Culture: Reset!

This article focusses on the intricate relationships between creative industries and the development of middle-sized cities like Thessaloniki

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What is the role of the creative industries in the city’s development? Is there a true need to invest in this sector as a middle-sized city like Thessaloniki? And if yes, how? These are some of the questions that occur when the subject of creative economy is on the table. 

Studies during the last ten years in Europe and North America, demonstrate the impact creative industries have on the city’s development and consequently why should cities invest more in this sector. Most of these papers argue that cities that invested in their creative sector had multilayered and overall positive impact regarding their development, not only when it comes to economic figures but also on other aspects of development. According to them, a vibrant creative sector has positive externalities and can contribute to quality of life and enhance the image of the city, while a strategic inspiration of new attitudes to a place can encourage the attraction and retention of skilled workers, graduates, tourists and business investors. (1)

However, the global economic recession is putting pressure on the creative economy model in terms of sustainability. A few other cases show that these investments on creative sector do not always deliver the expected positive impact, as the case of Shanghai’s creativity centers demonstrates, a fact that can probably be attributed to the lack of a thoroughly designed creative economy policy or to miscalculating the city’s potential or/and needs (Zheng, 2011).

When it comes to Greece, research on Creative Industries is quite limited. The same goes for the policies that relate to this sector. Greece only until recently discovered the potential of creative economy, especially after studies and reports on a European level demonstrated the importance of the sector for the development of the city and after other European countries started to adopt and design policies to empower their creative industries.

In 2006, according to Avdikos, the creative businesses based in Greece were responsible for the 2% of the GDP, while in 2010 the percentage was raised to 6,6%. Compared to other sectors of the Greek economy, it is an important fraction. Furthermore, creative industries are rapidly developing industries in Greece that occupy a significant number of people, the majority of whom are young people (25 to 40 years old), 40% of them are highly educated, 40% are women and almost 13% work from their house. This last figure shows an increase the last years due to the crisis; there is a tendency for creatives to leave the traditional office space for co-working spaces or working from the house. Another fact of the creative industries in Greece is that are highly concentrated in Athens.

George Zongolopoulos’ “Umbrellas” (Thessaloniki)

In the case of Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, statistic data are again not easy to find. Thessaloniki had always been a city with rich history regarding creative production. It has traditionally been a generator of innovative ideas and ground-braking artistic movements – Literature in the 60s, Music in the 80s, Design in the 00s-, the first Contemporary Art Museum in Greece was founded in Thessaloniki, the first free-press magazine, the first project-space and so on. It hosts notable artistic events on a national and in many cases international level such as the International Film Festival & Documentary Festival, and Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art. Thessaloniki has a variety of creative groups and individuals and concentrates significant numbers of young population comparing to other cities in Greece.

However, Thessaloniki is as well traditionally unable to sustain all these innovative forces at the crucial point when they need to grow bigger, to expand, therefore many creatives are moving to Athens or abroad when they need to expand their activities. Bigger events and creative offices that choose to remain in Thessaloniki are trying to develop on their own, with limited -and in some cases without any- official help and coordination, with the clear intention to prove that Thessaloniki, given the right chances can be a “creative city”. Amidst the economic crisis the pressure grows even bigger. Some of them despite the difficulties manage to distinguish, especially in the fields of architecture, graphic design and performing arts. 

An interesting fact is that one of the most notable attempts to map and monitor creative industries of the city was not initiated by the local authorities in a top-down approach, as very often is the case for other cities that want to be creative cities, but by a bottom-up initiative. In the same “DIY” spirit that characterizes this city, a group of initiatives and individuals from creative and academic backgrounds joint forces in the end of 2012 creating a platform-like research group, Creativity For Th., aiming to map, research, and empower the creative community of the city. The research was conducted on a pilot level in the area of the former commercial and manufacturing center of Thessaloniki, where a spontaneous concentration of creative offices had been observed. This research revealed an extremely significant number of creative initiatives and offices gathered in one place, a “hidden gem” as they are calling it, and a potential ground for the creation of a creative cluster in the center of the city. By using open-source – online and offline – tools the platform managed to gather information about creative businesses even outside of the pilot area, but most importantly managed to draw the attention of local authorities and of the citizens on the local creative force and its potential in reinventing the city.

Federico Albanese at Reworks Agora (Thessaloniki)

Thessaloniki is a place that has a long way to go in terms of developing its creative economy. And although local authorities recognize the significance of creative economy for the city, there has not been yet any coherent policy of development and decentralization aiming to facilitate creative industries in Thessaloniki that would be connected to other policies of local and regional development. While the city has an important number of advantages, the marginal position that Thessaloniki occupies in the global creative economy, is in stark contrast to its rich cultural heritage and inexhaustible pool of creative talents, which has an enormous potential for the development of these industries. Therefore, a strategy for the development of what is already there must be designed in order to provide creative businesses with the space to fulfill their potential, become extrovert, targeting first of all regional markets as well as European and international markets and link them to the growing touristic interest that Thessaloniki is experiencing lately.

Creativity is not the answer to everything, but it is a medium for re-thinking the existing structures of the city. In times of crisis, cities with structures that are not responding anymore to the needs of the community should examine and use up all possible ways of development. Thessaloniki should not be an exception to this; the city’s cultural infrastructure and creative capital used in a way that responds to the needs of the community, in a collective effort from the creatives, the citizens of Thessaloniki and the local authorities could lead to multiple benefits for the city.

(1): KEA study 2006 & 2009, Building a Digital Economy: The Importance of Saving Jobs in the EU’s Creative Industries12-March 2010, Study on the Contribution of Culture to Local and Regional Development – Evidence from the Structural Funds-2010, UNCTAD-20

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