When cultural and social innovators collide

Patrick Shine

Last week I had the privilege of being an observer at the impressively named Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. This is the first event of a multi-year programme seeking to create and nurture global networks of cultural innovators to help them advance their organizations, their causes and their communities. It took place at Schloss Leopoldskron, which should be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the film The Sound of Music. Nepotism alert: my sister, Clare Shine, is Director of Programmes there.

I enjoyed reconnecting with Jonathan Robinson and Sam Conniff, who both played an important role in making the programme a success. As an observer, my main interest was to see the similarities and differences between social innovators (central to our work at Shaftesbury Partnership) and cultural innovators. I drew four main conclusions:

1. Cultural innovators put on a better show, and are better singers and dancers. Watching songs from the Sound of Music (“Doe, a deer, a female deer”) sung by the Korean contingent Gangnam style was as fun as it was unexpected, and that was followed by Mary Poppins sung in the style of Aretha Franklin by a speaker from Chicago.

2. Cultural and social innovators have plenty in common - they are risk takers, passionate, perpetually bothered about money, resources, people and teams and so on. They also spend a lot of time and energy dealing with (or trying to deal with) powerful institutions - especially local government, but also business and other patrons. At their best they are powerful advocates for their city or locality, but are frustrated when they have to develop business cases that reduce their vision to economics and ignore the real purpose which is the creation of cultural capital for communities which lack aspiration and hope. And this points to two further thought-provoking differences.

3. Cultural innovators often have a deeper understanding into the value and opportunities in place and space. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that they can transform redundant buildings into an art gallery or a dance theatre, but the ones I met were transforming neighbourhoods, streets and even cities by skilful design and bringing culture to the people, not people to the culture. In the same way social innovators see society and its problems differently, cultural innovators see the material world differently.

4. Innovators from the cultural and creative industries are much, much better at collaboration. Throughout the five days I saw people who had never met before coming together to learn and, share, to the point of tears, sometimes. There were some interesting pairings: the Greek team discussed survival when government is fragile with the Buenos Aires group, who had been through something similar 10 years earlier. And the participants from Baltimore found much in common with those from Rotterdam, both cities being ports that live in the shadow of their large and famous neighbours (Washington DC and Amsterdam).

I am grateful to David Holland for explaining to me why this might be. He pointed out that all forms of performing arts are collaborative, and the actor, director and sound man all need to work well together for success. And visual artists, with a more solitary way of working, benefit hugely from clusters who can give feedback and encouragement to each other, and provide critical mass to attract viewing audiences.  When it comes to social innovators, collaboration is often seen as watering down distinctiveness, rather than building something better.

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