22 October 2008

Open Sourcing My Answers for Creative Conversations

I been asked to serve on a panel tonight called Creative Conversations at the Memphis College of Art sponsored by MPACT Memphis. Here are the advanced questions that I answered in order to prepare for tonight. I’m open sourcing this so others can participate in the dialog.

Q - Charles Landry, author of The Creative City, said in Memphis a few years ago that we should think of our city as a living work of art, where people engage in the creation of a transformed place. If you had the power to do three things that would make creativity a greater force in Memphis, what would they be?

1) Focus on funding grassroots arts organizations

2) Focus on funding grassroots entrepreneurial initiatives

3) Support competitions for both emerging artists and emerging entrepreneurs – business plan competitions and Class of ’07 – Why? Because feedback is important – early and often to sharpen the creative activity underway.

Q – In your mind, what are the fundamental elements for success in the creative economy? How have they played out in your own work?

Creativity comes from the individual – it is not a top-down thing. Provide easy points of access that empower the individual. Insure that they are aware of the resources in the community to support their work. Two problems facing emerging creatives are 1) the barriers to entry set-up by some established organizations and individuals or 2) there simply isn’t an outlet for emerging creatives to display/showcase and get feedback on their efforts.

Q – Based on your personal experience, what is the primary advice that you’d give to someone aspiring to a career in the creative economy?

Asking is free.

It is OK to take risks.

It is OK to fail.

Q – We hear a lot these days about Web 2.0, and creativity and technology have always been defining forces in this regard. What do you think Creativity 2.0 will look like and how do people prepare for its realities?

With the technology tools available the individual is empowered to create a personal brand faster, build audience faster, and get feedback faster. This may lead to a surge in the products of creative in communities; this may lead to quicker emergence of trends and products of the creative class.

Q – Economic development officials talk a lot about Memphis having a 21st century infrastructure, and by that, they mean highways, airports, fiber optics, and multi-modal transportation systems. However, what infrastructure do creative workers like you need for success?

1) Angel Networks

2) Business Plan Competitions

3) University of culture of entrepreneurship

4) Connectivity to resources from accessible organizations

Q – Peter Hall, in his seminal book, Cities in Civilization, examined 19 cities that defined Western Civilization. One of them was Memphis, and he made the point that the magic of Memphis was a union of creativity and technology. He wrote about our music of the 1950s: It was truly a revolution in attitudes and behavior, as profound as anything that has happened in western society in the last 200 years, and the music, destructive, anarchic, hedonistic, played a central part in it. What adjectives would you use to describe the creativity that exists in Memphis today? If creativity historically came from outsiders, is that still the case in Memphis? If that’s still the case, how does the mainstream or the establishment or whatever you want to call it support creatives in Memphis?

Local establishment is OK if you want incremental changes. Unfortunately our city could use some radical & transformational changes to shake things up. So right now outsiders with unfettered minds are infusing and perhaps supporting creativity more than established organizations. But not all hope is lost . . . the only thing that needs to occur in the local establishment is taking bigger risks with resources instead of low risk bets.

Q – If you were in charge, what would you do to integrate creativity more directly into the life and personality of the city?

Public art (sculptures, gardens, projections), public music ubiquitous, support the grassroots as much as possible – without the roots you can’t have branches with the fruit.

Q – How would you describe Memphis’ attitude toward creatives and creativity?

Pretty good. I think most people understand that creativity is needed for the vibrance and health of our city. I think that the ROI from investing resources in creatives is less understood. If the community could pull together $250,000 for emerging artists, $250,000 for emerging entrepreneurs, $250,000 for emerging musicians in lean grassroots organizations the pay off would 50-100 new business plans in various stages of development each year, 50-100 new emerging artists, and 50-100 new musicians all unfettered by the old thinking creating new innovative offerings for our community that would lead to a large pipeline of creative people and products. Right now these small investments are sidelined for higher and very worthy priorities like education, crime, and healthcare services. But when you compare $250,000 year for 100 new business plans that can create new businesses and new jobs the ROI is HUGE.

Q – The Memphis Talent Magnet report said that we needed to identify distinctive assets and produce peak experiences. What creative peak experiences would you recommend to anyone who wants to know the real creative Memphis?

Lantana’s Class of ’06 and Class of ’07 attracted 500-1000 people and exposed them to creative and emerging visual artists (the what’s next in art), new musical acts, in architectural unique spaces that needed to be transformed themselves for the event – a multi-sensory experience (spatial, visual, acoustic) that produced rave reviews was open to anyone in Memphis a no or very low cost.

Startup Weekend this past May where 100 individuals from our community came together and in 72 hours built a business from scratch.

Q – We seem to be living in an age when people want what they want when they want it and where they want it. They want to co-create and they want to participate. What are the ramifications of this for you in your work? What are the ramifications for Memphis?

We need the infrastructures for co-creation in place. Our efforts in entrepreneurship have focused on a co-working space (low cost Launchpad) and user-generated experiences for co-creation like Startup Weekend and BarCamp. This allows people to create value quickly and collaboratively – it is hard to create value in a vacuum. You have to get out of the home office or studio and interact. People do more value added work together.

Q – What can the public sector do to expand and enhance our creative economy?

Support co-creation junctures in the community. Support ubiquitous art and music by lowering barriers to entry (licenses permits etc).

Q – What are the elements that must be present for Memphis to be competitive in the creative economy? What makes up a creative ecosystem?

“I don’t know how . . .”

Educate them (give people the knowledge and skills to succeed – workshops etc)

“I don’t have the right tools or place to work . . .”

Provide working spaces with the tools (Launchpad, studios, and venues at low or no cost)

“I don’t know who to contact for this or that . . .”

