A Creative Business Economy:
What does the future hold for Kent?

Inserted Update 29/01/2011:
The written post and comments below were published 17/11/2010 and formed my very direct expression of interest to get involved in the re-development of the Kent Creative Business Economy (towards making it fit for future purpose and twenty-first-century enterprise).

Organised by a partnership team (namely Media Tree), with a Chair representative from Maidstone Studios, this evening (17/11/2010) I watched and listened alongside approximately 70 other people, as four keynote speakers (a local government statistician, an academic from the University for the Creative Arts, the founder of a Kent-based Business Forum, and WiredSussex the Brighton based membership organisation for companies and freelancers operating in the digital/media/technology sector in Sussex) delivered a set of informational building blocks, after which a short question and answer session took place, and it is hoped a larger long-term conversation will grow across Kent – the aim of such discussion is and will be focused on how to best develop and support the ‘Creative Business Economy of Kent’.

I attended the event because I believed, and continue to believe, that such conversations are necessary. I write this post for all those whom I wish had attended but seemingly hadn’t heard about it.

Media Tree is an organisation that has been around for quite a few years (I’m not sure exactly how long but tonight I got the sense its been no less than six years), to date its been funded by public money (though it remains unclear to me how much money? what its been spent on? or what has been achieved over the period?) but in light of a recent review and the vast cuts in previously available government funding, Media Tree is now redrafting its strategic ideas and is actively looking to engage participants to improve the future of the creative business economy across the region.

Those of you who read my blog posts will already know that I’m passionate and vocal about this subject, what follows is my honest summary of the evening – as with most of my posts I’ll no doubt ruffle a few feathers with my own viewpoint but I’m simply saying what I believe needs to be said and I welcome comments and constructive criticism from all…

Who was there?

Approx. 70% of the room was wearing suits.
Approx. 20% of the room was academics.
I knew approximately 25% of the attendees through some means or other – I knew 2/4 speakers.
I’m a very active participant within the Kent Creative Community (and some might say Brighton and London too).
I first heard of the Media Tree event a few weeks ago, the information was passed to me through both of Kent’s Arts and Regeneration Officers (one of whom I know).
Media Tree appears to have a mailing list of 800-2000? But only 70 turned up?

What was said?

In my opinion tonight’s Chair talked much more than he listened – the speakers, Media Tree team, and the audience were worth listening too!

First off, the local government statistician introduced the facts, he was sharp and to the point. From what I saw of his figures, public spending (in the related areas) hit unsustainable levels back in 2002 but continued upwards until recently. Future forecasts predict continual reductions in public funding on a yearly basis for the next six years until we’ll once again achieve the more sustainable 2001 levels. In alignment with these spending cuts the South East’s Regional Development Agency (SEEDA) has been shutdown and is now replaced by a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). This new LEP is a partnership across Kent & Greater Essex (a much bigger area than SEEDA covered, and currently the largest LEP in the UK – in my personal opinion scale provides a potential strong persona and loud voice but its often short on coherent sentences, hindered by hierarchy, gatekeepers and committee decisions – but we must work with what we’ve got!).

For those unfamiliar, the background to a LEP is as follows: “[…the ethos: where the drivers of growth are local, decisions should be taken locally using a tailored approach to local circumstances. In this regard, it is envisaged that LEPs will take on a variety of roles including, on the planning front, assisting in the development of national planning policy, working with planning authorities to develop strategic planning frameworks and potentially even taking on other planning related activities including ‘enabling’ the timely processing of applications for strategic development and infrastructure (although quite what that means is not clear)…]”

In short, it seems that any future infrastructure or funding towards the development of our regions (including the development of our Creative Business Economy) must now be negotiated through the new LEP partnership, as well as a Regional Growth Fund (RGF).

This provides the first clue as to why Media Tree invited a statistician along to the event (a very smart move which laid down the facts, many of which I was unaware of). It also provides an insight into Media Tree’s currently favoured strategic position – to become a recognised regional organisation, a member-based and member-funded lobbying body to help deliver the required future infrastructure etc. (Eg. Who knows, we might well need high-speed broadband across the region at some point). Media Tree’s current team seem to hope it will soon become the Creative Business authority to the LEP – focused on the needs of Media Tree’s members and partners.

