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Go on then … what are the creative industries?

Creativity is the X factor of modern industry. When it slumps, our economy splutters. Creativity is the source of the unprecedented wealth of the last two centuries. Yet we still understand very little…

Matthew Hutchinson

Creativity is the X factor of modern industry. When it slumps, our economy splutters.

Creativity is the source of the unprecedented wealth of the last two centuries. Yet we still understand very little about it.

Ideas create the industries and societies that generate the capital and income that lifts the world up. That is simple to say but difficult to achieve.

In the 1990s we began to talk about creative industries. We bundled fashion, design, advertising, architecture, publishing, software, movies, television and similar enterprises into their own sector. They became a lobby. In major economies, creative industries make up about 3%-5% of employment. As poorer economies develop, the size of their creative industries grows.

The term “creative industries sector”, though, is a bit of misnomer. For any industry can be creative. Conversely, fashion and design industries and their ilk often are lame. Little is creative or even interesting about today’s consumer computer companies.

In 2000, creative industries evangelists promised us a brilliant future. Some 30% of the population would belong to the creative class. The baton of creativity would pass from computing to bio-technology. Broadband networks would revolutionise business. Yet none of this happened.

Instead we ended up with prolonged global stagnation. We are in this pickle because we are less creative today than we were 50 years ago.


Any industry can be creative. Agriculture is just as important as media. Creativity should not be confused with glamour. Movies are glitzy but today they are also mostly banal. The days of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford are long behind us.

The same is true of technology. If we compare the period 1930-1969 to 1970-2009, the per-capita number of significant Australian inventions declined.

More lobbies, more policies and more government money won’t fix this. Bio-medical research is a cautionary example. After 1970, research money in real terms exploded. Yet the number of new molecular entities approved for drug use in the United States in the 2000s was barely more than in the 1950s.

The arts are equally miserable. In the 1950s, discussion raged about the relative merits of figurative and abstract art. Tradition was pitched against modernity, ornament against smooth surfaces. Then along came arts council funding.

This was followed by obsequious hyper-ventilating discourses and finally the “neo” and “post” movements. The result was tedium. We can barely recollect the names of the practitioners of this anaemic era, let alone compare them with the monuments of Cubism, De Stijl or Abstract Expressionism.

In the past 40 years, the most interesting work in the arts has been in commercially-minded design and architecture. Works like Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s 2008 China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters in Beijing are impressive. But these remain the exception.

The China Central Television (CCTV) tower under construction in Beijing, 2007. Michael Reynolds/EPA

This suggests that, for all our rhetoric, we still do not understand how creativity works. We try to institutionalise something that defies institutionalisation. There is no document-driven procedure for creativity. It is very hard to nail down. This is because what lies at its heart is very odd.

Ian Harvey

Creative people do what most people including most clever people do not do. They take what others normally think of as being unrelated and put them together. That is what it means to be creative. It is a very off-putting thought process, not unlike that of an acerbic comedian.

Someone at AT&T had the idea of putting together the concepts of (wired) telephony and (wireless) radio in 1917. Almost a century later we carry in our pockets the fruits of that original thought meld. Very few people think like that.

Creative societies allow those who do the freedom to muse and the room to convince others that their outlier idea will soon enter the mainstream and define the norm.

Creative people look at the exception and see it as the rule. They are not being difficult or outlandish. While often witty, they are not self-consciously wacky. They just see X as Y. That is their gift and their curse.


They see change as continuity not novelty. Creators are innate conservatives born with a wicked sense of irony.

Some societies and some eras go along with this. Some don’t. We pay lots of lip-service to the creative economy. But our time is not very creative. The arts and the sciences are dull. Technology and industry are not very innovative. No new industry sectors are emerging. This is a big problem.

The French economist Jean-Baptiste Say rightly observed in the early 19th century that in a modern dynamic economy supply creates demand. This means that without interesting and exciting products people save their money, and sluggish economies stagnate. That’s where we find ourselves in 2013.

