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03 SEP, 2017

How to build a Consciously Creative City

Eleven ideas about how cities might consciously foster creativity as city-shaping tool

REMIX Sunshine Coast has wound up for 2017, releasing its latest cohort of inspired and spine-tingled delegates back into the public realm. This event is part of the REMIX Summits of global events exploring the intersection of culture, technology and entrepreneurship. The Sunshine Coast event bought together truly inspiring leaders from Berlin, Toronto, Shanghai, Sydney and Melbourne to tackle the big ideas shaping the creative industries, the development of creative cities and the creative economy.

For the second year I was invited to convene a panel session of local creative practitioners to explore what the Sunshine Coast might consciously do to recreate its places using creativity as a strategic city-making tool.

Cities are part of the human ecology. We have always made urban environments in which we can exchange, survive and flourish. These have become powerful evolutionary tools to incubate creativity itself. The places we have made here on the Sunshine Coast since European settlement are relatively new and not always consciously formed. Many are incomplete places to shop or work, but not always to live. The Sunshine Coast is in a unique position to consciously reform a number of new urban settlements including a regional centre. If we are entering into an era where creative processes will radically shape global paradigms, then we have an exciting opportunity before us to lead the way by placing creativity at the centre of our existing and emerging communities.

My guest panellists were: artist, activist, agitator and proud Kabi Kabi woman, Bianca Beetson; principal of Montessori International College, Chiray Fitton; writer and owner of Advance Narrative, Dr Carol Major; and leader of the Sunshine Coast Council's Place Making Team, Jamie Franklin. I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with them on a range of urban and cultural projects over the last 18years. Our conversation covered a lot of ground in the hour we spent on stage. We talked about: the value of diversity and inclusion in arts practice; the need for belonging and connection and the link to permission and exclusion place; and the beauty and relaxedness of our littoral existence which can both inspire artists or feed collective mediocrity.

Here are eleven ideas that emerged from our panel session about how urban centres might consciously foster creativity to help shape them.

1. Create a Vision

A shared vision can inspire and guide a community to endemic creativity. This vision needs to be simple and relatable (meme-worthy). If it’s based on metaphor it will appeal to a diversity of imaginations.

2. Who is it for? Where do you belong?

Be sure about who ‘the public’ are and who is likely to participate. For a creative culture to flourish everyone must be invited to the party. Power imbalances will need to be addressed to ensure those without a voice feel welcome to express themselves in the public sphere. Deliberative creativity starts with inclusion and fosters belonging.

3. High-quality public realm

Cities immersed in creativity have vibrant public spaces at their heart. When successful, these spaces maximise exchange of ideas, become engines for creativity and platforms for culture. Conversely, a community of active creatives take-over and rejuvenate cities invariably demanding or producing vibrant public realm.

4. Understand & invest in local creatives

Everyone is creative, but those that choose creative practice (at most levels) need some support. Ask arts practitioners what sort of assistance they require > often it won’t involve money. Many artists just want to be enabled so they can be at the heart of community and not part of ‘city machinery’. Other artists warm to entrepreneurship. Smart cities understand the distinction and prototype cultural investment ideas and measure the impact. Success lies in recalibrating initial programs until creative practitioners exceed their creative goals, establish momentum and share/reinvest within their creative community.

5. Promote alternative thinking & celebrate strangeness

There is no single way. Stirrers and provocateurs keep everyone on their toes. Giving ratbags and weirdo's a robust forum for alternative thinking and dangerous ideas will stimulate the public. Polarising opinions test the robustness of local values and inform authentic responses, which can create vibrant new work.

6. Understand Homogeneity

There’s a warmth in sameness that can protect and restore us. This is a powerful default position but it can also dull how we experience the world and its complexity. A consciously creative community will seek to subvert the dominant paradigm. The product will ultimately come to light in the city.

7. Process & certainty can kill creativity

Make sure that processes for procuring ideas, producing and showcasing art and culture in the public realm doesn’t censure ideas or unnecessarily manage risk. Creatives must also demand that cities scrupulously attribute their work and give them ‘room’ to produce without trading-off copyright. Creative cities must consciously avoid tastemakers, eschew systemic choice-making and embrace the delicious risk of the unknown.

8. Storytelling is powerful

Storytelling is a finely calibrated knowledge transfer system that underpins the worlds oldest continuous culture - that of our First People. Story is central to the human condition and is the basis of all art. Story and language are patterned, symbolic and multivalent enabling wide interpretation and almost endless, powerful inspiration.

9. Boldly teach creative literacy

Knowledge about creativity and its practice builds confidence and permission – it should diversify the contribution of citizens. Public discourse about the common value of creativity and what the range of success looks like (over enterprise alone) helps connect everyone to a creative culture.

10. Avoid the average

Increasing collective knowledge raises the expectations of the public, demanding bravery and boldness from creative. Enabling observation of and promoting discourse about creative practice encourages critique and vaccinates against average.

11. Authenticity & Truth-telling

Powerful arts and cultural experiences are about validation of human existence and a connection to meaning. Authentic art is shaped by robust critique and keen observation and can be enriched by local place and practice. Truth comes in many forms and revealing truth is what art does best. A consciously creative community isn’t frightened of exploring what it needs to in order to understand.


"There is something delicious about spontaneity" - Chiray Fitton

I hadn’t planned to write the outputs from our panel discussion, but these ideas seem worth sharing. It is by no means is an exhaustive list but rather some observations from a moment in time. This is a beginning based on intuition and experience rather than empirical evidence – but I think a good starting point for our community to experiment with.

If you’ve been in this space the Creative Alliance would value any feedback, evidence and advice. But if like us, you are excited by the thought of recreating your city or town using creativity as a tool, then don’t wait for others to do it. Get stuck in and share your story with us.


Phil Smith is the President of the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance - a not-for-profit arts advocacy group based in Queensland, Australia. Phil is an architect and urban design and Associate Director at multi-disciplinary design practice Deicke Richards. Phil also sits on Sunshine Coast Council’s Art Advisory Board and its Urban Design Advisory Panel.