British Council Creative Economy

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John Newbigin

Relationship with the digital world

The creative economy and the digital economy are not the same as each other but, together, they are amongst the key drivers of innovation in the global economy and in society.

It’s easy to confuse the creative economy with the digital economy. Equally, it’s almost impossible to separate them because, in many ways, they depend on each other. Some prominent creative industries did not exist before the advent of digital technology, videogames for example, while others, such as film and publishing, pre-date digital technology but have been transformed by it. The digital world has opened up radical new possibilities for building new businesses, raising investment, and marketing. It has created whole new sectors of social enterprise. And its power extends far beyond the economy. In his essay Ezio Manzini points out that social innovation movements and digital technology are now inseparable, they drive each other and promote each other’s creativity whereas, even fifteen years ago, they had no relationship at all. Social media is changing people’s relationships with each other and with their community and is radically changing politics and the political engagement of citizens. 

Creativity and innovation are not the same

Of course, many creative industries, however much they may have been changed by digital technology, long pre-date it – storytelling, singing, dancing, painting, jewellery making, fashion are amongst the oldest human activities. The act of creative conception, the insight somebody has that sparks a new idea, a work of art, a new product or a new process, comes from people and from the society they live in; digital technology simply allows us new ways to realise the concept, to test it, develop it and spread it to other people. In the same way that a distinction is made between ‘creativity’ as the spark of genius or new thinking that is completely original, and ‘innovation’ as the process by which that spark of creativity can be put to practical use for society or for the economy, digital technology transforms our ability to turn original ideas into real and practical benefits for society. 

Digital technology is a powerful partner for creativity

One of the deep anxieties of the industrial age of the last 200 years has been that machines would impose a standardised ‘same-ness’ on our lives and make individual artisanship a thing of the past. Now 3D printers give machines the capacity to replicate the uniqueness of the handmade article and, as Jacob Matthew points out in his essay, new technologies also have the capacity to re-energise traditional skills and ways of doing business. Technology is neither a servant nor a master; it’s simply a partner. The analytical power of computers allows architects and engineers to design structures in three dimensions that, previously, were impossibly complex. Personal smartphones and laptops allow people to make films and record music which, in the past, would have required expensive capital equipment and teams of trained professionals. It is true that digital technology, in the form of computing power, is now beginning to move from the ‘innovation’ part of the process, the application of creativity, into the area of creativity itself and this ‘artificial intelligence’ is bound to grow in significance. Nevertheless, true creativity is a uniquely human process that is shaped by social, cultural, ethical and environmental factors that are beyond the capacity of any machine we can foresee at the present time.

Indeed, research in the United States and Europe points to the fact that while many jobs in our present economies are under threat from robotisation in the next 20 years, the more creative a job is, the less likely it is to be replaced by a machine. This fact alone means that as the productivity of our societies increases in manufacturing, agriculture and services, and as employment opportunities in all those areas decreases because of robotisation, the creative industries are likely to assume growing significance as providers of satisfying jobs and stable communities. It’s also true that as the cost of digital technology falls and the internet, or at least mobile phone networks, reach every community in the world, the ability of previously marginalised economies and societies to ‘leap frog’ over whole generations of economic development will only increase. 

But the digital world throws up many paradoxes. The internet offers unprecedented free access to almost limitless information and entertainment. It enables people to form friendships and businesses to build relationships irrespective of distance. It makes possible social and political mobilisation on a scale and of a nature never previously thought possible. It allows large numbers of people to collaborate on a free and equal basis – whether it’s an operating system such as Linux, an information database such as Wikipedia or a transparent accounting system and ledger such as Blockchain. But it has also enabled the growth of privately owned businesses with a wealth and power that has never been seen before in history. Socially and economically, the world is already massively dependent on Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple with Chinese companies such as Weibo and Alibaba not far behind in power and influence. These companies own and control data about individuals and businesses which no State in history has come close to equalling. Yet they remain under private control and their responsibility extends no further than to their owners. In that sense, our apparently open global society with its free flow of information is built on terrifyingly fragile foundations. Will the digital revolution foster a new society of shared creativity, open to all, or is it simply providing the means by which already powerful interests increase and consolidate their power? 

John Newbigin