Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Creative Lebanon" - Aspirations of a re-branded Lebanon

Respectively: Andrew Erskine and Tom Fleming A workshop entitled “Creative Lebanon” was organized on February 18th 2009 at the Movenpick Hotel and Resort in Beirut stamped with the signature of Partnership for Lebanon, the Professional Computer Association of Lebanon (represented by secretary general Gabriel Deek), and Tom Fleming creative consultancy. For a full day, participants from the broad spectrum of the “creative” industry from telecom to advertising passing though television, radio, production and web design met to discuss ways of creating a creative cluster in the Lebanese scene. Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy defines itself as offering “policy and industry leadership across the creative, cultural and knowledge economy. Through research, strategy and partnership, we position creativity as a key tool for economic and social development.” Present on its behalf were director Tom Fleming himself and senior associate Andrew Erskine. Dr. Tom Fleming, is a consultant and academic specializing in research and support for the cultural and Creative Industries sector at all levels, plus on broader issues of culture and creativity for cities and regions. Key areas of focus include Creative Industries investment, local and regional Creative Industries strategies, cluster development, detailed mapping, cultural planning, and establishing targeted support mechanisms for the Creative Industries sector that include approaches to finance, investment, business advice, skills/training, property feasibility, and network and supply chain development. Andrew Erskine’s main focus is on innovation and the creative economy, with an especial interest in entrepreneurship, strategic support initiatives, the business of culture, knowledge exchange and transfer, creative places and spaces. The new international landscape Erskine began the conferences speaking of the 5 “C”s in today’s communication landscape, namely: Combination, conversation, challenge, co-evolution, and connectivity. Combination is that very delicate mix that comes from creativity, science, research and wider economy with all of them being in constant osmosis to one another as ideas trickle back and forth across layers. Conversation is between people, cities, audiences and sectors; Challenge is brought on as systemic issues such as global warming, credit crunch, sustainability, security and consumerism need creative approaches to be tackled. Co-evolution comes from developing creative places, people and businesses together – such ideal places to see this flourish have a DNA consists of regeneration and growth, youth an support, diversity and cohesion, bonding, innovation and research, and the ability to be a cultural hub. Connectivity has to do with all aspects of technology with the new models, paradigms and platforms such as open source technology, web 2.0, and hyper-mobility. Erskine also spoke of the new urban nomads, who just liked their ancestors are defined “by what they leave behind rather than by what they use.” In today’s culture, these are ever growing in number but leave so few traces behind them as they use laptops and flash drives and other devices that are as freely transportable as they are. He also emphasized about learning from the street with all the vibrancy, fashion, diversity, adhocracy, edginess, authenticity and innovation it entails as a medium to convey ideas and mirror present-day culture. Lebanon: Opportunities and strengths Fleming, recapitulated the results of an earlier January visit to Lebanon, describing the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) of Lebanon, but thankfully sparing the audience a reminder of the weaknesses and threats and merely focused on the strengths and opportunities. The results of the previous interviews were that the major strengths are: the independent spirit the Lebanese have, the flexibility they display, the entrepreneurial culture, the diaspora throughout the world, the commitment to the quality of the content, the rich mix of sector activities, the affordability of the services, the very strong educational base, the mix of culture/diversity/energy, the fact that the Lebanese are the early adopters of the Middle East, and the inherent optimism in them. The opportunities that Lebanon has are basically summed up by Fleming as: The coordination of activities, the presentation of a unified Lebanon-offer, the fact that there’s an ability to project the distinctiveness, that some gap has been relatively bridged between education and industry, the relative presence of broadband and other infrastructure, the presence of a new emerging market, the strong linking between economy and cultural ecology, the establishment of communication networking places, the maximizing of the potential of “the live” element, and a strong dedication to the production of content. Fleming also introduced the four workshops of the day which were “developing capacity,” “the support landscape,” “access to capital,” “market shaping and market making,” one last workshop was not to be undertaken but was rather included in the closing insight session was “delivery, leadership and management.” After long brainstorming in the sessions, “lively” debates (A diplomatic term for some heated opinions), many giving and taking from different points of views, and a convivial reconciliatory lunch the findings of the sessions were unveiled by