Now I’ll come to the academic speaker, whom I’ve met before and whom I respect for his work, but who’s presentation seemed less about how the University for the Creative Arts could help develop and support the regions Creative Business Economy in the future, and sadly more about how UCA do/continue to lead it – please remember that there were other academic institutions in the room and we’re supposed to be inspiring open-dialogue and relationship-building not closed-monologue or elitist membership clubs (this may just be my perception so I’d really like to see/hear your comments if I’ve miss-judged this). As alumni, a sessional-lecturer and a consultant to UCA I’m enclined to suggest that it may have appeared to others as self-interested propaganda (I don’t know if this miss-judgement might be down to UCA or a lack of briefing from Media Tree). I’ll simply justify my comments by saying that the evening was hosted inside a venue called the Joiners Workshop, during their talks the local government statistician, the academic and the Chair all made statements about how innovative the venue was and aligned some organisational self-interest to it but the harsh reality is that the venue has been a rather large flop and a miss-spent, over budget waste of cash in terms of the ‘Creative Business Economy’ both in Medway, and in Kent. Almost every guest I spoke to commented on how hard it was to find via car and how there are no direct public transport links, and there wasn’t one student in sight (surely they are part of the future of our Creative Business Economy and they should have been invited along?).

Next is WiredSussex, the Brighton-based membership organisation for companies and freelancers operating in the digital/media/technology sector in Sussex. This presentation explored how an organisation might develop member networks and services, and explored the needs of diverse creative communities and the development of a collaborative infrastructure. Its focus was on supporting an existing community, not the development of one from scratch – it also recognised that much of its Brighon-based creative economy starts off as non-profit driven, but simply a personal passion or an attempt to improve a CV. It also explored Brighton’s culture of open-dialogue and collaborative innovation and introduced the fact that some of Brighton’s greatest successes have actually been started and continue to be driven by community catalysts and entrepreneurs (I admit I smiled when theskiff.org got name-checked). In short, WiredSussex does its best to understand and support its community without wanting to own or constrain it – the presentation also covered how the organisation itself began as a funding partnership between business and a regional development agency but this actually hindered its progress so its now run solely as a business with active participants.

Last, but far from least in my speaker rundown, comes the founder of a Business Forum, who gave a brilliantly inspiring presentation. This was not your average business network, at least it certainly didn’t start out that way. The story began with a highways dispute outside a local set of shops/businesses and a successful two-thousand strong petition to stop the building of a roundabout which would have removed the parking bays from an entire row of shops/businesses, thus reduce their trade and likely close them down. A later attempt by the same council to put bollards in place ignited the same catalyst business owner to call to arms a group of local people and businesses (large and small) to fund a lobbying campaign – this campaign focused on local value and therefore bought a community together with a common goal (it just so happened that many of the supporters were business people). Not only were friendships and understandings found and built, but also the campaign proved successful. Since this point the business minds within the group have developed a sustainable financial and network model in the form of a Business Forum that not only encourages local economic growth but also has local and social value at its heart.

Finally I come to the Q&A Session and my summary.

The Q&A session was short, the Chairs voice overshadowed the speakers answers, and most of the questions used traditional business and policy language: LEP, Infrastructure, Growth, Creative Sectors & Corridors, Strategic Bodies, Business Resources, Entrepreneurial Education, Partnerships, Tender Opportunities, Advertising, Members… etc. – and reading between the lines it seemed many attendees wanted to know about the depth and breadth of the future funding pot rather than discussing what the future might require, or more importantly what has been required but not delivered since 2002. And as much as I heard the term success mentioned, I didn’t once hear anyone ask what it might look like or even how it might be measured?

I must admit that I got to ask the final question of the evening and took the opportunity to make what I felt was a very overlooked point – I got what seemed like a verbal brush off by the Chair – I’ll close this post with the very same point, if not a little longer:

I’d like to draw a distinction between two very fundamental issues that I feel need to be considered and discussed in much greater depth. Much of this evening has been framed around developing Media Tree into a business network supported by paying members (using the Business Forum and WiredSussex as successful case study examples) and developing that same network into a regional body to help build links and partnerships across education, enterprise and the new LEP (using UCA and Government Statistics to show capacity, want and need) but as I see it a rather large problem remains…
Wired Sussex has been built upon Brighton’s open-culture, and the inspirational Business Forum found its strength and unity through uniting people in active participation for social and local good – both are successful and valuable to their members because they support and build upon pre-existing core values and culture. I feel it safe to say that WiredSussex and the Business Forum recognise their true value and USP isn’t based on financial growth or even business, its based on an open-culture and peoples relationships one-to-one – if both organisations shut down tomorrow the membership income would stop but the culture would likely remain.

