The creative economy could fuel Australia’s next boom

With the right policy levers, Australia’s next big boom could be creative by design. Sebastiaan ter Burg

Australia is richly blessed with an abundance of resources which, along with robust legal, business and political infrastructure, has allowed it to pull through tough times on several occasions.

As we face a slowing of the current boom in resources terms of trade, there is now much casting around for alternative sources of economic growth potential.

Among the options are alternative energy sources, contributing to the food security of south-east Asian countries, education, tourism and high value services exports such as financial products and architecture.

But what about looking to our creative economy to fuel our next big boom?

The creative economy

The concept of the creative economy has been developed with greatest rigour in countries not as well endowed with natural assets as Australia is. The UK has been a leader, with creative employment surpassing financial services in London in the wake of the global financial crisis.

A recent creative economy manifesto released by the UK charity Nesta, declares that country’s creative economy to be “one of its great national strengths, historically deeply rooted and accounting for around one–tenth of the whole economy”. It provides jobs for 2.5 million people.

AAP Image/Warren Clarke

When the UK government defined creative industries as “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property”, it included sectors such as the arts, media and new media, design and architecture.

The concept of the creative economy takes the original idea of creative industries and broadens the focus to include the contributions that people in creative occupations, and creative industries as enterprises, make to the economy as a whole.


New Zealand has a sharply-honed focus on value-adding in niche manufacture through design and strategies that artfully integrate creative with environmental tourism. Just look at the link between their world-leading cinema technology and the numbers of overseas visitors lining up to see the landscape that starred as Middle Earth in the Tolkien film adaptations.

Several European countries and cities trade heavily on cultural heritage at one demographic end and contemporary artistic scenes at the other. Berlin springs to mind, where one can spend the morning in the Deutsche Historisches Museum and the afternoon at a gritty artist-run gallery in a former warehouse squat.

Serious attention to the concept in our region is seen in China, South Korea and Singapore.

Australian story

In earlier articles for The Conversation, I have outlined the shape of the creative economy in Australia. I have stressed creative services – business-to-business activities such as design, architecture, digital content, software development, advertising and marketing – as high-growth, highly innovative economic activity.

The latest evidence from the 2011 census tells a compelling story of the growing role creative services play in the mainstream Australian economy.

Examples include digital interface designers who have helped revolutionise the finance industry, technical writers in online education export, or simulation and games experts who make training environments for mining companies or defence operations.

SETUP Utrecht

It’s not hard to see why there should be such relatively high growth patterns in creative services and creative occupations embedded in other industries.

The progressive embedding of the internet and associated digital applications into the general economy has seen rapid rises in demand for website design and online visual communication, as well as online advertising, database design and development and automation.

Technology has fuelled job creation in creative industries. Fernando de Sousa

Video and audio content can now be created, consumed and shared online by almost anyone with access to a smartphone and the internet, fuelling increasingly sophisticated consumer demand for creative content. In the viral marketing era, much of the content is co-produced and disseminated by the consumers themselves.

A role for government

A new government brings new priorities. Contemplating the prospects of the creative economy as a focus for policy attention, I would suggest three options going forwards.

First, the intensity and ambition of the Abbott government’s early priority engagement with Asia has been a surprise to some but is deeply heartening, as there is so much to do. Senior journalist Paul Kelly, among many others, has urged in The Australian that “Australia’s attitude towards China cannot remain frozen in the resource-trade mindset”.

Nowhere is digital culture transforming economies as rapidly as in Asia. Australia’s competitiveness in our region depends on our ability to engage with Asian and especially Chinese digital capital.

Pan-Asian digital distribution platforms are expanding, consolidating, and professionalising. For the first time in Australia, China’s major online mega-corporations including e-commerce firm Alibaba, internet company Tencent and Chinese search engine Baidu are presenting their wares at an inaugural China Digital Conference in Sydney and Melbourne in November.

Do Australian creative-digital entrepreneurs possess the requisite business, language and programming skills to take advantage of Asian digital markets and the deep export opportunities they may offer? This is a major challenge for the future.

In terms of the second potential option for Australia’s new government, Federal Arts Minister George Brandis achieved a very significant advance in the short time he had in his previous role as Arts Minister in the Howard government in 2007.

That was the successful introduction of the Coalition’s model for supporting the screen industry, the generous producer offset, a refundable tax offset for producers of Australian films for up to 40% of feature film costs. This policy, updated in 2011, has had a very positive, stabilising influence.

Senator George Brandis. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

In a major speech during the election campaign, Senator Brandis articulated “six core principles” that will guide Coalition arts policy: excellence, integrity, artistic freedom, self-confidence, sustainability and accessibility. He emphasised that, “wherever possible, funding should be structured so as to encourage commercial success”.

Some of the best creative industries and digital economy policy thinking in this country was developed ten years ago under Howard-era Minister Richard Alston, whose portfolio brought together communications, IT and the arts in a productive synergy.

There is still much unfinished business from that fertile period of policy thinking. It was chipped away at with the creation of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, which offers business reviews and other services to people working in creative industries and is a part of advisory agency Enterprise Connect.

Several aspects of the previous government’s cultural policy, Creative Australia, helped chip away at this question too.

The current pressure point is whether the new government will retain the Industry Innovation Precincts program (or a version of it).

One of the 11 “partnerships” announced by the previous Industry Minister Kim Carr was the Creative Digital Innovation Partnership, which aims to drive economic growth and job creation through partnerships between educators, employers and entrepreneurs working in creative and digital industries. This partnership is key if we are to grow beyond the a resources-focused mind set.

Think: design

The third current area of opportunity is design and “design thinking”, a buzz term that refers to the way design is being mainstreamed into much industry, workforce and policy thinking.

Sir George Cox’s influential Review of Creativity in Business in 2005 for the UK government positioned design, when it is thought of as a distinct sector, as a bridge between the arts and engineering sciences.

It saw design as a link between research and enterprise in the innovation chain when design is thought of as method or mindset that links research into new ideas on the one hand, and the development of practical applications on the other.

Design thinking has business applications, among others. ixdaseattle

Business applications of design thinking, or design integration, have been developed at a state level in Australia, but we lag our OECD confreres conspicuously in design research, development and policy.

Design activity is notoriously underestimated in official national statistics, and employed designers are so broadly embedded throughout industry sectors that their contributions can be significantly under-counted.

Design has been conspicuously absent from national policy attention since its excision from the purview of the Australia Council in the 1980s.

It must now come back into focus, if Australia is to turn to the creative economy as part of its next big boom.

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.