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Defining the Creative Economy

An interesting and provocative study on America’s Creative Economy crossed my desk recently. The report was produced by the Creative Economy Coalition, a working group of the National Creativity Network.

The researchers, including WolfBrown friend and consultant Christine Harris, studied 27 research projects relating to the creative economy in order to “profile and analyze how the creative economy is currently being defined, segmented and quantified throughout the United States.” At the risk of over-simplifying the methodology, they looked at, for each of the 27 projects, the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) and the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) coding systems that were used in each study as part of its definition of “the creative economy.” Needless to say, there was little overlap of included codes. Perhaps we ought not be surprised, considering the economic, demographic, political, cultural, and geographic differences in the research areas.

I confess I’ve been skeptical of Richard Florida’s claims about the role of creativity in revitalizing communities (and recently, he has acknowledged that he has perhaps overstated the impact). I’ve been bothered by the over-reliance on an economic argument that I believe ends up short-changing creativity’s other types of impact in realms like education and community cohesion, among others. That is not to say that the economic impact of arts, culture, and creativity isn’t real or that its impact shouldn’t be exploited. Rather, it suggests that we invite skepticism and worse when we overstate or overemphasize one component of our case. That said, this research is an excellent step toward a better understanding of exactly what is meant by “creative economy.”

Should we be bothered, for example, that of the 264 NAICS codes used in aggregate in the studies, only four were selected by all 27 reports (interior design services, graphic design services, theatre companies and dinner theatres, and musical groups and artists), and only 39 were used in 75% of the studies? Actually, I think not. So much of this quest for strong advocacy data to support arts and culture resembles the blind men describing the elephant based on what part they touched. We’ve been defining “creative economy” based on what we see in our service area. That’s fine, up to a point, if a bit limited. That’s the value of this research: we can have a national dialogue about exactly what we are measuring in our claims of the impact of the creative economy. That is a big benefit as we consider ways to integrate arts, culture, and creativity more deeply into the lives of our communities.

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