Cultural Entrepreneurs: The New Diplomats?

This article is the full text of a presentation I made on 13 September 2012 at Goldsmiths College University of London for the 20th Anniversary conference of ENCATC. The seminar I was contributing to had been asked to consider the item: From the state to the commercial: new models of cultural relations and diplomacy

My work regularly leads me to interrogate five notions:

  • Cultural diplomacy
  • The relationship of value to values
  • Nation branding
  • The nature of administrations
  • The creative asset

with three questions:

  • Where are we now?
  • Is anyone somewhere different?
  • Is there a way forward?


But first let me answer the question posed for this debate – 

The question was: Can you be a more effective diplomat outside of the state apparatus, in the independent sector? In answer, I have four observations to make:

1. It is the actions of individuals that make or break an institution, which is why the institution will always protect itself first.

2. Newton’s second law of thermodynamics is alive and well in our administrations, if not perturbed by individual injections of fresh energy from the outside.
The Second Law describes the tendency that differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential will over time equilibrate in an isolated physical system, so as to result in the natural entropic dissolution of the system itself.
Put simply: everyone’s coffee goes cold.
The pernicious application of this behaviour to our administrations propagates the following values: that entropy can therefore only increase, which also explains the perceived irreversibility of nature; and that perpetual motion machines are therefore impossible. It becomes useless therefore for us to dream outside of this box.

3. Darwinian evolution may also be found in our administrations, if survival may be predicated on being the fittest. However, the individual’s more advanced capacity for flexible response regularly demonstrates that evolution progresses via the survival of the most adaptable (see Karl Kessler and Leon Megginson for this misquote).

4. Institutions adhere to the assertion of 19th century capitalist trade that value has primacy over values, whereas the lived experience of the individual from 21st century globalisation is that values have primacy over value.

Q. Where are we now?

1. A bankrupt diplomacy of smart power, the end of the road for the old western diplomacy. With a dubious cultural diplomacy and an exhausted public diplomacy, both designed to exploit the feel-good mutuality of cultural relations and change the behaviour of foreign governments by influencing the attitudes of their citizens. The medium betrayed the message.

2. The retreat of the cultural sector into economic value, downplaying cultural and social values in favour of the language of the economists in order to ensure the survival of public funding (John Newbiggin and the British DCMS have a lot to answer for here). Thereby discrediting cultural values whilst commoditising certain of its products. This has only encouraged the opposition of the value of art products with the  cultural and social values that gave birth to it, thereby maintaining the entertainment of the elite and the value of their cultural market by de-professionalising other forms of cultural production.

3. The tyranny of the expert: 
the betrayal by the intellectuals – and in this I include the Universities – favouring the primacy of the vertical over the horizontal, preferring the safeties of the silo and the hierarchy to models that could have included us all in the expansion of our horizons.

4. Persistently funding the heritage from the culture budget. In the continuum of cultural production which runs from the new creativity to the dominant culture to the cultural heritage left behind, to fail to transfer heritage activities out of the cultural budget, to make space for the arrival into the national culture of the outputs of young creativity, has sent human creativity to the margins.

5. Mistakenly applying the rights of property to the assets of human creativity. To obsess about the tangible products of human creative capital and so deny status to the intangible assets in the creation of wealth that are human skill and imagination has made pirates of us all, illegalising the dynamic growth of sharing by labelling it plagiarism.

6. Increasing the impediments to mobility. Giving in to racism only serves to prevent the positive influences of other ways of doing or being, leading to the serious impoverishment of the value and values of both home economies.

Q. Is anyone in a different place?

When engaging in the Iraq Wars, Bush and Blair showed us all very graphically that the reputation of a country is its principal asset and that the means of communication can betray the message (I am grateful to an early document by Mark Leonard for this and the following set of insights.)

