AHRC Creative Industries Clusters Programme

Yesterday I attended the AHRC’s Newcastle briefing for their Creative Industries Clusters Programme. It was held at the Sage Gateshead which wasn’t a great start, but that’s not why I’m writing this blog. What prompted me to write this is the potential this funding, together with the Bazalgette Report, has for redefining the creative industries, what they are celebrated for and how they might develop in the future.

I should start by saying i've not had a chance to deeply interrogate the call documents and i've not watched the videos from other briefing sessions, so this is a set of early thoughts... which may not be that coherent!

The creative industries as we know them now have a long history and they have gone through various round of re-definitions to be called the creative industries. These definitions have evolved from academic and policymaker’s interest, and as a result of technological and industrial change. Generally speaking we’ve seen an increasing emphasis on the economic value of creativity, especially since the DCMS’s famous mapping project, at the expense of cultural and artistic value. It’s almost automatic that whenever the creative industries are discussed in a policy context there are accompanying statistics about them being the fastest growing sector of the UK economy for GVA and employment, producing huge exports (insert British TV show currently being enjoyed by Americans) and big employment numbers. The political and discursive shifts about what counts as a creative industry and their role for the country have been reflected in, and reproduced by the organisations tasked with fostering their development and sources of funding to achieve this. The AHRC’s Creative Industries Clusters Programme (CICP) has the potential to harden this shift.

The AHRC describe the programme as “ambitious research and development investment to establish up to eight Creative Research & Development (R&D) Partnerships within existing creative clusters across the UK.” Partnerships are expected to be consortia of universities, businesses and “other key partner organisations”. The funding is from the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund which means there are strings attached. As Andrew Chitty (AHRC creative industries champion) put it, access to this money means fitting creative industries development into what government finds acceptable to spend ISCF money on. To put it more explicitly: achieving medium to long term economic growth through research and development. Yes, that’s economic growth funding run through the AHRC, not the ESRC, and neither artistic value or audiences were mentioned at the briefing session. A potentially fascinating institutional shift - i'd love to know why the ESRC aren't involved.

Chitty explained the R&D element is primarily about research for creative industries (rather than about or with them) by/through higher education institutions (HEIs). This differentiates it from programmes which Creative FUSE NE which includes elements of research about, with and for, and from knowledge exchange hubs. Knowledge exchange hubs focused primarily on SMEs, but there is an emphasis in the CICP programme on what were referred to as ‘large corporates’, ‘national partners’ and ‘big players’ (Google, Youtube and ITV were mentioned at various times). The reasoning is that larger companies can provide scale for SMEs, while the latter can more nimbly provide innovation and talent for the former. So this is economic growth led by key challenges faced by firms, harnessing HEI resources. My immediate thoughts were what’s going to stop larger corporations extracting all the value at the expense of SMEs? What role for freelancers who represent a major part of the sector? And what about third sector organisations?

A second key element of the call is that rebalancing the economy and driving regional economic growth through bids is key. [Is regional development policy back under the Conservatives!?] To do this funding will be channelled through existing clusters. Potential bidders were told that: “We [AHRC] aren’t going to tell you what your cluster is, that is up to you.” However, it was made clear the AHRC understands clusters using NESTA's very broad definition based primarily on measures of co-location and networking, rather than tangible relationships between firms you might find in the business studies or economic geography literature. But if you’re examining national datasets it is difficult to do the latter, so it makes sense to leave it up to bidders to make the case for what they consider to be a creative cluster as they are closer to the ground. That said, we were shown some new data the AHRC is going to provide bidders to help them prepare their proposals which maps hot spots of different creative industries (based on location quotients for firms and employment). We were told suggesting you have a cluster in a ‘cold spot’ would be treated with suspicion and require further evidence. There was also a great deal of emphasis on the collaboration and networking potential of clusters – chance meetings at various events was mentioned a number of times – and the role of knowledge exchange. The role of competition wasn’t really addressed. Given NESTA’s influence this isn’t surprising, and a quick search of their The Geography of Creativity in the UK reveals the word competition only appears once (in the title of Saxenian’s 1996 classic about Silicon Valley and Route 128). World class clusters have competition at their heart and it is central to Porter’s work on clusters which is the most popular theorisation of clusters amongst policymakers (and the reason why various types of agglomerations are referred to as clusters in policy discourse). Afterall, competition drives firms to innovate and to outdo their rivals in search of market share, the best workers, funding etc.

The emphasis on collaboration and the downplaying of competition leads to a potential issue in relation to R&D. “Creative R&D Partnerships to…Produce new creative content, products and experiences that are frequently the key driver for digital technology innovation in the creative industries.” Why would a firm collaborate with an HEI if the new product that partnership produces is going to be shared with rivals? There are reasons which might motivate a firm to do this, but balancing collaborations with competing firms is a hard task and it might constrain the types of R&D done by consortia.

This also leads to a further question, is the programme about development of clusters or firms? This is a common problem identified in the regional development literature from the late 1990s and 2000s which highlighted the subtle, but important differences between growth of firms in a region versus development of a region. If I get a chance I’ll interrogate the call documentation more closely to try and bottom this out.

The rebalancing element of the call suggests we’ll see a decent spread of successful bids around the country, but if this is the case I wonder how national players will fit into things. Bidders were told that they don’t need to worry at this stage about engaging large corporates as the AHRC was doing this and they’d potentially help match-make partnerships once bids were shortlisted for the second round of the process. Many of the biggest firms in the creative economy are based in London/SE England but Chitty explained that this wasn’t a barrier for partnerships with clusters elsewhere. It may not be a barrier, but relationships between regional clusters and large partners from London/SE will need to be managed carefully to minimise exploitation of the former’s resources.

A geographic spread around the country is relatively straightforward to achieve, but balancing that spread with the range of creative industry sub-sectors is going to be harder. If consortia from Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool-Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast all go with film/TV/screen sub-sectors, will the AHRC allow it? These areas can justifiable lay claim to significant hubs of activity in this field, but it would be more than half the partnerships. It will be interesting to see what negotiations happen between the first and second rounds of the bidding process, and how long the promise to led bidder define their own clusters lasts. 

This is going to be a challenging programme to respond to, let alone deliver (which is the point). And it is important to get right - as a couple of speakers made clear - because there might not be a second bite at this level and type of funding from government. Furthermore, the content of successful bids will shape how creative industries are defined by UK policymakers. I’m pleased to see the creative industries getting multi-million pound investment as they are important, but what is left out of this programme of funding could alter their shape in the years to come.