From Ukraine to UK: The Economic Resilience of Creative Enterprise

In the UK, the creative industries have had it pretty good. World-leading education in everything from fashion to film-making, networks and organisations to support careers and budding businesses. Funding, laws and government and privately backed infrastructure to grow and protect the creative industries.

And for good reason – the creative industries and entrepreneurialism are a good bet in the face of massive economic shifts.

If you’re working for or running a business that has creativity at the heart of the value it creates, you’re amongst over 3 million people in the UK alone, annually generating over £100bn. Numbers are growing, and not before time, too.

Because of creative industries’ focus on innovation and the new, they are some of the best-positioned and resilient areas of our economy. They out-manoeuvre the relentless march of job-assimilating digitisation and artificial intelligence, mitigate the servitisation of products and the upheaval in manufacturing, and resist late capitalism’s devaluing of labour and the automation and atomisation of the workforce towards the gig economy. It’s also where opportunities are created that can save companies, transform communities and disrupt industries.

Our challenges in the UK are the world’s challenges too, and I am proud to be part of a programme that shares opportunities and knowledge to overcome these challenges.

The Creative Enterprise Programme

The Creative Enterprise Programme is a partnership between NESTA, the UK’s innovation foundation, and the British Council, which since 1934 has been building cultural relations and educational opportunities globally.

Image Credit: NESTA

The purpose of the programme is to build creative economies at a local and national level in countries where creative industries are currently under-supported. It works at a grass-roots level through workshops which transfer skills, tools and knowledge to creative entrepreneurs starting out on their journey, and at a more infrastructural level by encouraging development agencies, local and national government and ministries to better support (and in some instances recognise and prioritise) the creative industry in their country and beyond.

Entrepreneurs may be at different stages when they start the programme – from a startup established in the last year and taking its first steps, to people with an idea that they want to bring to reality. They are guided through three days of exercises in which they may advance their understanding of potential customers, build their understanding of financial or legal aspects, refine their core values and messaging, or even question the purpose or feasibility of their business. For this final point in particular, we emphasise with participants that it is vital to be honest and objective when reflecting on whether they have a good idea, a good business idea or simply a hobby that may only ever be their ’side hustle’.

The CEP in Ukraine

I was fortunate to go to Kiev and Lviv to both observe and then deliver the CEP workshop, and will be delivering it soon in Colombia. At an individual, grass-roots level, there are few differences between entrepreneurs from country to country. Keen, nervous, positive about the change they want to make, humbled by challenges. There are more dramatic differences at the institutional, regional or national level, and lots of opportunities for progress.

Throughout the three days, you can see lightbulb moments in the eyes of the participants as they change their thinking, perspective and understanding of what it is they are doing or want to do. It is a privilege to witness, as these moments can start careers, transform careers and even be the start of businesses that may go on to employ others and lead a market.

Outside of the workshops, in the evening meetings and tours of local innovation hubs, startup studio spaces and government initiatives (all with local partners kindly and graciously filling the role of tour guide), and in the weeks and months before and after the workshops, the broader challenges and objectives of a region or country become more apparent. All partner countries seek to make their own way, taking principles, knowledge and capability from the programme and faithfully and authentically making it their own to reflect economic, cultural and social realities. In these translations and applications of the programme, there is a richness of learning that benefits the other countries and its originators in the UK.

Leaders Keep Learning

The world is getting smaller. And the similarities in the ambitions and methods of the individuals and organisations that seek to advance the creative industries across countries and continents are apparent. The CEP programme primarily seeks to share UK expertise with the world, but there is obviously much to reflect on and learn to share back in the UK.

Example 1: Authentic and Resilient Regional Investment

Regional development agencies such as Ukraine’s PPV Knowledge Networks have wholeheartedly embraced the knowledge economy, and see the creative industries as a way of developing a more robust and resilient path to prosperity for some of its regions. As someone who grew up in the post-industrial North-East of England, I can painfully recall good intentions contextually misplaced – regional development funds, large government stimulus packages, short-lived industry initiatives, tone-deaf developments, predictable failures and a small herd of white elephants.

I dream of a Tees Valley, and similar areas across the UK, that overcome high unemployment not through centrally-mandated relief packages, but authentic grass-roots investment in the soft and hard assets of the area and its people.

Example 2: Property and Creative Cities

While in Lviv, I was given a tour of a former soviet building originally established for making medical devices such as heart rate monitors, which was being re-purposed as subsidised studio space for creative startups. Behind each door of this labyrinthine complex were eco-designers, illustrators, architects, brand consultants and digital comms studios. The space was cheap, and the community was thriving because of it.

Such studio spaces were a common feature in London 20 years ago, and their disappearance and replacement largely with expensive housing-as-stock-investment has been met with perhaps not an exodus, but a re-distribution of practitioners and businesses of the creative industries to cities such as Bristol, Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow. As new creative communities appear, so do the jobs and infrastructure, the supply and demand, the education and the application of newest practices, philosophies and methodologies. Almost unthinkably, London is in danger of becoming creatively stale in favour of chasing the rents of bankers and the construction investment of international corporations.

In London and many larger cities around the world, a flood of co-working organisations have sought to fill this void by selling increasingly smaller increments of space in the city. Rather than buy or rent a building, or even a part of a building, or a room, you can now rent desk space for part of the week or even day. This atomisation of property into desk-renting, and labor into the gig economy have resulted in both the death and rebirth of communities of practice. WeWork, like others, seeks to synthesise studio culture and creative community through socials, a coffee bar, beers in the fridge and networking events. Other freelancers huddle in cafes, cultural buildings and ping Slack messages late into the night after their day jobs. These are insufficient substitutes.

A Reminder

While exporting and sharing our knowledge that has helped us be a world leader in the creative economy, we should use such encounters and relationships to remind ourselves of how we got to this point in the first place. As we reach forward to ever more sophisticated ways of innovating, we must be mindful to maintain its foundations.