Fleming and Erskine. Developing Capacity When it comes to developing capacity, the major problems, key words and questions were: Learning/skills/education/aptitude/expertise Is there a creativity deficit from school to industry? Is there a gap between education and industry? Are scholars too didactic and traditional? Does the industry show inflexibility to newcomers? Continuous professional development Is there a lack of of knowledge/transfer exchange? Lack of specialist infrastructure Disconnection between informal buzz (e.g. street culture), industry and academia Potential solutions or options for better problem shooting would be: Embedding creativity at an early age Industry campaign for skills Industry co-design courses Specialist academics Industry advisory panels Intensive work-related learning Program of training workshops Awards foundation Training the trainers Something new or special (Such as space, body or organization) Support Landscape The support landscape findings came up with the list of the usual suspects in terms of problems facing the Lebanese infrastructure, but also came up with ways to get past the bottlenecks. The major hindrances were: Broadband Electricity Commuting Intellectual property rights Work related contracts Taxation Labor law Access to resources Political stability Creative gathering spaces Higher cause, “calling,” national interest Lebanese enterprise culture Cluster physical location Possible remedies include: Legal issues: Intellectual property rights enforcement Qualified judges in IT rulings Patent registration Work related contracts Taxation Labor law Infrastructure: Enhancement of broadband, electricity, commuting, and presence of a cluster physical location People: Access to foreign resources Creative gatherings Better motivation for the national interest Political stability Access to capital The workshop findings also asked some pertinent questions and addressed some of the current lags in the market. Some of the its major questionings and thoughts were: Is there an investment gap in the market? What is exceptional about this cluster initiative versus other projects? Is there an investment readiness/Investor readiness? What are the types of tools needed? (Seed/Project/Equity/Debt/Commisisons) How to generate deal flow? Are there any due diligence considerations? Possible ways to enhance the current situation and clear the present fog would be: Presenting a proof of concept Presenting a proof of business Creating an investment readiness through: Management support, promotion, business models, targeted investment, inward investment and education Insuring that once the investment readiness is there, there is now an investor readiness. Market shaping and market making: The workshop centered around some possible initiatives to enhance the better organization of the markets into clusters. Some of its suggestions include: On the local market level: Government contribution Professional audio-visual union Local identity preservation Community platform development Legal system enforcement Business ethics Networking between creative individuals Code of practise Academic and industry field gap Political stability Market intelligence level: Transparency within the industry Neutral auditing program Exchange of information Showcasing: Alternative marketing of Lebanon Rebranding Lebanon e-Content (Mobile) Cross-sectors publications Year round systematic activity Delivery, leadership and management: Since the structure of the day did not allow for this workshop to take place, it was Fleming who presented his vision as to the “product” that would take shape following the discussions. His suggestions was first there must be a campaign which would detail all of these issues and confront all fears and hesitations in addition to highlighting the incredible potential of the project. There must be centralized coordination in order to allow all the projects to be lifted at the same time, creating thus a formidable synergy between these projects in a flow of energy that would be beneficial to all of them. The there must be cooperation, perhaps even some sacrifice from the potential protagonists for the sake of the bigger picture which is some sort of Adam Smith “invisible hand” whereby one good deed performed would lift the whole society up. This body according to Fleming would be run by the industry itself, and it would have to be respected by both the protagonists of the creative fields and the government itself, it would have to be trusted by the local actors and the international partners as well, it should enjoy a hierarchical stratification but also draw its power from some sort of horizontal stratification as well. Erskine showed some sort of concentric circles chart detailing how this project fits into a much grander scheme. The first circle – the nucleus so to say – starts with “core creative fields,” closely followed by “cultural industries,” then the “creative industries at large,” and eventually “the rest of the economy.” These concentric circles helped showing that this project is not some isolated entity away from mainstream activities. In effect Erskine said “when you own a creative space in Soho, you are part of a bigger creative endeavour.” Q&A The Q&A that followed the closing session was a tad stormy in terms of protagonists of the industry expressing their fears and skepticism over many of the issues which is a healthy process designed to confront the hurdles that might show up along the way. Fleming, Erskine and