Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Creativity & Cultural Labour, Cultures of Creativity

What are cultural and creative ecosystems and how can they be studied? CMCI researchers provide a review of theories and methods, towards a new research agenda in international journal Cultural Trends

Manfredi de Bernard

Recently, we have witnessed a wave of enthusiasm from scholars towards the creative and cultural ecology paradigm as a new promising model for policy development. Indeed, in his popular 2015 report, Holden argues for a shift toward “the cultural ecology” to address the criticalities of existing top-down approaches. He highlights the inextricable relations among a wide range of actors involved in creative and cultural sectors to stress the painful overlooking of the actors not firmly dedicated to generating economic value and elaborate these relations as being complex, far-reaching and recursive, and not mechanic. In other words, different from policymakers’ current understanding. “Culture is an organism, not a mechanism”, he states. It is worth mentioning that his comments firmly resonate with complexity theory which prescribes the thick interconnections of entities in social and physical systems and the fundamental interdependence this leads to. Since the publication of the report, many authors started to employ ecology or ecosystem generally to indicate one unspecified network of entities involved in and/or influencing the delivery of creative and cultural products or in the sustainment of creative individuals’ activities. Yet scholars rarely explained the choice in terms nor provided a definition. 

In line with the welcoming sentiment of other scholars, but aware of the debate’s current limit, CMCI researchers, Manfredi de Bernard, Dr Roberta Comunian and Dr Jonathan Gross have recently published “Cultural and creative ecosystems: a review of theories and methods, towards a new research agenda” as a critical reflection on the topic. 

The article, including an in-depth literature review (image 1), aims to unpack the current research landscape and explore ‘ecosystems’ as a valuable framework for policymaking and for researchers. 

Image 1: Structure of the Systematic Literature Review

The findings confirm the perceived heterogeneity in use and lack of shared agreements on terminology and meaning. Creative/cultural and ecology/ecosystem are indeed used interchangeably and deployed with no coherency among authors. It was surprising to see that even the choice of creative over cultural, or vice versa, does not tap in the twenty-years long debate on the two’s relation, being instead used with no apparent rationale. The review does not highlight any emergent rule with ecology and ecosystem neither. 

The article also builds on previous work on the way visual representations of ecologies and ecosystems have been used in the literature (as discussed further by de Bernard and Comunian). The different scholars’ positions cover a wide spectrum of approaches: from ones in which the ecosystem shows few differences from a collection of stakeholders (rooted in the most traditional business studies) to others, in which the openness and flexibility of the notion are stretched to include every factor influencing creative and cultural production and consumption, being it living or non-living, tangible or intangible. The two both show weak spots: the former renames old concepts and wastes the novelty potential of the notion, the latter fully embrace the virtually infinite nature of complex systems, to the point it could hardly be applied by policy. 

Building on the review’s results, we suggest indicating the theoretical framework with ecology and the object of study with ecosystem and using both creative and cultural together. The decision on the latter is due to ecological approaches requiring and benefitting from the involvement of different sub-sectors and communities, as the notion crosses the areas generally associated with the two terms. 

We conclude the article stressing the reasons behind the efforts in making the discussion’s terms clear and precise. In other words, why do we believe the emerging ecological framework is worth nurturing and exploring?

Firstly, developing one common theoretical framework shared by scholars of different fields would be in line with Comunian’s argument that complexity-informed frameworks can link theories and findings on different contexts and scopes by scholars from different disciplines that have until now been rarely brought together. Even within the restricted disciplinary area examined in the review, any scholar’s findings were indeed hardly brought together.

Secondly, embracing complexity fosters a change in methodology, which could be highly beneficial in producing a rich analysis of creative and cultural ecosystems. Gross and Wilson, and Markusen stressed that the abstraction required in conventional quantitative methods have often led to painful simplifications and poor representation of creative sectors’ dynamics. In particular, bird-eye-view methods needs to be reconsidered given the risk to overlook entire actors and communities. There is the need to investigate the creative and cultural ecosystem inclusively, from multiple perspectives and on an ongoing basis.

Lastly, the model facilitates reflections on the multiplicity of values involved in creative and cultural dynamics as it sheds light on connections widely overlooked which are not motivated by nor lead to economic value. The ecology reignites the discussion around the primacy of economic value at the expense of the others, providing one model that scholars craved for long for but never clearly defined.

Our efforts in reviewing and organising scholars’ arguments are precisely directed to make the framework easier to be understood and, hopefully, implement. We do indeed believe that the notion could represent a strong shift in how, why and for whom cultural policies are made.