Connect them up (resources connected to the creative folks – investment forums)

“I don’t know what the pathway looks like. . .”

Seek examples that are accessible and visible in the community (call us)

“How do I know what I’m doing is valuable . . .”

Have competitions (incentives encourage risk taking – get feedback – get paid)

Q – The Memphis region is #47 of the largest 50 metros in the percentage of creative workers. What makes you stay in Memphis? What could we do to attract more creative workers?

Include more people in the mix by lower the barriers to entry. This gets back to my grassroots organization and resources argument earlier. An involved population of creatives lays down the roots -- that makes the cost of leaving our city higher than the benefits of going elsewhere.

Q – Of the 50 largest metros, Memphis is #19 on the weirdness index. Just for the record, Austin, whose citizens have bumperstickers that say Keep Austin Weird is only four ahead of us. Do you think Memphis is weird? How does Memphis’ weirdness, its funkiness play into its creativity?

Is Memphis weird? Yes. Homogenous surroundings that don’t challenge the mind, I think will lead to less creativity.

Q – What could we do to make our creative culture more ubiquitous?

Support it more ubiquitously so it touches more people.

Q – Can cities succeed without being creative? What does it mean to be a creative city?

I don’t think so. A creative city has priorities that are focused on the future and on change. The more we can change and create, the better off we all will be.

Q – What are the most important things that Memphis can do to retain and attract talented, creative people?

Invest in our parks – like we are doing in Shelby Farms – but we need that to occur for all our parks. Invest in entrepreneurship, art, and music.

Q – Creativity is the linchpin for a competitive environment, because it connects to distinctiveness and is a precondition for innovation, both of which are vital to success today. How can Memphis be more intentional about using creativity to affect the conditions of distinctiveness and innovation?

I think that this has to emerge from the people and the creatives themselves. The one thing the community could do is be open, accepting, and participate with the creative class. If we inhibit, detract, and don’t participate in the dialog with the creative class then these dimensions will be dulled.

Q – Often, when people hear about creativity, they think of arts and culture. What is the role of arts and culture in creating a climate of creativity?

You need to challenge the mind constantly in order to innovate and create – how do you do that? You have to step outside your box, outside your comfort zone and experience new things – neuroscience has studied this quite a lot. The facts are there. If you want a sharper more creative mind – you need to experience new things. Art and culture are those new things and experiences.

Q – How can Memphis take what is being learned about fostering ideas and creativity in the workplace and apply that to the public realm and to city problem-solving?

You can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created the problems in the first place. We talked about co-creation earlier as important. I would encourage the public and the city to assemble “SWAT” teams of thought leaders, creatives, community and business leaders, etc. to support new thinking and change. Let the data and the evidence guide the change, and let feedback and evidence guide further change. Often times when we assemble teams to solve problems, we get a bunch of people that think the same way we do. This is a trap. You need new thinking to solve problems.

Q – Why is creative thinking and creative problem solving in business so essential today? Why is it essential in the greater Memphis community?

Innovate or Die . . . it is a bold statement, but right now there are companies that are going through this economic downturn that are spending money (instead of hording it in panic) on innovation/organizational change/etc. preparing to roar back to life when the economy picks back up. This is the time when money is made. So in business right now, if you are not changing and innovating and preparing for 6-12 months from now, then you will lose market share when the economy comes back and you will likely not have a business in 12-24 months.

Q – What pieces of advice do you think are most important to anyone who may be thinking about either starting a business in the arts or those who want to contribute to the creative economy in Memphis as a volunteer?

My advice for starting a business is to start now and reach out for feedback early. Many people over think and try to create the perfect product or service and then launch it only to find that they wasted a ton of time, energy, and money for a product or service that nobody wants or will pay for. My advice to any person starting any business is to get to market as quickly and as cheaply as possible with a prototype/first version and get the feedback. Then change until someone is willing to pay you for it.

For volunteers, I’d offer similar advice. Pick an organization try it out. If you like it, stay. If you don’t like it, find a new place. If you want advice on where to start or how to match up your initial interests contact me or the Leadership Academy and we’ll get you connected fast.

Q – What are the common pitfalls or mistakes budding artists make that we all may make in similar ways in our own efforts to market ourselves or start something new?

Ignoring feedback and being generally inflexible. Get feedback early and often. Change and try again as quickly as possible. I avoid people that think they have figured everything out and have all the answers.

Q – How do you come up with new concepts and determine what people will really respond to?

People do more value added work together. That means creating in a vacuum is tough. What do I do then? I get out of my comfort zone and interact and experience new things. I have mantra that helps me do this when I bored or looking for something to do . . . New Places, New Faces. It reminds me to literally seek out some place in the city that I haven’t been to and I go there (new place). Or I will find an experience in the city that will introduce me to people (new faces) that I haven’t met yet. As a result I’m challenged to think differently. With the new places and new faces we can collectively create value together.

Q – How can each Memphian help lift up and enhance the creativity in our city?

Participation is the easiest, cheapest, and best way to lift up the city and creativity. Beyond that invest or encourage investment in creative enterprise in our city.

Q – What are the key questions every aspiring entrepreneur should ask?

For high growth potential businesses which are the ones that have the most creativity associated with them . . .

Most of the questions are about the commitment and capacity of the entrepreneur:

Am I willing to fail and am I betting big enough or taking enough risk in the market place where failure can occur?

Do I have the flexibility of mind to change my offering and my company to meet a market need once I exactly figure out what that need is?

Am I willing to step aside and let some else lead the business to success if I personally do not have the skills, knowledge, or will to carry the business forward or change the business for the better?

The final question is:

What Pain/Problem in the market am I trying to solve? If it is not a pain or a problem of significance then you may want to find something that is painful.

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