Culture as Urban Acupuncture

Culture as Urban Acupuncture

Mention creative disruption and most of us think first about technology companies like Uber and Airbnb reinventing the taxi business and hotel industry. It is worth noting that this is not a new phenomenon. Artists, designers and other culture-makers have been disrupting the way we think and the way things work forever. Celebrating the legacy of David Bowie has recently reminded us how a single artist can change the course of art, music and fashion while empowering generations of people to embrace difference in themselves and others. Examples like this of disruptive people and projects in the art world abound. Yet our grasp of how to take advantage of culture as a force for good in society remains remarkably under-developed.

A relatively new field of practice and two breakthrough discoveries have the potential to change the way we think about and engage with culture in solving problems. What if we knew how to use cultural differences to build social cohesion? How about leveraging culture to transform impoverished places into vibrant and resilient communities? What if we honed our thinking and practice enough that we could employ culture as urban acupuncture — unblocking channels to foster inclusion, prosperity, belonging and other shared aspirations?

Ten years ago at Artscape, we coined the term ‘creative placemaking’ to describe our work. Our intention was to engage others in a community of practice that went beyond placemaking in a creative way to one that leveraged the power of culture to catalyze the change, growth and transformation of people and places. Since then, we’ve learned an extraordinary amount from a wealth of examples around the world where culture has been used, as urbanist Jaime Lerner likes to say, to act as “pinpricks of change that enrich city life.”

Two game-changing breakthroughs in creative placemaking have emerged. The first builds on the theory of clustering advanced by economists Alfred Marshall and Michael Porter and urbanist Jane Jacobs. In short, we have learned that clusters of artists, designers and other creatives in free societies generate a tremendous amount of social capital. They give place distinctiveness, support inter-cultural understanding, generate community pride and create other intangible characteristics that have a big effect on everything from our happiness to real estate values. Practitioners of creative placemaking now know how and why artistic communities foster these things and how to introduce catalytic projects to trigger their emergence and development.

The second breakthrough involves how we’re learning to align the needs and interests of culture-makers with others interested in city-building, such as community activists, public officials, philanthropists and perhaps most notably, private developers. We are applying the principles of corporate social innovation advanced by the Schwab Foundation and others to connect corporate interests and social progress. In the challenging world of city-building where these players are often at odds with each other, we’ve figured out how to work together to re-write the narrative of a place. When people join forces to do so, when we are able to bake a bigger pie rather than fighting each other for a bigger slice, everyone can win — and billions in economic value, as well as less tangible but equally important other forms of value, can be created.

We live in a world rife with cultural conflict. Shifting mindsets and re-writing narratives remain urgent and important, so artists and designers have a critical role to play. We need to redouble our efforts in understanding how culture can work like acupuncture to cure many of the things that ail us. This year, I am honoured to be invited to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. I look forward to exchanging ideas on these and other issues with the political leaders, CEOs, scientists, Nobel laureates, artists, social entrepreneurs, young leaders, technology pioneers and other change-makers in attendance, and sharing what emerges from these conversations. Twitter: @timjones0001 | Instagram: @timjones0001 |


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