Aarhus 2017 – a practical example of instrumental use of culture

The Danish city of Aarhus has been awarded the title of European Capital of Culture 2017. Looking through the application which the city submitted to the EU commission there are several good examples of how culture is seen as instrumental to other agendas. The theme of the Aarhus bid is Rethink – to reconsider how we do things at an institutional level across our European cities.

In the introduction to the application they write: “Arts, culture, and the creative sector can be part of the solution”.

Furthermore they write: ”We see Aarhus 2017 as laboratory for next practice, a European laboratory where arts and culture are key to addressing many issues. We commit our city and region to this agenda as a manifestation of how arts, culture, and the creative sector can be part of the solution. The EcoC must not celebrate European ideals and present European diversity, it must also provide a platfom where issues can be confronted together and cross sectoral alliances across many kinds of borders and divisions can ideed provide a way forward”

It is thus seen for the city and the event of European Capital of Culture in itself becoming an instrument rather than just being an end in itself.

This is very concretely tied in with the objectives for the event:

  • Objective 1: ”Aarhus 2017 will support the long term development and also underpin the significance of arts and culture. The cultural programme will contribute to a strengthening of the diversity of European culture.”
  • Objective 3: ”Aarhus will employ creativity, innovation, knowledge and experiementation to fuel human development and economic growth”

The evaluation of the whole event will be take place through dedicated research centre which will be set up at the University of Aarhus.

The evaluation will work at three levels:
Macro – overall effect on strategic goals
Meso – specific themes and selected communities – connected to greater investment and innovative strategies
Micro – bids from individual researchers within a framework set out by the university research centre.

I think this is a wonderful way of tying in hard assessment project deliverables with experimental assessment of other outputs.

Overall the Aarhus 2017 application is a very good example of how culture can be used for wider community and city development.


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Culture as a tool in cities

In these times of austerity a prevalent theme is the utilisation of culture – in other words culture must be seen to do something and preferably more than just one thing. The prevailing discourse is that the days of ‘art for art’s sake’ are over.

When we speak about culture and what culture should do it is important to clarify the exact definition of culture to ensure that different stakeholders in cultural projects speak from the same page. Inspired by Raymond Williams’ Keywords, I find is useful to distinguish between three main definitions of culture.

  1. Culture as the abstract concept which describes the “general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic l development” (Williams: Keywords)
  2. Particular way of life – ie. youth culture
  3. Culture as “works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity”. Is many ways what is usually the domain of a ministry of culture.

It is specfically this third definition we want to use when talking about culture and the creative city. By having a clear and tangible description of culture it is easier to use ‘culture’ as a tool for doing other things.

The concept of the ‘creative city’ is often used as a description of culture and creativity permeating the city at every level. It was coined by Charles Landry and Franco Binachini in their seminal essay The Creative City from 1995. In his preface to the publication, Peter Hall argues that the concept of the ‘creative city’ is an important development for two reasons: 1) Culture, creativity, sports and entertainment is increasingly seem as a serious economic tier within local economies 2) Culture and creativity are in their own right the source of innovation which can be exported beyond the local parish.
Bilbao Guggenheim
The key point in Landry and Bianchini’s thinking is summed up neatly in the following quote from the essay: “Everything [in the city] is seen as a resource including things commonly regarded as liabilities”. The point is to think holistically and join up the resources in a city in new ways. We need to nurture “Genuine creativity involves thinking a problem afresh and from first principles; experimentation; originality; the capacity to rewrite rules; to be unconventional; to discover common threads amid the seemingly disparate; to look at situations laterally and with flexibility.”

Subsequently Richard Florida has also elaborated on the  creative class which is distinct from others by it’s ability to create new value compared to just doing routine work:


I have recently looked at two cases where culture and creativity plays a more active role for other agendas:

Aarhus 2017 : European Capital of Culture

The Creative Europe Programme.

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Creativity – a neglected resource in cities?

I recently was recently invited to give a presentation on developing sustainable communities in an age of austerity as part of the RegenWebinars. My main focus point for the presentation was creativity and how creativity, if uncovered and harnessed can be a huge resource in developing communities. However, a very good challenge that came up during our discussion was how we define creativity.

Inspired by the work of Charlie Leadbeater, I usually talk about a narrow understanding of creativity and a broad interpretation of creativity. When we work with making communities better and more sustainable place we want to cultivate the broader sense of creativity and get everyone in the community to use their creativity for the greater good of the community. From this it may be obvious that I believe that creativity is a human capacity which is bestowed on us all. The narrow understanding of creativity is usually limited to a much smaller group of people who major in creativity, so to speak. These can be artists, writers, musicians. Sometimes part of me believe that the narrow creativity is connected to a more long term investment from the creator – as something which does not necessarily need to pay dividends on investment in the immediate future.

Part of my argument is that we need to learn to use this plurality of meaning in creativity to our advantage when working in communities. We must in this way mobilise everyone in the community to use the broader creativity when mapping the assest of a community but we also need to aspire to the unique work of the artist – the need to aspire to be original and to dare try something new.

