Lia Ghilardi Interview: Konstrukt Online Magazine

Here is an edited transcript of an interview I gave to academic Blanka Markova and which was published in 2012 in Konstrukt, an online magazine influential among the creative community of the Czech Republic. The magazine is not there anymore, but the message is still relevant today.

Lia Ghilardi, urbanist and cultural planning guru:

How do you personally understand the word culture?

My education was as an urban sociologist and for me culture is what anthropologist Ulf Hannerz calls “the meanings which people create, and which create people as members of societies”. So you could say that I take an anthropological and social approach, and by extension I’m more concerned with the unique historical, social and geographical dynamics of a place, a city or a neighbourhood than solely with the arts as aesthetic pursuit. So for me the word culture is inextricably linked to society and describes the way of life of an individual together with the patterns of living, taste, and routines of others living in a place, or even a country.

Could you give us a short view of the methodology actually planning culture?

For me it is not a question of “planning culture”, but of mapping the unique culture of a place/people and then brainstorming solutions, ideas, proposals about how to add value, and to support or develop that particular cultural ecology. In the past two decades lots of cities in Europe and elsewhere thought they found the solution to their economic problems in culture.

We now know that culture (as in the arts) alone cannot solve structural economic problems and that’s why we need to take a broader notion of culture along with a more nuanced approach to place making. Quantitative and qualitative place mapping and a better understanding of the local potential is the methodology, coupled with delivery through trans-disciplinary teams. Neither artists, nor policy makers should be left alone to tackle big problems. We live in a complex world and to adequately deal with complexity we need new governance tools; the arts can provide part of the solution, but not all. Creativity, transparency, vision and leadership play a key role too.

To what extent is culture connected to creativity?

Creativity drives humans to improve their environment and more generally the way we live together. So I would say that creativity is an important part of being human. However, it is normally accepted that creativity is the preserve of artists and while a cultural product will undeniably have a creative input, not only artists are creative.

What about scientists? Or those tasked with devising new services? Urban designers? Community activists? That said, there is a whole sector of the economy these days known as the “creative economy”, which is deeply rooted in cultural production. So here is the most obvious link between culture and creativity, but at the same time I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of innovators at large to mobilise both their cultural background and creativity to produce something new and exciting (think for example of Steve Jobs and Apple).

Is it possible to learn creative thinking? How?

It is definitely possible to learn creative thinking. In fact, many years ago I trained with De Bono (the inventor of lateral thinking) and throughout my professional life I have successfully used creative thinking techniques in the urban field. “Thinking is a skill; it can be developed and improved if one knows how,” says De Bono. This means that we can definitely train our brains to be creative.

There is a big project within Ministry of Culture in the Czech Republic called Creative Industries Mapping – it is actually possible to map creativity? Which indicators should be used and is there any differentiation in the scale of creativity?

I think this is a really big question, which I’m not sure I can answer in a few words. It depends on why you want to do it. First of all, I think one should make a distinction between mapping the creative economy of a place and mapping the creative capacity, or, potential of a location. Though not mutually exclusive, the two are different. Let’s take the creative economy first. Just like other sectors of the economy, the creative industries can certainly be the object of a mapping. Once the technical aspects (definitions, classifications, spatial delimitations, etc) have been sorted, then it is possible to conduct a quantitative mapping and the indicators are relatively easy to set.

As for the qualitative mapping, then the story is a little bit more complicated because we then enter into the realm of policies and here we are called on to make judgements on the desirability of certain measures. In this case, indicators can only be negotiated and not borrowed. For me, the bottom line of any mapping is not about setting indicators a priori, but about analysing the context first and then conducting a systematic appraisal of the state of each sub-sector of the local creative economy (scope, level of growth, issues, challenges) to finally devise bespoke indicators (i.e. capable of fitting, in your case, into the Czech Republic’s context).

Many cities in the USA and Western Europe are using culture as a tool for urban regeneration. Is the culture-led regeneration strategy transferable to post-socialist countries?

The literature on culture-led regeneration is vast and littered with good and bad examples. I think there is a fundamental problem with some of the past culture-led regeneration and the problem is mainly the lack of understanding by policy makers and civic leaders of what place is about. In addition, there is a lot of evidence that culture (as in the creation of large flagship arts buildings) alone cannot deliver on regeneration. We need some extra ingredients.

In particular, I believe that we need to go back to first principles and start by focusing on gaining a deeper understanding of the peculiar elements that contribute to the cultural ecology of a place or a country, and then intervene to complement, support or expand such ecology with urban (or other policy) interventions. In the world of today it is probably more important to learn to practice urban and cultural “acupuncture” rather than rely on top down, large scale approaches. Post-socialist countries could be the first to pioneer this new way of micro-thinking and, rather than modelling themselves on the frameworks developed by other countries in the past, they could develop their own.

With regard to urban regeneration and competitiveness of cities, could you tell us your opinion about cultural/creative clusters?

I think I have in part already replied to this question, but, as a general rule, I believe that there is a lot to be gained by mapping out latent clusters and then focusing on supporting those, rather than creating new ones. Some countries (and regions) in the past have plugged investment in generating new clusters, often on the basis of thin evidence of activity, and with disastrous consequences.

In essence, I think there is a need to improve cluster diagnostics in the first instance – and this includes also improving the capacity to understand the creative clusters’ potential for spill-overs (to other sectors) – and then there needs to be joined-up approaches (i.e. coalitions of creatives, industry leaders, stakeholders from different departments of local and regional governments and local community representatives) to nurturing those clusters.

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