Creative Clusters and what they mean for you.

In the last month, two major UK Government initiatives have called for Creative Clusters to be supported and created across the UK. The first was the AHRC announcement of £80m  for creative clusters hosted by Universities. The second as part of the Independent Review of the Creative Industries 2017 by Pater Bazelgette, who called for £500m Creative Cluster fund support.

So what is a Creative Cluster? Why are they so important? How will they work for the vast majority of freelancers and micro-companies, who make up over 90% of the Creative Industries in the UK?

Using the existing information form NESTA, AHRC and the Independent Review this blog seeks to answer these essential questions, which will determine investment and support for creatives over the next five years, and beyond.

What is a Creative Cluster

A Creative Cluster is defined by NESTA as a geographic concentration of creative businesses and workers, often linked to similar value chains, that collaborate and compete with each other.

Clusters can often include other institutions linked to the value chain
such as higher education institutions (HEIs), cultural institutions, trade associations and government bodies which support the cluster in a number of ways.

Creative Clusters come in different sizes and configurations and can have a broad array of individual features which facilitate inter-organisational collaboration, including incubators, accelerators, shared hub space and studios.

All of which means that groups of companies, and to a lesser extent freelance individuals operate in a limited geographical space predominantly the larger cities. 47 of these were identified by NESTA in its ‘The Geography of Creativity in the UK‘ report in 2016.

Included in this list were the predictable London Bristol, Glasgow, Belfast to the less so  Leamington Spa, Medway, Warrington & Wigan and Exeter.

These locations will form the base for new investment and support over the next five years, based upon the stated aims of the current creative clusters programmes..

Why are they so important?

The Creative Industries are dominated by micro enterprise and freelancers, who do not have the resources for extensive research and development, to retain skilled staff in lean periods or offer support and skills training.  Therefore, the argument is that clusters of creatives supported via Hubs, information networks and shared skills are able to work more effectively.

Evidence gained form the Fuse programme suggest that creative firms, who work with or near to science and tech companies tend to be even more efficient and have a higher potential for growth.

The work of NESTA, and others, has led to a view that government support and increased investment in creative clusters will create more work and greater growth for the sector as a whole.  This is seen by many as essential as automation takes over large parts of the economy, and in an era where globally the creative sector is due to expand faster than any other.

How will they work for the vast majority of freelancers and micro-companies, who make up over 90% of the Creative Industries in the UK?

The AHRC Creative Cluster programme, is supported by a £39m Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund grant as part of a projected total spend of £80m. It is designed to support six to eight existing clusters. The shortlisted proposals will be made know in early 2018, while the final group of successful Cluster Bids will be announced in July 2018.

For a summary of the programme’s area of Research and Development go here

The stated aim of the programme is to work with existing clusters. Therefore, any region or city which does not have identified cluster will not be part of this new growth and support strategy. Given that 47 clusters were identified by NESTA and 14 of these were seen to have a high concentration and high growth there is clearly substantial room for more support than this programme is able to supply.

The biggest challenge the Universities hosting these clusters face is that within the time frame most will not be able to include many micro-companies or freelancers in their initial proposals.  The net result of which is that the more established media and creative production companies,  who make up less than 10% of the sector, will end up setting the agenda. There is also the possibility that some cluster/s will end up being dominated on the industrial side by tech or advertising groups, who obviously make use of creatives, but are hardly likely to focus on their needs, as opposed to their own.

A framework for what the majority of the sector needs was highlighted in the Creative Industries Federation report ‘Creative Freelancers’ published in July 2017.  A summary of the specific needs across the freelancers, who are 47% of the sector, drawn from this report were :-

  • Access to Finance
  • Legal advice and support
  • Access to workspace.

The challenge for freelancers and micro-companies is to make contact with the initial short listed host Universities and insist on their specific needs being part of the final proposal.

Given these issues how will the £500m fund being called by Peter Bazelgette add to the effectiveness of creative clusters?  Obviously it will be able to reach out beyond the limited number possible in the AHRC programme.  The review argues for Creative Clusters to be designed from the bottom up.

……support for regional growth is prioritised through
an approach based on the City Deal model, supported by a £500 million Creative  Clusters Fund.”     Independent Review of the Creative Industries 2017

This overcomes the limitations of  a centralised approach, but is still aimed at already existing clusters, with all the limitations identified above.

This highlights one of the most important aspect of the creative industries. It is made up of freelancers and micro-companies, who operate across the UK, and often via a digital network. In the age of fast broadband, pdfs, skype,compression software, and digital rendering  to say nothing of Facebook, Instagram, the App Store and e-publishing is the idea of a physical based cluster really the only answer to creating growth, and supporting the vast majority of those who do, and will, work in the creative industries?

Creative Clusters have been identified. Some will be funded. More could  be funded to good effect. For them to really benefit the vast majority of  creatives they need to embrace support for the freelancers and micro-companies.  However, they are obviously on their own not enough to unlock the full potential of the creative pipeline.



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