Our larger problem is that we mistake glamour for creation. We think that working in the air-conditioned pastel offices of a designated creative industry makes us creative. It does not. We need to stop mistaking pretty labels for real entities.

Moses M

We now have to go back to scratch. We need a hard re-think about what creativity is and how we encourage it. We need to de-regulate creativity and let it off the leash. Since the 1970s we have forged a society fixated on petty rules and stern processes. Universities are among the worst offenders.

The result is not creation but enervation. We call our research and development creative but mostly it is not. We are risk-averse and shy of discovery.

One of the few exceptions to this in the past 40 years was Silicon Valley in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. It was truly free-wheeling. It was a place where a young man like Steve Jobs could combine his love of modernist aesthetics and electronic technologies. But that’s long gone.

Steve Jobs. Monica M. Davey/EPA

Silicon Valley in its brief hey-day was philosophically libertarian. Today it is wearisomely left-liberal. Sanctimony has replaced discovery. Moralism has supplanted gusto. The fire of excitement has given way to the same ideology of correctness that haunts the universities today. Big ideas have been replaced by minute rules.

PayPal’s Peter Thiel is right when he observes that the technology and economics of our other key industries such as air travel and energy are stuck in the 1960s and 1970s. American critic and scholar Camille Paglia is right when she observes that, since the early 1970s, the arts have been a wasteland.

And I can’t see much monumental in the sciences since the structure of DNA was discovered in the 1950s. The incidence of classic science papers declines sharply after 1970.

We are not like Germany in the 1890s or California in the 1950s. One produced a stream of great philosophy and science; the other a stream of great technology. Until the tap was switched off – in one case by totalitarianism; in the other case by big government liberalism.

Little of our era will enter the history of ideas. Twittering on about creative industries makes no difference if our industries are not creative.

Our biggest problem today is that we lack ambition, energy and imagination. Our problem is us. Only we can fix that problem.

This is a foundation essay for The Conversation’s new Arts + Culture section. If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, please use our pitch facility.

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28 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Creativity is what you make it.
    We do live in a generic world, but then it's probably always been thus.
    The Beatles were so successful, but also so exciting because they were sensationally creative and every album was an event.

    It's hard to be creative when the business of living gets in the way.
    It's even harder to be creative when the only incentive is to get rich.
    Think of the struggles of Vincent Van Gogh, his poverty and mental frailty. And yet he created beautiful masterpieces out of…

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  2. Suzy Gneist
    Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

    Interesting and challenging views with some bitter truth in them... I do believe creativity isn't as absent as this makes it sound, it is just exploring new connections yet hidden from mainstream acknowledgement. I do agree that creativity is not limited to the arts and currently requires nurture within fields like technology, science, engineering. We could start by nurturing and funding it better within our education system. Within our local state primary school, the parent body is the main funder of the arts in its many forms, a focus which seems to have lifted the entire school's academic achievements as well.

  3. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    'Any industry can be creative. Agriculture is just as important as media. Creativity should not be confused with glamour.'

    Too true. When I taught a creative thinking course to graphic design students in the late '90s, I started with two statements.

    1. Anyone can think creatively, but very few do because it's bloody hard work, bashing your head against a problem until it splits open and you can re-arrange it in a new and unforeseen way. The Eureka Moment rarely, if ever, comes to the unprepared.

    2. You can apply creative thinking, as Peter Murphy points out, in any field. An accountant can be creative (some way too creative). Lawyers, plumbers, et cetera. It's a way of looking at and solving problems.

    The man who hired me to teach the course I did said to me "we turn out graduates with great hand skills - but they can't think." That was my challenge.

    I believe the same is true today, and not just in post graduate studies: schools should teach creative thinking

    1. Sean Manning


      In reply to Kenneth Mazzarol

      Creativity comes from people who do things with their minds. Hands without a mind are completely useless.

    1. David Collett
      David Collett is a Friend of The Conversation.

      IT Application Developer at Web Generation

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I respectfully disagree.