There is a new international context. Since 9/11, we are dealing no more with the security of the state but the security of the citizen; since the Occupy movement, no more the sovereignty of the state but the power of the people; since the demise of colonialism and manufacturing, no longer the creation of wealth through physical possessions and natural resources but the development of profit from tangible IPRs, being achieved through the exploitation of intangible assets such as knowledge, skill and brand.

There are new trade values. Since the Nike shoes and McLibel disasters, and as recently re-emphasised by the Apple-Foxconn furore, large corporations have been taught that the market is now controlled by the consumer not the product.

There are new cultural values (in the widest sense). The Arab Spring shows us that global strength now depends more on the quality of the local response, where internal openness in a society promotes a confident external projection. There is a developing power in the ethical stance and the construction of that power through openness and vulnerability. Globalisation and the developing power of the regional and world city hubs show us that sovereignty has to be shared inside a global system. In such a pluralist world the bilateral is abandoned in favour of the multilateral, and the now evident resource confines of the planet mean that we can no longer contribute unseen to the problems of exclusion.

Cultural diplomacy has fallen behind. Modern cultural diplomacy is no more than a restricted subset of cultural relations that occurs under license from governments and their agents. It remains focussed on the exchange of cultural ideas, goods or services as fostering ‘mutual understanding’, which has as its direct or indirect objective the continuing pursuit of smart power. Faced with the runaway globalised world of the social media, cultural diplomacy has become the state’s way to control the citizens’ very own cultural relations – an impossible task given the latter’s instinctive and much more organic practice.

Q. Is there a way forward?

There is a lost opportunity which is happily still available to enlightened governments: it is not too late to harness the international powers of our young cultural entrepreneurs in integrating the need to create wealth with the need to respect cultural and social values.

Our creative entrepreneurs are creating value by providing monetary value through the exchange of finance for creative rights. I use the word value with deliberate ambiguity because these entrepreneurs enmesh values with value all the time and instinctively. They have invented the Open Source, no longer selling IPRs but licensing them to be improved by another in collective enterprise. (I am grateful to a much quoted blog entry by Simon Phipps on infoworld.com for the following overview of the open source.)

Open source may be defined as the co-development of software by a community of people who have chosen to realign a fragment of their self-interest in order to do so. The practice of exploiting open source hard and soft wares to develop new products in the creative industries has freed up the processes of creation on a massive scale and we are seeing rapid development of new products through the progressive aggregation of each former product and format. The community members each work at their own expense in order to achieve a shared outcome that benefits all, including themselves. When they create an enhancement, fix a defect or participate in a design, they are not working for free or donating their work so much as participating in co-development.

Peer values provide strong guidelines to professional conduct. Development communities based in open-source show that: attempting to retain control of a project leads to mistrust, contention and a rules-based focus that diminishes your reputation within the networks and directly affecting your income potential; relaxing control leads to the community innovating and growing in ways not anticipated, as well as enhancing reputations; these new entrepreneurs have learnt to trade control for influence, because in a meshed society control gets marginalised while influence delivers success.

Then there is aggregation. The notion that the creative industries are defined by wealth creation through exploiting one’s IPRs has been challenged, as these young creative entrepreneurs give away their IPRs in the interests of the wealth that can be created from aggregated knowledge. These digital world citizens own the means of their own creativity in both production and distribution and also develop their expressive skills. They develop platforms for varying levels of attention that cleverly exploit the same content several times, extracting the maximum juice from a single core idea. They no longer sell their IPRs but license them to be improved by others in one collective enterprise, unleashing the power of wealth creation through aggregation by re-aligning those fragments of his/her self-interest.

Collaboration. As anyone involved in the knowledge economy knows, no single entity can now monopolise what needs to be known to make these (frequently intangible) products. This has forced the re-emergence of the collective as the preferred creative dynamo where each remains individual as he or she contributes to the collective product from his or her unique skills base.

Matrix. These entrepreneurs create work environments that are matrices, flat networks that focus on the applications of the product with the customer, called the UX (user-experience). These formats adapt well to sectorial differences and varying levels of production across regions, encouraging interdisciplinary communication. This extends skills and facilitates flexibility in order to achieve results yet still maintain a professional standard.

