Dr Geoff Willcocks



Dr Geoff Willcocks (Director of Arts, Culture and Heritage at Coventry University and Chair of the Midlands Higher Education Cultural Forum) shares his thoughts on what the West Midlands region needs to do to enable the creative and cultural sectors to flourish.

In my experience it is hard to find someone who doesn’t agree that the cultural and creative sectors are important. People from all walks of life will all readily attest to the social importance of the creative industries and in recent years have celebrated the undeniable economic importance of the UK’s creative sector, supplying as it now does some £111.7bn GVA per year. However, what is often less clear is how we nurture this sector. In terms of businesses outside the creative sector the notion of entrepreneurialism is widely understood and while the field of creative entrepreneurialism studies has grown considerably over the past decade, there is still a certain degree of mysticism that sounds the conditions that are required in order for the creative and cultural sectors to flourish.

To begin with, there is the notion that the creative sector is successful as a result of those within in it possessing talent. Talent is defined as a natural aptitude or skill. In essence the implication here is that this is something inherent, that you are born with, something that is essentially innate to a particular individual. As someone who in the early part of my career spent a significant proportion of my time teaching creative practitioners I can say with some degree of certainty that what makes a creative practitioner outstanding at their work is a high level of application, dedication and hard work. While I accept that there will always be individuals that possess specific aptitudes for creative practice, I don’t believe that this is particularly more prevalent in the creative industries than it is in law, engineering or the medical profession. It is rare that one hears that the UK’s medical or legal professions are successful on the basis that they are filled with talented individuals – knowledgeable most certainly, skilled undoubtedly, but rarely are they referred to as talented. Some may dismiss this as mere sematic word play, but I think there is at least a couple of fundamental issues the emerge from this if we are serious about sustained creative sector growth. First, talent cannot be taught. Even the finest educators cannot teach someone to be talented.

However, skills can be taught, practiced and mastered. This is what we see happening in our successful creative sector, acquired skills being practiced, refined and adapted to new purposes for the creation of new innovations and products. Ultimately, the persistent use of the word talent infantilises the creator sector, as it separates it from the rest of the business community, which in turn would use words like acumen and skill to describe the attributes required for success. In truth, the success of the creative sector is based on exactly the same principles. Acumen, skill and knowledge are what makes any business function successfully, whatever the nature of the business.

Therefore, having now supplanted talent for skills as a central driver for the successful development of our creative sector, the next question is clearly how do we create a skills pipeline that will lead from school to further growth in the creative sector within the UK. Space denies me the opportunity to address the whole developmental route through the education system in respect of the creative industries, but I would like to focus on two elements of the pipeline, which I think are often overlooked.

I think the first major step in the construction of this pipeline is to recognise what creativity actually is. Fundamentally, the creative process is one of imagination. It is, in simple terms, the act of defining a need, imagining a solution to that need and then utilising various skills and processes to make that solution tangible and usable. This process is actually the same whether one is creating, for example, a hinge or a sculpture. Therefore, in the first instance I would argue that the concept of creativity should not be seen as a domain occupied purely by the creative industries, but as a fundamental principle of all innovation regardless of sector. To this end, the very start of the creative skills pipeline concerns itself with placing a greater emphasis on imagination in our schools. Of course, there is an evident sliding scale here, with pure imaginative creation at one end and problem solving at the other, but this does not undermine the basic tenet that the essential skill here is one of conceptualising that which does not currently exist.

Secondly, in order for cities to generate a self-sustaining creative entrepreneurial ecosystem an appropriate infrastructure needs to be built and that infrastructure is not always built through financial investment. I would argue that every successful centre of the creative industries also has what could be termed catalytic individuals and these I fear are too often unnoticed as a vital part of the process. Typically, these individuals are not politicians or civic leaders in the traditional sense, but they operate in a way which connects people together, they create new initiatives, function as both role models and informal mentors and act as mediators, as they have the ear of the city leadership as well as being connected into the city at a grass roots level. As mentioned these catalytic individuals are rarely seen as a collective force, but have an important role to play in providing stability to the creative sector and confidence to those looking to invest. As such, they are a significant component of the pipeline and need to be incorporated within it, particularly during its latter stages.

In the above I have tried to highlight just a few elements, which I believe are too often taken as givens and are not provided with appropriate weight in discussions about creative sector development. I would also stress that the creative sector pipeline is now perhaps more pressing than ever. Projections continue to show that some 30-40% of current jobs will become automated over the next 50 years Those jobs that will be harder, if not impossible in the short term, to automate will be those that contain a significant amount of creativity. Therefore, towards the end of this century, well within the working lifetimes of those currently starting school, creativity will become an increasingly important part of the skills market, with employers placing a greater emphasis on the creative skills in its human workforce.

About Dr Geoff Willcocks:

Geoff is Director of Arts, Culture and Heritage at Coventry University.

He is also Chair of the Midlands Higher Education Cultural Forum and Vice Chair of Historic Coventry Trust.


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