      I don't think creativity is always commercial, though dull repetition probably is.

      Consider, for example, Australia Post who dully delivers letters in the same way everyday. I think it can be considered successful. Their repetition is their strength and we generally name it "reliability".

      If they tried to be creative with each letter delivery, I don't think it would survive for very long.

      This is not to say that they can't come up with creative new products, or creative solutions, but commercial success often comes from finding a good solution, and then repeating it ad nausuem.

  4. Seán McNally

    Market and Social Researcher at eris strategy

    This was a great article; one I will read many a time. However, I disagree with the idea we are in some type of low point in creativity as expressed by “Little of our era will enter the history of ideas”.

    Great ideas are historical awards, at the time of the birth they may be derided but mostly ignored. Like the fabled boiled frog, we rarely see the change that is around us.

    The constant expectation of creativity in all things we do and by all people may just be the idea for which this era is celebrated.

  5. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email

    Excellent article - it certainly tallies with my perception of the current state of Australian science.

    Still many great creative folks in the sciences but they are "severely" smothered in what they can do by the overwhelmingly "strategic" nature of the funding and opportunity.

    "An Icon in Crisis" is a good (and somewhat depressing) read in this regard as it gives an insider view of the corporate restructuring of CSIRO with a view to better matching to governmental objectives over the past decade.

  6. Sean Manning


    As a scientist surrounded by other scientists I can tell you that many of my colleges are some of the most creative people I know. This creativity is sometimes not given full freedom to be fully expressed because of how research is funded. It's difficult to be creative in the sciences these days as research funding is doled out by people that demand pragmatic and utilitarian outcomes. It would be great if there was a funding body that would award grants to ideas that simply sound cool or intriguing…

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    1. Seán McNally

      Market and Social Researcher at eris strategy

      In reply to Sean Manning

      Sean I totally agree on the creativity of our sciences. The ideas, techniques and innovative ways in which they cross over to other sciences is making science our most creative industry. Let's open arts council funding to our conceptual (theory) and performing (lab and field) scientists.

  7. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Appreciate the article and all the points highlighting the demise creativity and innovation.
    Peter Murphy; "We pay lots of lip-service to the creative economy." These keywords get right to the heart of the issue.
    Peter Murphy; "Our biggest problem today is that we lack ambition, energy and imagination." But disagree with our biggest problem being lack of ambition, energy and imagination.
    As ambition, energy and imagination exist and are now focused on economic efficiency. Primarily driven by the creation of the spreadsheet and innovations of increasingly efficient algorithms.
    The circular logic of efficiencies excludes innovation because it does not fit the model of investment. As it requires risk, the possibility of losing capital from experimenting and failing.
    If business or people cannot be allowed to break the rules and take a risk, how could creativity and innovation thrive?

  8. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.


    If it's true we're less creative as a society, is it because we're much more corporatised as a culture?

    If profits are the highest priority, and only a straight line to that goal is acceptable, then creativity is effectively illegal in that system because it's anything but linear.

    Example: Imagine you're sitting around a table with half a dozen others. Together you have five days to think up and write five days worth of stories for your favourite television show. While there are a bunch…

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  9. Damien Westacott


    I find it a little bit weak that the article laments the state of creativity across the world without making mention of what may be the biggest explosion in creative activity in history - certainly (and measurably) in economic terms.

    Video games, of course.

    I guess it's a question of definition, but it's easy to cite examples of modern games that go far beyond the purview of movies, art and literature and instead create a synergistic fusion of all these - and then add a degree of interactivity…

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    1. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Damien Westacott

      I've been tooling about with a software gadget called Ableton Live for the last few weeks ... it's a programme designed for musicians and everything remotely conceivable about sound.

      Actually when I say it's designed for musicians that's only sort of true ... it enables anyone to put together a song ... one no longer needs to be able to play an instrument in any way shape of form.

      Of course you'll get a much better song hopefully if you have some idea of music but essentially it is no longer…

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    2. Damien Westacott


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I appreciate your point with respect to the new 'creative' sometimes leading to a form of 'destructive' in which a new method leads to the decline of an older method.