Kent on the other hand has no such culture. E.g. every design company sees another as competition instead of an inspirational sounding board and support group, and they pitch against each other instead of in partnership with each other – they compete on price instead of value for all. And in my experience many Universities do the same; their focus has shifted from student selection and retention through an inspired culture and social campus, to a recruitment model that focuses more on assets and stakeholder income than it does on student development and graduate quality.

The final point I’ll make in regards to UCA’s position, and quite a few others in attendance last night, is that they appear to have what I find to be a rather odd definition of ‘Creative Business’. Sure UCA caters for the ‘Creative Arts’ but from where I’m standing this is only a small cross-section of the future creative economy. What many need to learn is that imagination is not the same as creativity. Creativity takes the process of imagination to another level. Creativity goes beyond linear and logical thought to involve all areas of our minds and bodies. People (you) can be creative at anything at all – anything that involves intelligence. It is because human intelligence is so wonderfully diverse that people are creative in so many extraordinary ways… writing, music, dance, theatre, math, science, computing, philosophy, business etc.

In my view every business, employee and citizen has the potential to be creative, and if we’re trying to inspire and develop the regions creative economy the first thing we need to focus on is inspiring a creative culture, not a membership network or Creative Business authority.

I argue, as I have done for a number of years now.
If we wish to inspire the Creative Business Economy across Kent, we must first support creativity at every level – we must first identify all the individuals, circles, groups and networks that are already doing good work – we don’t need another network or to recreate another wheel (Vince Cable is already trying to do that), we just need more transparency, support, participation and sharing across those we’ve already got.
We need to inspire open-participation, not elitist membership.
We need to encourage transparency and creative expression – a culture of learning through doing and it being ok to make a few mistakes as long as they’ve been learned from.
People need to wake up and realise that there isn’t such a thing as creative industries, every industry has the potential to innovate – creative economies create themselves, and in today’s world its often business, government and education who are the last to notice the change.

I’ve set out my current approach and focus here if anyone is interested:
http://fellowcreative.com/2010/09/tuttle-the-facilitation-of-participation-and-community-101

And I’ve set out my future plans here:
http://www.fellowcreative.com/2011/01/creating-a-disruptively-better-economy

I am not knocking last night or anyone involved, these discussions need to be had and I urge everyone to get involved and drive things forward for the future, and for the better. More information about Media Tree and making a Formal Expression Of Interest to get involved can be found here: http://www.mediatree.org.uk/shaping – you can also subscribe to the Media Tree mailing list.

16 Comments

Steve Bartholomew

about 3 years ago

Great post and annoyingly sad to hear the same old things are happening. The truth is, no-one has any idea of what business/industry/whatever *really* is. The people with the cash are listening to MBA bullsh*t - peddled by managers who worked for companies who made fortunes in different times. We get all this "creative" nonsense as a response to the changing landscape of business. It's all media companies now so that's the in thing. At the other end, the artists and "creative" folk run a mile from anything that sounds businessy. Hardly surprising given the frankly awful advice most people are given when they go to funded business support organisations. I agree completely with the point you make about Brighton. Brighton has a vibrant community and successful support network because of the businesses that are there, not the intervention. We don't have that here. The only way I can see this happening for Medway/Kent is if the artists quit whining about having to make cash & existing businesses get a clue about what running a business *really* means (see http://bit.ly/cGJjkY). Outside of that, making areas attractive places for the entrepreneurs of the future to settle will make a massive difference (hint: regeneration). Kids leaving the universities, in Medway for example, often move elsewhere to work and startup. All this aside, in the coming years the successful people (as in any downturn) will be the ones who take personal risks with a thirst for building something great, regardless of what anyone says about them. The best thing we/the councils can do is be there to support and drive them on, not dismiss and ridicule them.

Steve

about 3 years ago

Hey Carl I'll be posting a full and open comment piece this week, glad to see a conversation has started. I couldn't make it for personal reasons but was aware of it and intended to go.

