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Creativity and Innovation

I launched Stuart Cunningham’s new book Hidden Innovation tonight.

Launching Stuart Cunningham, Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector
Paperchain Books, Manuka
9 April 2013

According to one study cited in Stuart Cunningham’s book, there are two opposing groups of people: ‘political junkies’ (PJs) and Big Brother fans (BBs). PJs think that it ‘beggars belief’ that anyone could think Big Brother was useful. BBs say that politicians are unapproachable and out of touch.

So as an MP who used to quite enjoy watching Big Brother, I found myself torn. Am I a BB or a PJ? A PJ in BBs? Or a BB in PJs?

The reference to Big Brother is just one of a myriad of cultural touchstones in this fascinating book. Stuart Cunningham’s book romps through Survivor and Go Back to Where you Came From, Korean bloggers and Fat Cow Motel, Australian iTunes game Fruit Ninja and Nigeria’s ‘Nollywood’.

Stuart Cunningham has also read a plethora of OECD and overseas government reports on creativity and innovation – so you don’t have to. What’s striking about many of the OECD reports is how un-creative and un-innovative their titles are (‘Content as a New Growth Industry’, ‘Innovation and Knowledge-Intensive Services Activities’, ‘Demanding Innovation’, ‘Creativity, Design and Business Performance’). Naturally, the very readable and pithily titled Creative Australia, the Australian Government’s 2013 national cultural policy, is an obvious exception to this general rule.

One thing that I enjoy about such reports (and Stuart Cunningham’s book itself) is that they point out the increasing role that creativity is playing in the jobs of the future. Indeed, the pace of change is so rapid that many of today’s school leavers will spend the bulk of their career doing a job that hasn’t yet been invented.

We cannot forecast the future, but as MIT economists David Autor and David Dorn have pointed out about the US job market, we can make some predictions about the impacts of trade and technology:

‘technical change, augmented by offshoring, is eroding demand for middle-skilled ‘routine’ cognitive and manual activities, such as bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive production tasks. Because the core job tasks of these occupations follow precise, well-understood procedures, they are increasingly codified in computer software and performed by machines or, alternatively, offshored over computer networks to foreign work sites. This displacement of routine job tasks raises relative demand for non-routine tasks in which workers hold a comparative advantage over current technology, in particular ‘abstract’ tasks requiring problem-solving, creativity, or complex interpersonal interactions (e.g., attorneys, scientists, managers) and ‘manual’ tasks requiring, variously, situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interactions (e.g., janitors and cleaners, home health aides, beauticians, construction laborers, security personnel, and motor vehicle operators)’[1]

This hollowing out of the middle of the US wage distribution has important implications for Australian workers. As technology improves, one of the worst places to be is in a job where you’re doing a task that a computer program can substitute for. One of the best places to be is in a job where your skills complement what a computer can do. So I commend Stuart Cunningham for his strong focus on digital design, from computer game designers to creative workers who are using animation to convey health information to remote Indigenous communities.

If there is a single idea at the heart of this engaging book, it is that it’s not just scientists who ‘do’ innovation. As Stuart Cunningham puts it, ‘the concept of innovation has been virtually soldered to science’. He draws on C.P. Snow’s splendid ‘two cultures’ notion to highlight the disconnect in Australian public life between scientists and creative people.

I agree that this is a real divide, but it’s important not to take from it that science is in the inner circle, and the arts are on the outer circle. As part of last year’s Science Meets Parliament campaign, each Australian parliamentarian was given a copy of Mark Henderson’s The Geek Manifesto. It’s a book that frets about the lack of scientific knowledge and engagement by politicians. After citing C.P. Snow, Mark Henderson argues that the real problem is that parliamentarians understand less about thermodynamics than they do about Shakespeare. So if you’re a creative type, don’t assume that you’re any less ‘plugged in’ to the policy process than any other group.[2]

What should parliamentarians be doing to promote creativity? Stuart Cunningham discusses the Convergence Review, and the recognition that media laws may need to change as technology transforms the industry. For media outlets, attempting to hang on to what Jay Rosen referred to as ‘the people formerly known as the audience’ is no easy task.[3]

Another oft-proposed solution is to make intellectual property laws stricter, but as Stuart Cunningham points out, many parts of the creative sector have thrived through open innovation (eg. via creative commons licenses). Indeed, given that sensible critics are now arguing that the US has gone too far in protecting IP, it seems that a much smaller country such as Australia should carefully assess any claims that toughening up IP laws would boost innovation.[4]

And that brings me to a point I greatly appreciate about this book, which is its recognition that the creative industries aren’t just good for GDP.