      But the fact that there is new software hasn't led to a sudden disappearance of guitars. There's a new avenue of creative potential, that's all.

      Furthermore, it's not a zero-sum game. With a better set of tools comes the potential for creations that were simply not possible before. Consider the effect that synthesizers had on…

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    3. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Damien Westacott

      No definitely not a zero sum game Damien ... I just keep wondering what a Mozart or Bach could do with one of these gadgets.

      The challenge will be overcoming the mindboggling power of these contraptions and retaining the musicality of the thing. One thing I have discovered is how sadly deficient much 'modern pop' songs - much hip-hop in particular but other genres too - are in terms of human musicality ... it's 90% or more straight off the peg machinery, presets and basic as all heck.

      Luckily I am collaborating with a mate here who is able to show me tricks to adjust the timing and make things just a tiny imperceptible bit unsynced so it actually sounds like it's people playing rather than some clicking machine... contrived spontaneity - what next?

    4. Craig Read

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter, Garage Band is a very similar beast on OSX. Allows people with almost no musical skill to create something musical. Even with some musical skill, I still create rubbish though.

      The rest of your post reminds me of an article I was reading (I think on Slate) about copyright. Apparently, there was a big outcry from artists when records were first produced. They were saying that the creative act of singing would be lost if it were to continue. And statistically, they were absolutely right.

      While we've forgone developing a lot of artistic skill, would we go back to the pre-broadcast days? There is nothing really stopping people from learning a musical instrument or how to sing except time. I've done both, but I'm also rubbish at both due to lack of practice. Whenever I consider the choice, I still choose to use "practice" time for other things.

    5. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      If it is creative you will be able to claim copyright.
      But the originality and so the creativity might be challenged by the work of a fellow who many years ago created a program which cut and combined existing music into a seemingly endless number of new musical compostions.

    6. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      These sorts of gadgets are great fun but the sad thing about the output from them is that they so often rely on formulaic "wow" factors.

      Just creating a new melody on a wooden gadget (with holes and a fipple say) no longer impresses us.

      We have become desensitized to the appreciation of stark melody because, from lift to dunny, and often with very little choice in the matter, we are immersed in an aural landscape of high harmonic and rythmic complexity.

  10. Craig Read

    logged in via Twitter

    "Our biggest problem today is that we lack ambition, energy and imagination."

    I think we have plenty of all 3, but they're too often focused on the wrong target.

    This article reminds me of Simon Sinek's TEDx talk on leadership. The Wright brothers didn't have capital, connections or publicity, while Samuel Pierpont Langley had all three. They succeeded, but Langley didn't. Langley's motivation was fame and money, the Wright brothers motivation was a belief that manned flight would change…

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  11. Michael Sheehan

    Geographer at Analyst

    "The French economist Jean-Baptiste Say rightly observed in the early 19th century that in a modern dynamic economy supply creates demand."
    Actually that 'observation' was not right, but so, so wrong. Please see John Maynard Keynes.

  12. Michael Sheehan

    Geographer at Analyst

    "American critic and scholar Camille Paglia is right when she observes that, since the early 1970s, the arts have been a wasteland."
    She is correct. All those people who starting grasping for - and continue to even in 2013 - all their "post/neo" this and that, have been humanity's largest abandonment of creativity.

  13. Richard Gillespie

    logged in via Twitter

    Peter, is it time to re-brand SoCA's Bachelor of Creative Industries, the Bachelor of Anaemic Tedium?

  14. Professor Angelina Russo

    Associate Dean Research at University of Canberra

    When the term 'creative industries' arrived in Australian universities in the early 2000s it brought together what were, in reality a disparate group of professions and suggested that they were in some way
    responsible for the future of our economy.

    I managed to be on the ground in Queensland when this phenomenon occurred and, as a young academic and designer, was extremely excited by the proposition.The reality of course was very different. Artists have their practice as do designers but the…

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