UX, the user experience. Thus do they remain wholly focussed with the team on the UX. Strong social and cultural values have shifted the driver for wealth creation away from the aggregation of content with its obsession with formats, towards the qualities of the user experience. This focus on the customer is drives a new understanding that wealth will only follow if content is grounded in high quality and remains both relevant and timely. This content will only be engaged with if delivered as a narrative (creating a new over-arching team role known as story architect), and inside format developments that are increasingly driven by a complex knowledge of the human attention span.

Value from values. Finally, they have developed good business values, providing monetary value through the exchange of finance for creative rights & they create value from their values. On the business side, our young creative entrepreneurs are creating incremental value: extension of the market, product enhancement, innovation, customer relations, quality, partnership, employee involvement. But this has been achieved on the values side. Their success requires bravery, vision, respect for self and others, trust, honesty, generosity, fortitude. Through this they have developed the discipline of the entrepreneur: integrity, service above self, tenacity, persistence. The practice of modern cultural commerce teaches them that the current state and rate of global change are constant. These entrepreneurs know that their most valuable asset is reputation: what fabulous diplomats they would make.

Q. Could these commercial and creative values inform the natural diplomacy between cultures?

Modern diplomacy seeks to converge with the domestic and international objectives of state sovereignty but the activities of the cultural sector have the opposite tendency, diverging towards an endless dispersion of work and the development of multitudes of concepts, at home and abroad.

Creatives are extraordinary difficult people to control. This has meant that states are seeing their cultural diplomacy efforts being increasingly developed by other actors, who are also less motivated by the concerns of a strictly national view. Worse, these actors are strongly influenced by their own collegiate and collaborative creation processes which occur regardless of frontier.

The increasing connectedness of world populations is developing a practice of international and cultural relations that by-passes state agencies, with creators and consumers moving freely and directly, in full control of expression, production and distribution.

They have the relevant skills

Divergent thinking: to generate multiple answers to a set of problems that will result in insight.

Incubation, that oh-so-creative break from problem-solving.

Blending, to exploit the mental representations of an insight & permit the structured testing of new concepts.

Honing, to fashion an integrated world view by resolving dissonance and seeking internal consistency.

They work in the relevant context

Our creative entrepreneurs in the creative industries inhabit a context radically different to the one that threw up the old diplomatic reliabilities.

Globalised, they see the narrowing of opportunity and mobility for other populations.

Pluralised, they witness the reduction in planetary cultural diversity. They operate comfortably in a pluralist world of globalised economic and social poles, of value-added and added values, where the integration of international trade, the increased role of international organisations, the strategic role of education and research and the pervasive issue of security meet the need for sustainable development with its concomitant sensitivity to the imbalance of global wealth distribution and the impact of globalisation on cultural identity.

They have the relevant values

Alert to inequalities, they know of the increasing gap between rich and poor. They are also the new diplomats, for their work has not only produced a higher level of business productivity but in doing so has raised migration levels, made more skilled workers available, integrated colleges and universities into major international trade flows,

Environmentally aware, they live the loss of balance in the environment. They have made cities and regions the competitive hubs, raised levels of interest in the equality of cultural difference and specificity, and produced a generation more at ease with a balance between economic and social development.

Creative democrats, they resist the triumph of competition over collaboration. Their engagement with social media strengthens their capacity for action and influence. It has opened them up to a spirit of openness, tolerance and hospitality, motivating them to contribute to the safety of both their community and show more international solidarity. The working topography has been exploded and the notion of border has all but disappeared in favour of sector or comparative size of operation.

They push – not pull – to counter the triumph of the individual over the group. Their activities naturally “push” more than they “pull”, exploiting the multiplier effect of their medium and creating work teams capable of a mobile response. These practices promote diversity and emphasise quality of life, creating social and cultural wealth as much as economic wealth.