Carl @FellowCreative

about 3 years ago

Dear All, As has been this blogs tradition, I have responded to *all* of your comments (above) directly via email. My approach to blogging and comment engagement has always been for me to provide a blog post that fuels discussion, but then leave that discussion to happen between you (online or off), without further intervention from myself. This approach will remain the case but I'd like it noted (for the sake of transparency and clarity) that I have received a number of direct emails and forms of correspondence that highlight one fact I feel *worthy of notation*: there are many people whom have an opinion on the above blog post but whom don't actually feel able to put their personal opinions out in the open for fear of repercussion. I simply ask: if this very fact a more fundamental barrier towards developing a culture for the future creative business economy to thrive? I thank you all for taking the time to read and comment and I once again encourage further contributions and interactions between you all, either here, on twitter, or wherever you choose. Thank you – I'm very glad it's served its purpose and got the conversation started! For a Media Tree update please see: http://www.mediatree.org.uk/shaping/

Adrian Mills

about 3 years ago

A very interesting blog post with some great comments, and much food for thought. MIdKent College is always looking to be involved in events and talks such as this. We are currently reassessing our own use of social media and continually look to engage with the local community.

Terry Lane

about 3 years ago

A very informative & interesting post. My main concern is why I didn't hear that this event was being held as I have been contacted by Media Tree in the past, and so assume my well established web development & internet marketing company, Buzzin Fly Limited, was not invited. Your ears are much closer to the ground than mine, but reading your comments made me come to the conclusion that you are not being cynical with your views, but like me, see that there is too much self preservation & promotion at events like this, when true partnership & innovative ways of working together is what is actually needed.

Mike Goode

about 3 years ago

Thanks for writing this Carl. I too wish I'd been aware this was taking place ~ I would have attended. Let's have a proper chat about all this ~ outside of a twuttle/tuttle101. Maybe after one? Soon as you like. So many facets to this, but as others have said, it could be very good for the region (as you know I'm particularly keen on removing 'county' restrictions, although I recognise the convenience of a geographical restraint). Let's talk!

Rob O'Callaghan

about 3 years ago

Should we be investing in the community or rebranding an old business model. You know my answer :-) Rob.

Sam Wilson

about 3 years ago

Hi Carl, it was insightful to read your thoughts. "We need to inspire open-participation, not elitist membership." We are engaged in a similar battle here in Lexington, Kentucky. There is something here called the "good ol' boys network" which represents the inner circle of affluence, money, and power. Various groups cropped up to solve this problem. Paradoxically these groups became factions and I have witnessed cynicism replacing the optimism of about 1.5 years ago. I will continue to read this strain of discussion to see how Kent is more successful than we here in Kentucky in bolstering the local creative economy.

Steve Fleming

about 3 years ago

Carl, We've got something going on in Tunbridge Wells called meejahub, check out the website (http://www.meejahub.co.uk) and see what you think. Maybe come along next week if you can make it?

Andrew Day

about 3 years ago

Good points, very well put. Ideas, conversation, discussion and contrast are the lifeblood of all creativity. Closed, market driven networks can only cut themselves off from those things and neuter their ability to be truly 'creative'. A community of equals has more strength, flexibility, mutual respect and deeper, more colourful well of ideas to draw on and play with. What I want to do with the Broadside is throw everyone's ideas, passions and talents together and see what comes out. I've come to the understanding that a 'community' publication needs to give the community the space and confidence to express itself, rather than trying to speak for the community. Basically, I want the Broadside to be a conversation among equals, not a lecture.