So maybe working with creativity is a balancing act between the broader understanding of creativity and the narrower understanding of creativity.

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Friction and serendipity boosting.

I have just spent an excellent evening with a group of Berlin-based facilitators (bound together by their work with http://citizensforeurope.org/), academics and activists who are visiting Malmö and Copenhagen to look at social innovation, civic engagement and participatory processes.

A recurrent theme in our discussions was how to measure the success of participatory processes; and also which indicators are relevant. Whether process or result is king depends on the reason for running a participatory process. We agreed that some degree of friction is useful as it drives the process forward and destabilises orthodoxies.

Finally my favourite term of the evening was

serendipity boosting


Thanks to Fredrik Björk for organising this evening.

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Mapping – for the future of communities.

What can maps do for communities? This seemed to be the underlying question from yesterday’s LivingBridgesPlanet discussion on Mapping for the Future.

One point that seemed important for me from early on in our discussion was that while maps and visualisations are useful – and powerful – they are always just one possible perspective – it is data parsed through a certain lens, so to speak.

I was specifically asked how mapping could be used in urban planning and mentioned a method which I developed in Denmark a couple of years back. Using a pencil with two colours, I asked participants in a community group are each asked to colour in resources and challenges in their neighbourhood using two different colours. The resulting bi-coloured maps served as a point of departure for what resources were available in a neighbourhood. In addition it also gave discussions around hidden resources and more important about what was seen as assets and liabilities respectively.

Two coloured pencil


My main take-away from our discussion during LivingBridgesPlanet was:

Complacency – in cities and while using maps don’t ever think the maps are static. They are ever chaning and should ony be seen as a useful snapshot of the moment.

Please also check out fellow participant Yatin Seti’s blog post on our discussion:

You can find a link to the video from our discussion and read more about the participants and their backgrounds here:

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The Danish Government’s Growth Plan for Creative Industries

Earlier this month the Danish government published a growth plan for the creative industries. The report has four main recommendations for ensuring growth for creative industries in Denmark:

  1. Growing creative industries sooner and giving them better access to finance. Getting more companies onto tracks of sustained growth. Furthermore the report mentions that creative industries find it harder to access finance and also have a recurrent challenge of business development. It is worth noting that challenges like this are already being addresse in project like the EU-funded FAME project. The report also stresses that financing for creative industries might be useful to provide at European level.
  2. Gazelle-type support to mature new creative products are matured for the market sooner. The key focus here is strategic public sector procurement of products and services from the sector, the education sector is named as a key sector in this aspect. The other points under this recommendation focus on IPR – raising awarenes in the CI sector on using IPR better and also generally strengthening opportunities for legal content online. 
  3. Growth in creative industries should be supported by good education opportunities and a strong research environment. It is important for education institutions to ensure that graduates are equipped with skills in entrepreneurship and add value to the creative industries sector. And also enable graduates to have improved competencies in cross-sector collaboration.
  4. Denmark should be an international centre for growth in the areas of architecture, fashion and design. Green growth and sustainability are mentioned as key drivers in the fields of architecture, design and fashion. In addition there are plans to bid for events like World Design Capital to strenghten Denmark’s position in these three specific sectors.

It’s interesting to compare this to the 6 month old recommendations of Copenhagen City Council’s Creative Task Force. In both strategies there is focus on professionalising the business side of creative industries generally and accelerating their development. Both strategies also incorporate sustainability and green growth as a key driver. However, the national strategy there is little talk about seeing Denmark as a creative country across the breadth of the creative industries which seemed much more of a priority for Copenhagen at city level. Both reports also look at strategic public procurement from the creative industries as a way of accelerating and consolidating more businesses within the sector. Where Copenhagen did focus on fashion as a key industry but left room for all other industries too, the national strategy seems in my opinion to be very clear about focusing primarily on architecture, fashion and design.

Personally, I would like the strategy to talk more about the social benefits of working strategically with the creative industries in terms of job creation, regional identity and innovation in public services.

The full report can be downloaded in Danish here.

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The case for creativity in smaller cities.

In November last year, I had the opportunnity to talk about creative entrepreneurship at the smaller cities conference in Guimarães in Portugal. My main case drawing on the work I have done with Creative Entrepreneurs in Aarhus and other smaller cities across Europe. I decided  to focus on the  three ingredients which are find are crucial for creative entrepreneurs to succeed as entrepreneurs:

  • Location – entpreneurs need to be aware of the place they are working in – what type of audience or customers are present in the city, what is the talk of the town, what are the funding models, how are the links to other places.
  • Connections – creative entrepreneurs also need to focus on who are the right people to work with on their project or product. Who else can benefit from the project becoming a success.
  • Communications – entrepreurs need to excel in using the right messages for the right audiences. Commuication about product benefits, stakeholder engagement ais key to success.

You can find the think piece on the conference website or download a PDF version of the think piece here.