Q. How might the diplomatic community respond?

In this same time period, governmental cultural diplomacy has been reduced to a mere defensive position and now forms a meagre part of a nation’s international relations.

It is now incumbent on governments to catch up with their citizens if their populations are to benefit from the soft influence conferred by the economic, social and cultural wealth currently being developed by their creative entrepreneurs. Nations are now in pole position to exploit the creative entrepreneurs’ power of openness and start practicing a giving diplomacy. This means a diplomacy that acts local but thinks global.

Include the citizenry. In harnessing the best practice of their creative entrepreneurs. Domestically, this requires the creation of an infrastructure for dialogue and work that will throw a bridge across the technological divide, and making room for commonality of policy across ministries (that is, joined-up government). The citizenry has obliged them to stop addressing the elites and start addressing mass audiences. To do this, as we have seen on our TV screens, many many governments still lack the essential presentation skills, let alone the political will. They are going to have to scale up their offer potential, segmenting their audience to build and benefit from communities of interest, and learn to continually prove their relevance.

Strengthen the trade chain. Externally, this means power projection is going to have to be replaced with partnership. The move in diplomacy will be from action to facilitation: reinventing international community links by joining up young people and involving businesses; creating frameworks that integrate the people of the diaspora and facilitate contact between NGOs and business for example. The diplomats have a responsibility to integrate creative entrepreneurs into their own value chains. These need expert support in identifying and strengthening the weak links in the trade chains, and diplomats will have to start matching their activities to the willingness of the customers. This should be designed to extend the zone of influence of their entrepreneurs, and exploit the diversity in the long tail. Thus will their creative economy best move from scarcity to abundance and from bestseller to niche in a competitive globalised world.

Basically: responsible government in international relations – joined up government, sovereignty shared, removing impediments to mobility, tax as venture capital, strengthening the weak links in the trade chain

Add value with your values. Don’t be surprised to see Hollywood up there – time to wake up and smell the coffee. For years the audio-visual industry of the USA has known that its international supremacy in this market creates value which stood at 7% of their private sector trade surplus by 2008 (some $11.7Bn). What is less well known is their power to have become a real value of influence for America, as these products quietly spread US social values across the planet – such as consumerism, democracy, free market trade and an individualistic lifestyle – at a very heavy cultural and environmental price for the rest of us of course. Since the 1950s the USA has exploited the advantage in being the first for they have known for years that their values, institutions, culture and lifestyle actually power their economic attraction. I was closely involved in the creation of the 2005 UNESCO Convention on cultural diversity where, with rank hypocrisy, the USA deflected debate on this point by focussing solely on the trade implications, protesting that cultural products are mere goods and services for purchase and certainly not vectors of cultural and social values!

The new cultural entrepreneurs do add value with Values – generosity, collectivity, aggregation, open source, networks, the environmental impacts, pluralism. Responsible professional individuals in this field such as we two sitting here seek to assist this process by offering brokerage, accompagnement, project aggregation and many kinds of facilitation.

But above all, please leave room: room to let the horizontal inform the vertical, for collaboration to replace competition, for the matrix to replace the hierarchy, for the generalist to coordinate the expert; room to emancipate the issues by stopping their colonisation; room to brand the nation as an open experience where the consumer can decide; room to allow the international mobility of the artist to enrich all our outputs.

In conclusion

There is now the potential for a marvellous symbiosis between value and values across the world and from which national economies and international reputations may benefit – were diplomacy enabled to harness the social and cultural benefits inherent in the economic wealth creation of their creative entrepreneurs. They drive the most dynamic sector in most economies, the most globalised, and which already practises a giving diplomacy.

Economic value can no longer be separated from the social and cultural values of cultural diplomacy. Economic value creation when underpinned by social and cultural values delivers the best in contemporary international relations. Our creative entrepreneurs abroad are already de facto our cultural diplomats.

Dream on, you might say. And thank you.

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