Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Creativity Hub

So if we assume for a minute that the world isn’t in fact ending in December 2012, then there are some pretty exciting plans afoot for our beloved city. Word on the street is that everybody’s favourite premier, Helen Zille, has Cape Town earmarked to become a creative capital of the world. I think that’s a fantastic strategy! For a start, it's already a city that's teeming with creative buzz. And creativity and innovation are what make regions such as California so successful. And it means politics which is about solutions, not problems. Instead of the familiar nationalistic diatribes against colonialism and racism, we find ourselves with the prospect of an intelligent, dynamic and forward-thinking strategy; from whinging to action. And becoming a creative capital of the world is exciting for many reasons:

It means us residents will live in a city which fosters the arts, innovation and creativity. More gallery openings, more live gigs, better graffiti, quirkier designers, more innovative companies that are inspiring places to work and inject energy into the environment. Nothing stimulates growth better than creativity. 

It means the best part of globalisation – the spread of ideas and of interesting people. Opening our city to the world’s most remarkable personalities and ideas. And opening our city's residents to our own creative geniuses. A city always in Beta. It’ll open our eyes, widen our frame of reference, and dispel any parochialism that may linger.

I love the idea of the 21st Century as a sort of neo-medieval network of global cities. A city is a much more tangible place to relate to than a country. We are citizens of cities, and our cities have a distinct character and history. Nations, on the other hand, are contrived and never did us any favours. The problem, of course, is that the nation still decides on immigration policy and so if Helen’s ingenious plan to win the war on talent and attract innovation to the mothercity is to work, it looks like a battle for regional autonomy also needs to take place. South Africa as a federation? Ha! We live in exciting times.


  1. Al, it's 'we' residents, not 'us' residents. You want the subjective case of the pronoun. Also, the 'growth' you speak of is upper-income growth. Only manufacturing industries (in the short term), and a viable service industry (with manufacturing financing our societal evolution towards an inclusive tertiary sector) could, given decades, transform South Africa into one economy and one country. The Cape Town that Zille talks about will be richer, and more volatile, with a world-beating Gini coefficient. Also, as you know, simply reams of people witnessed my last gin-soaked promise to marry you in five years if nothing better came along, and so I feel it incumbent on me to challenge some of the beliefs you lay out here, which are troubling to me.

    Firstly, your belief that "nothing stimulates growth better than creativity" is a truism. What you mean to say, is that nothing stimulates economic growth better than investment in, or state fostering of, the creative industries. You are, I trust, drawing from the rich and frothy tradition of US scholarship outlining, in breathless prose, how the 'creative class' are flocking to America's hip cities, leaving the Rustbelt in demographic implosion. Or how super-regions, usually featuring 'innovations hubs' and meringue-like financial centres, will unhitch themselves from the joyless nation-state to become swashbuckling fiefs adrift in the seas of capital.

    None of this will happen to us.

    That is, we are not a stable republic, with an entrenched and unitary democratic culture, which is gingerly entering a post-industrial phase, in which beacons of innovation, all awash with sushi bars and WiFi, make the deserts hum with fibre-optic cables and lift the anaemic heartland into relevance as a provider of services to conurbations like New York-Philadelphia-Boston or Southern California. No poor country - and we are a poor country - ever got rich by skipping all the state-formation phases that a manufacturing-based economy engenders and moving from agrarianism to high-tech services in one generation.

  2. Oh, India? D'you want to bring India into this? Well, we are most patently not India. We cannot leverage market size like they can, to achieve meaningful multiplier effects in the awarding of vast outsourcing contracts. There are many more reasons for which we are not India, but the most obvious and resounding one is that India got there first, and has 1.1 billion workers who are in line. Were South Africa to reinvent itself as a high-tech, high-creativity economy, we would queue behind the 1.1 billion people who have already arm-wrestled a decent telecommunications infrastructure into being, set their national sights on key growth sectors (technology and services) and are already nurturing the second generation of drivers of that change (the IITs, etc).

    Al, I like a whippy piece about the Blankistan of Greenpointia over a why-oh-why litany any day, but your blog post is very unusual, and it is consequently hard to get excited. I like your column, but you must not write things like 'the best part of globalisation' without going into it a little bit, especially since we owe quite a lot to such undersexed entities as the nation-state, the manufacturing economy, the working classes (just where do they fit into Blankistan?) and an economy that isn't hellbent on producing the perfect espresso.

    Even if Cape Town were to effloresce into a creative hub of hemispheric importance, its social ills would at best hold steady (due to higher public-sector spending and improved social services financed by a burgeoning tax base) and, which is far more likely, worsen dramatically. Picture it: an ever-richer, ever-more spatially isolated creative class, besieged by relentless immigration from the interior, especially the Eastern Cape. An unemployable majority, an unredeemable élite: the cycle hardens and tightens until the city's entire middle- and upper-class population lives, shops, works and complains over chardonnay in a vast cruise ship (lightly) moored to the Albert Dock.

    Creative work is élite work. Tourism creates jobs, but it has never lifted entire countries out of poverty above the scale of a small Carribbean archipelago. The film industry, advertising, the media, fashion and design require highly-skilled workers, and the infrastructure to train these workers, and the tax base to pay their way through the pitfalls of jobseeking, could only come from a highly diversified economy with core sectors. Those core sectors, to finally conclude, must be as insulated from 'fashion' as possible.

    So Alistair, I have assumed that the tone of your post was boosterish more than light-hearted. I have taken you somewhat seriously, and I hope you know that I think you've described a dystopia. Cape Town needs to make things and export them or it will end be effaced by populism.

    Bisous from Provence!

  3. Very nice blog, I am a proud South African, and an even prouder Capetonian.

    All the best

  4. Oh my god. What a snooze fest these comments are.

    I loved the blog Al. And I think it is quite possible.

    I apologise that the longest word in this comment is only "possible".