Deek did their best to draw from local and international example of previous schemes of this kind and what results they brought, but eventually it took a Swede to put all the Lebanese people to shame. It was indeed Sten Walegren from The Gate post-production house, who comes from Sweden but calls Lebanon his adoptive country who threw the last statement inviting all Lebanese to unite together, to work together, to collaborate and make the project a fruitful one for the best of all the country. His sincere speech, especially coming from a “foreigner,” was truly something to think about for the participants of the day. Hemignway’s Lounge Later, Fleming, Erskine and myself moved to the Heminway Lounge to talk some more about the events of the day and other future perspectives. Erskine started by saying that “technology is changing the world. Look at the Indian fishermen, now because of mobile technology, they can call the harbor to see where their stock is needed and what kind of fish is in deficit.” He also expressed some concerns that in the pan-Arab region, there is little cross-over thinking in terms of creativity. Dubai has different cities for “media, internet, production. There is no unified view of creativity and the incredible amount of synergy it can bring once combined.” “The whole way of thinking about advertising and creativity has changed in the world. Mass cusotmization is a pertinent example, no two Mini Cooper cars are the same. Each one of them is finished according to the specs of the buyer. Similar with the iPhone. The whole market is moving towards more user generated content.” Going back to the events of the day, Erskine said “I think no one is addressing the big elephant in the room which is the political instability. Everyone is saying that things will be all right in the next couple of years, but eventually, this instability is causing everyone to think short term.” Asked about the results of the day, Fleming deflects the question and speaks of the original expectations, “we already came to Lebanon in January, so some people today were ready to move ahead while others needed more reassurance to get started. So some of the expectations was to already move to the practical stage of things instead of going on with the theoretical.” He pursued his logic stating that “we shall be using a facebook page as a platform for internal communication for this project at this stage. There should be a major launch of the action plan that will be devised in April by the upcoming May and the summer should witness the beginning of the implementation process.” Fleming apparently is an optimist, because when confronted with how skeptical some people were, he said “well, being skeptical is only too natural in the face of something you have not experienced before, besides, people have invested a full day to come here and talk and share ideas and concerns, this should say something.” Erskine seconds the thought and continues, “as with everything in life, those first in take the most out. People who are now on board in one way or the other will be the ones who will see more immediate returns in some shape or capacity.” People have a lot to gain from this project according to Fleming, “knowledge, ideas, networks, integrity, credibility… there will be some hard-edged formality to cut through, but I am sure we will get there.” Erskine adds that “all activities need to be under the same parasol, so they will influence each other back and forth. We know there are issues around corruption, nepotism and transparency but all this can be worked out.” And according to Fleming, “because this is a small sector in Lebanon, this can be worked out faster as the sector is more manageable. Inside the body to be created there will be internal rules of conduct, strict ethics and guiding principles; This will not be some sort of private club where everything goes.” Erskine also agrees, “the use of open source technology, absence of corruption and this openness that will characterize the body will appease the fears of many. We are simply pointing the telescope towards opportunity land. I hope at some point we can connect with some local research institution to go some inside evaluation of performance so as for us to scientifically assess how close we are to the objectives and how we are faring in terms of management.” When it comes to the graffiti artists, the bloggers and all those people who are shaping the alternative culture of Lebanon, what are the prospects of them finding some interest or funding in the project? As an answer Fleming says that “there might not be trickling down in the classical sense in terms of budgets, but necessarily these activities will be chaperoned, but also, this alternative culture will have to rise up to meet the higher ups at some common middle ground to be part of a bigger scheme.” Since many projects are sadly so short termed in Lebanon, to the point of being repetitive every few years, Fleming expresses his hopes that this will be “a 3 to 5 year project in order for everyone to get the grip on it.” Erskine goes on and says, “in a survey about why companies were moving to the UK, the top two reasons were: Golf – specifically in Scotland, a sports executives loves – and side cultural activities.” With that in mind, we can only hope that all the spraying on the walls, all the pubs, clubs and contemporary art galleries are reasons enough for companies to move to Lebanon…. There’s hoping!
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