Interestingly, claims about why particular things are good for GDP aren’t typically made by economists. If you’ve taken an introductory economics course, you know that economics is about the concept of utility, which encompasses happiness, fulfilment and pleasure. Standard economics recognises that a Carl Vine piano concerto or a new novel by Tim Winton has a benefit that goes well beyond the price of the concert tickets or book purchases.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that one of our great economic reformers, Paul Keating, was also a deep lover of the arts for their own sake.[5] When Keating was asked by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to introduce Mahler’s 2nd symphony, he didn’t talk about how the purchase of trombones and timpanis raises economic output. Instead, he quoted Kant: ‘Only artistic genius discloses a new path to us’, and he talked about how the symphony melded biblical themes, folk songs, and Mahler’s experience of seeing a children’s choir sing a resurrection chorale.

Similarly, when Keating spoke at the funeral of Geoffrey Tozer, he didn’t discuss the way in which government investment in Tozer’s training had been more than repaid in CD sales. Instead, he talked about why someone of Tozer’s genius only comes along once a century, and observed that ‘When one has been touched by the stellar power and ethereal playing of a sublime musician, one is lifted, if only briefly, to a place beyond the realm of the temporal.’

Understanding that creative output matters for its own sake is good for a number of reasons. First, it’s a more sensible way of viewing the world, since none of us wake up believing that maximising GDP is the only thing that matters. Second, it’s useful because – as Stuart Cunningham notes – the literature on creativity and economic growth is notoriously fragile. Sure, countries, cities and companies that are more creative also have more output, but it doesn’t follow from this that the relationship is causal.

It might run the opposite direction (when you get rich, you get creative), or it might be that some third factor drives both creativity and growth. As Harvard economist Ed Glaeser pointed out in his critique of Richard Florida’s book: ‘Sure, creativity matters. The people who have emphasized the connection between human capital and growth always argued that this effect reflected the importance of idea transmission in urban areas. But there is no evidence to suggest that there is anything to this diversity or Bohemianism, once you control for human capital.’[6]

Dropping the more fragile reasons for caring about creativity brings us back to the basics. We want a more creative Australia because culture enriches our lives and soothes our souls. As Stuart Cunningham points out, creativity and innovation are closely intertwined, and dynamic developments in both help make Australia a more interesting place in which to live.

Focusing on culture in its own right also helps concentrate the mind on how we should be measuring the success of government programs. The most interesting question to be asked about a government grants scheme isn’t ‘what did it do to GDP?’, but ‘what did it do for creativity?’. We need more rigorous impact assessments (eg. through randomised trials) of the various ways in which government might boost creativity. Is it more effective to reduce venue hire costs (as Marcus Westbury advocates) or provide scholarships to young artists? Shall we focus on regions with the highest levels of creative output or the lowest levels? The better we understand the answers to these questions, the more effective we will be in boosting what Stuart Cunningham calls the ‘hidden’ innovation of the creative sector.


[1] David Autor and David Dorn, 2009, ‘This Job is ‘Getting Old’: Measuring Changes in Job Opportunities using Occupational Age Structure’, American Economic Review, 99(2), 45-51

[2] The classic discussion of this issue is Robert Reich, 1998, Locked in the Cabinet, Vintage Books, New York. Reich finds that the closer he comes to power in Washington DC, the more there seems to be someone else better connected than him.

[3] Jay Rosen, quoted in Stuart Cunningham’s book.

[4] See eg. Alex Tabarrok, 2011, Launching The Innovation Renaissance: A New Path to Bring Smart Ideas to Market Fast (TED Books) [Kindle Edition]

[5] Both of these speeches may be found in Paul Keating, 2011, After Words: The Post-Prime Ministerial Speeches, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

[6] Edward L. Glaeser, 2005, ‘Review of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class’, Regional Science and Urban Economics, vol. 35(5), pages 593-596.

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