Paul Williamson

about 3 years ago

[The following can be found on Realia's Blog via http://www.realiamarketing.co.uk] The stated purpose of Media Tree is to ‘...help people and businesses in the creative and media industries to work together to raise the profile of Kent’s creative talent.’ There is no question in my mind that there is a clear and demonstrable need for Kent as a whole to better showcase its creative talent. And there is no question in my mind that a new, more vibrant, and critically, more focused; Media Tree can be the catalyst for this. There are however a number of challenges... • How can we truly and genuinely get the higher profile agencies in Kent to share and collaborate when they spend most of their time competing against each other? • How can we demonstrate the value of Media Tree for members? • How do we engage with the buyers of our services and enable them to see the value? • How do we create a common set of values, one vision and one mission across such a diverse group of members – geographically and emotionally? In my opinion there are some harsh realities we must face if Media Tree is survive, grow and flourish... 1. The era of government funding is over. 2. If you value the service, you need to pay for it. 3. If you want to make a real difference you need to focus on doing 1 or 2 things well, not 10 things adequately. 4. Our future is in our hands. Politicians and local authorities can provide guidance, support and advocacy but they aren’t going to make it happen for us. And they aren’t going to pay for it. 5. The first part of communicating is listening not speaking. At the ‘Future of Media Tree’ event on 17th November, there was plenty of ‘noise’ about the opportunity and unfortunately too much bleating about the lack of funding. Nice words, admirable sentiments and ‘Churchillian’ calls to action are fine, but the bottom line is that everyone is judged on results. Those results don’t always have to be financial, but they do need to be measurable. The one key lesson for Media Tree came from the Marden Business Forum that evening – the success of any venture, strategy or initiative ultimately comes down to application, attitude and action.

Stuart Hubbard

about 3 years ago

Thanks for the overview. We first came across media tree in 2008, when they gave us a branded USB stick... Perhaps a hint at where they spend their money....?! They do send us email media tree alerts too... but they aren't of much interest and none mentioned the event...?! We look forward to hearing more…

Richard Conyard

about 3 years ago

As mentioned on Twitter I wish I had known it was going on since I'd have attended. Thank you for the overview Carl :-)

Peter Reeds

about 3 years ago

Several points come to mind here. I don't join clubs and organisations or even religions because they immediately become "exclusive" and non members are the enemy, not for me. I am not an industry I am an artist,painter who needs to make a living. The normal marketing rules of finding out what the market wants then supplying it do not apply to me, if I did that I believe that would be dishonest, I produce what I feel passionate about and I enjoy producing it then the buyer can enjoy it comfortably. I agree that anyone can be creative and in that I believe that a scientist can be an artist by knowing the currently believed rules then exploring and breaking/bending those rules to create something totally new and exciting. Regarding UCA, I studied fine art at it's predecessor the Medway College of Art from 1964-68 when the art college was at Eastgate and was very much part of the city. The tutors and the students could be found around the city drawing, painting and researching they would be found in the coffee bars, tea rooms and pubs discussing everything under the sun with people from all walks of life and learning and growing and understanding the world. The business side came from chatting with our tutors who were practicing their art, it was not organised, it just happened because we were with our tutors all day every day. At this time there was talk of the building of the cash register on the hill and political talk about how to measure success and how to make art more business like and how to make it into a university. Our tutors taught us our trade and skills and chatted about the business side we absorbed information and understanding. UCA is a planet that no one leaves until the course is over and everyone disappears back to where they come from. It is merely a processing factory as that is the easiest way to measure it's success. I rarely saw anyone from UCA at the Nucleus Art Centre in Chatham which is ten minutes away or the Deaf Cat in Rochester which is also ten minutes away let alone the pubs and coffee bars in Rochester where they can chat. I enjoy using both the Nucleus in Chatham and the Deaf Cat in Rochester as a part of my "business" plan. I meet so many interesting and helpful people in these places who keep me in touch. Everyone is a member and can go there whenever they like. I have noticed that some businesses in Rochester have become insular and are afraid to work together to the point where they actively attack new businesses rather than join together to achieve success for Rochester as a whole. I believe that some of them think that if they were the only business in the High Street they would be successful.

Phil Dillon

about 3 years ago

I think it says a lot that the UCA sits on top of the hill overlooking towns it doesn't engage with. I know of only one UCA student with an exhibition in Medway in 2011. The institution may well be leading the creative economy, but it isn't visible as a creative force.

Natasha Sexton

about 3 years ago

"People need to wake up and realise that there isn’t such a thing as creative industries, every industry has the potential to innovate – creative economies create themselves, and in today’s world its often business, government and education who are the last to notice the change." = exactly why I no longer wanted to work within a "Creative Industry" magazine and what it was working towards. I do not want my own creative work and designs to become commercial which means these "business meetings" like this are in fact completely uninspirational to me. Instead we just need to all work together and inspire one another - and I know many feel the same way. As regards UCA they do need to get more in touch with the local area and not use it like more of an "exclusive club". Something like the Art in the Dockyard competition that is open to all in Medway is such a fab idea and it would be great if UCA could do more like this. Thank you for writing this Carl :) Natasha Sexton

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