Design thinking is being touted as a link between the traditional world of work and modern creative practice, driver of growth in cities around the world. Ezri Carlebach finds out more and chats to Adrian Fey from the Creative World Forum 2017 in up-coming city Aarhus, Denmark.

Something creative in the state of Denmark

Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, has planted itself firmly on the creative and cultural map this year as European Capital of Culture. A vast programme of arts and culture has attracted international stars and home-grown start-ups alike to this friendly city on the coast of Denmark’s Midtjylland Region. Design and creativity are core to any European Capital of Culture, so it’s no surprise that in November Aarhus hosts the annual Creativity World Forum. Aarhus and surrounding region were already members of something called Districts of Creativity when the arrival of CWF – as it’s known to afficionados – was announced.

Adrian Fey, responsible for Concept and Communication at CWF, explains. “The Districts of Creativity network is a kind of umbrella organisation with 13 member regions, including Hong Kong, Shanghai, Oklahoma, and Bangalore, which was the venue for last year’s conference. There are European member regions too, including Flanders, Scotland, and of course Aarhus. For me, the interesting thing with this network is that it’s not the usual suspects like London, Berlin, and New York – the creative tops of the pyramid. What the DC regions have in common is that they are upcoming cities, or cities on the rise, as we call them.”

Despite their national and cultural diversity, what these ‘little brother’ cities and regions share is a recognition of the opportunities that creative development offers, along with big challenges in their urban and economic environments. To address this, they must work even harder, and be more strategic, than their counterparts in bigger cities that are widely seen as successful role models.

A core theme is how to use creativity to develop cities on the rise. Fey articulates a view of creativity as a specific type of tool – “a kind of activator of success” – which works for people, cities, and enterprises. “Our focus is on using creativity to promote human capital development, business development, and urban development.”

Aarhus musichouse

Class half full?

The big name in the area of creative cities is Richard Florida, the US urbanist whose 2002 best-seller The Rise of the Creative Class argued that cities benefit socially and economically by investing in infrastructure to attract members of the ‘creative class’, a loose grouping of professions and occupations that takes in designers and artists but also engineers and web developers. However, in his latest book, The New Urban Crisis, he recognises that some of the well-intentioned policies he advocated have contributed to serious problems, particularly increased inequality and the feeling that some communities were being ‘left behind’ – a grievance that dominated the EU referendum in the UK and recent elections in the US.

At Creativity World Forum, the idea that simply installing designers, musicians, and other creatives in your city does the job never had much traction, as Adrian Fey points out. “It’s really important to be aware of the whole value chain – you have to look at the old-school industrial areas as well as the creative areas. I think the reason that Florida’s original approach was so interesting to write about, or to give the thumbs-up to as prime minister, was that people could see the massive growth in jobs within creative sectors. All 13 districts in the DC network would agree that there is growth, but they also know that they have to follow up with broader social policies.”

In other words, there is a danger of over-focusing on the creative sectors at the expense of jobs in other sectors, and Florida’s new book outlines ways of tackling the resulting social schisms.  One of the counter-measures being proposed by others is to take design thinking, as a set of tools associated with a structured, user-centred creative practice, and share them as widely as possible.

The fix is in the mix

With design thinking gaining so much attention in policy as well as in business circles, it’s no surprise that CWF expect a big turnout for one of the high-profile speakers in their programme, IDEO partner Tom Kelley, a ‘founding father’ of design thinking. Other well-known figures in the CWF roster include architect Jan Gehl and designer and art director Stefan Sagmeister. However, the objective is not to rely on famous names, but to make use of the intimacy of Aarhus city centre to create a more inclusive experience. The main keynotes will be held in the city’s historic Musikhuset concert hall, but there are more than 30 other venues hosting CWF events, from Kulbroen (Aarhus’ answer to New York’s High Line project) to state-of-the-art library and media spaces at DOKK1.

“Of course, we want some [Tom] Kelley,” Fey acknowledges, “but we also want Sissel Hansen, who founded a start-up about start-ups. She’ll be showcasing her guides to the start-up environment in a dozen or so different cities. She recently spoke at SXSW but she’s definitely a grassroots personality, and an upcoming one. So, it’s about taking that kind of mix and putting them together on the stage in Musikhuset.”

After the keynote presentations, delegates will move off to workshops in different venues around the city centre. “The setting is just as important as the topic,” Fey notes. “If we’re talking about the pros and cons of city development, then we have to get down to Aarhus Ø which is the newest and biggest harbour development in Aarhus.” Similarly, companies that have stepped up to partner with CWF find themselves participants in the programme, not logos on the sidelines. Denmark’s national bank, Danske Bank, will take part in a special session on the future of the bank beyond bricks and mortar. Other key partners include local creative super-brand Lego, and – perhaps inevitably – Google. There’s room for more too.

So, from CWF’s perspective, then, is design thinking the missing link that will tap the power of creativity for individuals, businesses, and governments alike? Fey prefers the bridge as a metaphor. “That’s where the potential lies,” he adds, “but we have a challenge right now that the bridge must connect tomorrow, the future, the next generation of thinkers, and established people, established companies”.

In this view, cities on the rise hold the potential to be bridges between today’s companies and tomorrow’s leaders, between grassroots activists and the industry giants who have such influence on every aspect of our daily lives, particularly work. And in that context, perhaps design thinking, as a human-centred approach to innovation, is the link that connects the lives of all urban citizens with the social and economic prosperity to which they aspire. As the great American urbanist and ethnographer Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”.

 

Ezri Carlebach is a consultant, writer, and lecturer with a background in public sector, corporate, and non-profit communication roles. As Senior Associate of the PR Network, the world’s largest virtual PR agency, Ezri’s clients include the European Training Foundation, the College of Policing, and Aarhus 2017 European Capital of Culture.

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