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Shrinking cities workshop at the URBACT conference.

Shrinking cities seem to be happening everywhere, especially in the wake of the recession with the American industrial city of Detroit as one of the most dramatic examples of a city which decreases in size. At the URBACT conference in Copenhagen last week I learnt that the majority of smaller and medium sized cities in Europe are actually shrinking. Traditionally economics would propose growth as a solution but with less people and contracting demographics, growth does not seem to be an option.

The URBACT group which has worked on this issue said that this is rarely simple and that complex shrinkage requires new answers and solutions around three key things:
  • Land and buildings
  • City functions and economics
  • Services
Furthermore, workshop leader, Hans Schlappa mentioned that a key issues across all shrinking citis in the project was an ageing population.
Following tips and things to strive for are:
  • Downsizing to regain a balance – be positive, shrink smart.
  • Land recycling – not abandonement.
  • Innovative adaptation of buildings and urban spaces.
  • Service adaptation – not less service, eg. maybe a city needs less kindergartens if the population is getting older.
Finally, Hans mentioned that each city should at what hidden advantage your city has?
Neil McInroy from CLES has similarly some years ago talked about how cities need to find their DNA as one of eight principles for being resilient.
Along the same lines Phil Wood talks about looking at each city’s weaknesses and strengths.
The conclusion and the main recommendation of this work was that cities should look to develop a demographic action plan. I think there are other things we need to look at too to make viable and vibrant cities, we cannot do this only based on data but we probably can’t do it without looking at data either.
You can read more about the URBACT work group’s finding here.
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URBACT day 1 – Cities of tomorrow – action today

I have just come back from the day 1 of the annual URBACT conference in Copenhagen. This year’s theme is “Cities of tomorrow – action today”.  And what a great title – because one of the key things we need for cities is for politicians and other decision makers to actually do things in cities.

I have chosen in this blog post to focus on the presentation given by the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, Frank Jensen. There was a theme about us being “at our best and worst in cities” – which echoes the thinking of thinkers like Geoff Mulgan and Charlie Leadbeater (see for example the Breakthrough Cities report). Frank Jensen went on to suggest that we use this insight.
A key suggestion from Frank Jensen was that we provide all citizens with the prospect of a decent job. Something which I think is great. However, we need to discuss further how we create meaningful jobs in the 21st century and also whether we should rather nuture the agency of individuals to create their own jobs.
Finally, Frank Jensen listed three initiatives which can be done locally in each city:
  1. Partnerships – more work to be done around public/private/university partnerships
  2. Public procurement – social clauses in public procurement contracts. As a CLES board member, I think we should actually take this a step further and look at work around procurement in more detail to ensure that public procurement also supports sustainable local development. See for example: Procurement is the new regeneration.
  3. Social housing – in Copenhagen there is a target of keeping social housing at 20%. And there is also a job of improving the perception of social housing in the rest of the community.


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Film, finance and business models

Last week the Danish Minister for Culture, Uffe Elbæk, hosted the fourth meeting in the series of discussions called Kultur på Kanten (Culture on the Edge). This event was a follow-up to the previous event, which discussed the issue for the publishing industry vis-a-vis digitalisation. This time the invited speakers were: Jesper Bay, Sarita Christensen and Michael Noer.

To kick off the event Uffe Elbæk offered a couple of thoughts on the challenges that the film industry faces at the moment:
  1. Digitalisation – all art forms are currently encountering the “digital wall”. The music sector was the first to face the challenge and is slowly emerging on the other side with new business ideas and new business models.
  2. Digital interregnum – digitalisation has left a vacuum where the different sectors need to experiment and pursue new business models. However, everything is still very fluid.
Jesper Bay, who is an independent cultural consultant, gave a short presentation on his views of the challenges the film industry is facing. Bay has worked in the music industry for a number of years and drawing on this experience. Key points were:
  • Digitalisation has started and there is no going back so it is better to embrace it.
  • Availability is the most important parameter for success.
  • The changeover to digital will take longer than you expect and will be more costly too.
  • The quicker you get started and change business models the better.
  • Business is changing from a one platform game to a multi-platform business.
  • Digital business for the music industry has increased year-by-year.
  • Digital is not a technological revolution as much as a mental revolution.
Finally Jesper mentioned three development areas to prioritise:
  1. Audience focus
  2. Innovation – using technology in new ways
  3. Investments in technology, market research and skills development.
After this the other panelists gave their perspectives on the challenges in their respective roles of producer and director. Sarita Christensen talked about how she already works strategically with funding and at an early stage discuss with directors what budget a film can raise.
Michael Noer talked about how he feels two ways about piracy. On the one hand it is great to create something that people cannot get enough of. However, he also expressed concern about piracy in terms of developing sustainable business model. Michael Noer felt that maybe as Jesper Bay and Uffe Elbæk mentioned at the beginning of the event that the music sector had a lot to offer the film sector – and that creating music and creating film maybe isn’t too dissimilar.
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