across the EU; some governments around the world are putting short-term money into supporting the sector.

What it doesn’t do is qualify any of this. For instance, the percentages for GDP and employment derive from an Ernst & Young analysis in 2015 for UNESCO, which also came up with the CCI moniker. But the devil’s in the detail: a third of the GDP figure comes from TV, newspapers and magazines. Is selling advertising a useful indicator of the value of the creative and cultural sector?

Similarly, the employment profile runs almost contrary to the GDP contribution. As indicated in the E&Y graphic below, the major employers are the visual arts, performing arts and music – but they are among the smallest contributors to global economic activity.

The Future Trends authors note “a conscious, if fragmented, economic shift towards CCIs across the Middle East” and commend their employers for their part in it: “the UAE is a major player in the region’s creative economy, establishing a reputation as an innovation hub by investing in varied creative and cultural avenues …”

There’s no meat on these statements, though – no indication of net value, of costs and returns in monetary or social terms. It’s just all good.

The sector’s response to the pandemic is also skated over gingerly. “Globally, creative and cultural institutions have been forced to reconsider entire business models in light of the pandemic, while CCI SMEs have been adversely affected and many now face the prospect of bankruptcy. The social and economic repercussions for the CCI, globally and across the Middle East, will be pervasive and inescapable.” Indeed they will, and surely the report will now detail some of the repercussions and possible responses.

Or not. Yes, it does list some state interventions and support programmes for the creative sector; but there’s nothing about the utility of these – are they working or not? Are they propping up institutions or helping individuals to survive?

Such measures are of course short-term, but they might indicate some kind of future. How far should creative folk be funded by the state, for instance, either directly or through tax breaks? The pandemic gives us the chance to assess what value we might place on their contribution to society.

Dubai Culture has produced virtual tours and workshops with a cultural guide for Etihad Museum

The Future Trends authors don’t touch that particular hot potato. Instead they have another list, this one in the section headed ‘Opportunity’ where they describe some of the responses of UAE institutions to the Covid-19 restrictions – virtual museum tours, livestreaming, using digital networks, developing projects that take the pandemic as their starting point (like the Global Grad Show’s open call for design-based solutions to Covid-19 issues).

A further section is titled ‘Looking ahead’, but this just repeats the conclusions of the Dubai Culture / Art Dubai Group ‘ideathon’ meeting back in April. Even so, another list here would have been helpful, along say with an indication of the importance and the chances of implementation for each suggestion.

Basically it’s a mix of entirely sensible short- and medium-term measures, some quite vague (“encourage philanthropy and social impact investing”) and others very specific (reduce business costs for companies that are less than two years old and have a turnover lower than AED 367,000).

Which is fine, but these aren’t ‘future trends’ as promised by the booklet’s title.

The press release that accompanied the launch of the ‘report’ had some quotes that suggested a lot more. Here’s Hala Badri, Dubai Culture DG: “It is imperative that all those in charge of the sector in Dubai and the UAE intensify efforts and take measures to develop mechanisms and solutions to support the creative community … especially for small companies and independent entrepreneurs”. There was very little in Future Trends about how this might be developed.

And Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of Dubai Future Foundation, homed in some more trends that Future Trends skipped by: “Technological tools and innovations offer new opportunities for the cultural and creative sector to foray into new markets and reach a wider global audience, through adopting a fresh approach in shaping artistic and cultural experiences. In turn, this also allows individuals interested in exploring cultural experiences in a digital realm and those unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions the option of trying out such experiences easily …”

There are some real issues – trends, if you will – that do deserve to be addressed, especially by policy-makers. Some clarity would be helpful, for a start. A 2008 UNCTAD survey came up with a useful definition of the creative economy: “the interface between creativity, culture, economics and technology, as expressed in the ability to create and circulate intellectual capital”. More discussion of ‘intellectual capital’ – what it means, what it’s worth, how to develop it – would help to focus policy and guide education.

On the policy side, the value of the creative economy cannot be measured solely in cash terms. True, the Future Trends report airily talks about the importance of CCI in “diversifying economies and stimulating growth while contributing to both prosperity and well-being”. But there many other metrics that could/should be counted. At the people level we might include social inclusion, diversity, generally making us happier and better. And in terms of the state, the value of soft power in international geopolitics is being demonstrated every day by relatively small countries punching above their weight – which is one reason why the UAE has invested so heavily in developing cultural infrastructure.

Here’s another trend/issue that should be considered: it’s clear that not every job in the creative industries is ‘creative’. Even theatre groups and artist co-ops need bookkeepers and cleaners; newspapers and magazines need ad salespeople (and bookeepers, and cleaners). Equally, many ‘non-creative’ industries employ creative people – indeed, they need to employ people with those skillsets. Somewhere in the marketing department there will be people who can use Photoshop well, or who can put together a company website. The average smartphone means the average user has the tools available for creating web pages, processing images, producing podcasts, making films, even writing novels or playscripts. Where do skills like those figure in addressing future needs in education, employment and professional development?

And more generally there’s the structure of the creative economy. The major contributors to GDP and employment are the giant media conglomerates. But it’s the thousands of micro-businesses and individuals that are at the cutting edge of creativity; and maybe they are the forerunners of a whole new economic order, with serious implications for the way in which business and education are organised, how homes, workspaces and even cities are built, how careers and professional development are structured, and even how social and health care, retirement and family life are planned.

The gig economy may not be much fun currently in terms of employment rights and hours worked, but it’s the way the world is going. For many in the creative sector, the same applies.

Now that’s a trend.

Creativity at work: the Future Trends isn’t a hardback book, and it certainly isn’t this thick. You can download your very own PDF copy here.


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