Business and creativity have not always been seen as natural bedfellows. We still have a tendency of dividing up people into either ‘suits’ or ‘creatives’, and in turn seeing certain industries and companies as being either corporate or creatively led. However, with the rise of the digital entrepreneur, and the huge shake-ups that companies such as Airbnb and Uber have brought to established industries through creative thinking, there is an increasing awareness that creativity matters to all businesses, not just those on the cultural end of the spectrum.
Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, is a firm believer in the power of creativity to benefit all businesses, and this year is the Creative Director of the International Business Festival, a biennial event taking place in Liverpool in June.
For Kelly, the choice of the word ‘festival’ instead of ‘conference’ is significant. “It’s a kind of Glastonbury for business,” she explains. “Business exists in so many different ways. We tend to think, wrongly, that business is corporate life … it isn’t just about commerce. It’s such an engine of progress, potentially. So we wanted to celebrate business and also recognise all the tools that different kinds of business need. Networking’s very obvious but we also need tools for change, we need to take time away from the coalface of our own businesses and look at the bigger picture. It’s trying to give people involved in business not just things that will help their own particular area but a sense that they belong in this much wider eco-system.”
Kelly admits that she’s been talking about the importance of creativity to society and business “probably my whole career”, but she believes there is now a slow but increasing recognition of its importance to the corporate world, and also a growing realisation that creativity is something that can be learnt.
“I think everybody recognises that if you’re talking about straight entrepreneurship, then entrepreneurship without creativity usually fails because it requires lateral thinking, risk-taking, a kind of ‘what if’ mentality and new models – and that is all about creativity…. You have a hunch, you walk towards your hunch and you find a way of doing that, and I think that does require creativity.
I think everybody recognises that if you’re talking about straight entrepreneurship, then entrepreneurship without creativity usually fails
“And you can train people,” she continues. “You can definitely train people to be more creative, you can give them creative tools. It isn’t just that people are born, springing out of the cradle going, ‘I’m Richard Branson’. Of course, some people are more inclined towards being a risk-taking maverick than others, but I think all businesses, whether they are start-ups or not, they need that part of themselves that you’d think of as R&D, or new ideas, new ways of doing things.
“I think businesses do recognise this. Some of them, especially the tech areas, not only recognise but they hugely invest in it…. the harder bit is to get to the more traditional manufacturing industries, the retail sector. I think we’re a bit scared of the word ‘creativity’ still, and we shouldn’t be, we need not to be.”
Some of this discomfort is perhaps born out of seeing creative people as somehow different or more special than most. The key is making the idea of creativity appear more accessible, perhaps even ordinary, says Kelly. “If you think about the two things that often cause fear in people, they are when someone says ‘are you arty?’ or ‘are you sporty?’,” she says. “Those two things often make people go, ‘er, no I’m not’. But if you say to somebody, ‘do you like a bit of exercise sometimes?’, people respond with everything from walking the dog through to ‘I’ve just done a half marathon for breast cancer’. If you take it away from the idea of sports talent and just talk about having exercise, then people are much less scared of it.
“And again, I think we’ve got to find a way of making people realise that if you say, ‘are you creative?’, that can mean you put different kinds of herbs in your recipes, or the way that you do your garden, or the way you make music online. People are creative and I think we have to separate that from the idea of the specialism of being a great artist.”
At the root of this understanding is education, but Kelly expresses concerns of how the arts are currently being placed within the UK school system. “One of the conflicting issues around education at the moment is we are rightly concerned to make our kids numerate, literate. We’re tying to push STEM subjects, we know that we’ve got a problem with women coding, for example, so there’s a lot of emphasis on that. But – and it’s a very important but – the skills that the arts and creative subjects teach, which are lateral thinking, imagination, developing empathy, are hugely important if you’re thinking about what your customers are thinking or what international relationships might be like. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that those are the things that children need to learn too.
I’ve spent my entire career in the creative industries. Their impact on the economy is now extraordinary
“I’ve spent my entire career in the creative industries,” she continues. “Their impact on the economy is now extraordinary…. But that really has been a product of art schools, art teaching and creativity in the classroom. It’s not come out of nowhere. That contribution to the economy – we really fear that that might start dwindling again. If this creative sector isn’t recognised, or is taken for granted, I’m not sure it can easily be replaced.
“The impact of creative thinking and creative training isn’t just about the creative industries. It feeds into other industries. Now obviously the UK’s productivity is a problem, and we’re entering a whole new landscape of trading. I really worry that we aren’t giving our kids the entrepreneurial, creative tools that they will need to think of new futures. And I think if you downscale the approach to the arts, if you dumb it down, I think we will rue the day.”
Despite this bleak analysis of our approach to arts education, Kelly does believe that she has seen steady progress in the wider attitude and understanding of creativity over her career. “Over-arching progress is definitely there, definitely,” she says. “Even the fact that we’re having a festival of business where the last thing you need to do is turn up in a suit. The fact that it’s supported by corporates but it’s not there to just promote their brand but also to be quite iconoclastic about the way the business world works. That’s a different informality that creativity has brought into the world.
“I think it is all progress,” she concludes. “The one bit that I think has gone backwards is the idea of arts and education. And I think we have to catch up and balance it out again very quickly. In the end investment in education is absolutely everything.”
The 2018 International Business Festival takes place in Liverpool from June 12–28; Jude Kelly is one of our CR Creative Leaders 50, and is currently Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, though will stand down in May to concentrate on the WOW – Women of the World festival, which is taking place this weekend
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