The City's Creative Energies

Urban Crossroads #82



The “Creative Class”

In my last article, I touched upon the various creative energies that are becoming more clearly felt in Amman and the important contribution that such energies can make to the city’s growth and overall health. The positive relationship between a city’s prospects and the input of its creative residents has been receiving considerable attention for some time, and the term “Creative Class” even has emerged to describe those residents. The term was coined and popularized by urbanist Richard Florida in his widely-read book, The Rise of the Creative Class, which he followed with Cities and the Creative Class. His work emphasizes that the growth and development of cities today greatly depend on effectively harnessing the creative potentials of its residents.

Florida identifies the Creative Class to include a core group of professionals such as scientists, professors, poets, novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers, architects, writers, editors, researchers, and analysts. Beyond this core group is another set of creative professionals that consists of those involved in the high-tech sector, financial services, the legal and healthcare professions, as well as business management. Florida states that these people “engage in creative problem-solving,” and draw on “complex bodies of knowledge in seeking innovative solutions.” They require high levels of formal education, and they regularly are required to think on their own. The success of a city is strongly linked to its ability to attract and retain a sizable Creative Class. In order to do so, Florida stresses that the city must possess three critical factors: Technology, Talent, and Tolerance, or what he refers to as the three T’s.

The nature of creativity

Creativity as a concept is not easy to define. In its most general sense, it encompasses novelty and innovation. Of importance is that creativity expresses a marked tension between the need to maintain stability, equilibrium, and security in our lives on the one hand, and the urge to seek new possibilities and experiences on the other. Whenever the preference for safeguarding characteristics of the past or present is overwhelmingly dominant, creativity is stifled.

When considering creativity, the arts often are the first to come to mind. There is a widespread conception that creative people are primarily involved in fields such as the visual arts, literature, theater, and music. A natural correlation between such fields and creativity definitely exists. The artist concentrates on observing, commenting upon, and critiquing the natural, physical, and social worlds around him or her. In doing so, a good artist explores new frontiers and attracts attention to new voices, concepts, possibilities, and opportunities. He or she brings ongoing debates regarding where a society may be heading into sharper focus, and generally keeps people aware of the significant creative potentials of human thought.

Creativity, however, extends far beyond the world of the arts. The great leaps that different societies have made throughout history often are linked to a realization of their creative potentials and a mushrooming of their creative capacities. Many human accomplishments, ranging from scientific discoveries and inventions to revolutionary business ideas, are a direct result of the creative mind at work.

Creative energy in Amman

How do Amman as well as the other cities in the Arab Middle East relate to the debate on creativity and the city? I recall how as a child growing up in Amman during the 1960s and 1970s, creativity unfortunately had no place in our education. Our studies depended greatly on memorization, and this applied to almost all our classes, whether in the humanities or the physical sciences. With the exception of a weekly drawing class, our school curriculum did not even feature any activities in creative writing, music, or theater.

This clearly has been changing. I have taught university students in Jordan off and on over the past decade and a half, and have noticed how their ability to think independently as well as come up with novel solutions is continuously evolving. This is the result of a number of interrelated factors that include increased travel, extensive access to the world at large, primarily through satellite television and the Internet, as well as a gradual shift in the philosophies behind Jordan’s educational system, which have been allowing for increased independent thinking rather than exclusively promoting rote memorization.

Although Amman does not yet have a dominant or even prominent “Creative Class,” the number of its residents involved in creative activities, whether in the arts, sciences, or business, is growing. This is most evident amongst the younger generation of its workforce, women and men in their twenties and thirties, who are transforming the overall cultural as well as business scene in Amman, and who can act as important engines of economic growth as well as catalysts for urban change in the city as a whole. It is consequently important for the city to retain them and also allow them to retain their energetic spirit by providing a nurturing environment in which they can excel.

Amman’s private sector and cultural institutions are increasingly catering to the social and cultural needs of this emerging Creative Class. However, there is a great deal that the relevant authorities also can and should do. This includes ensuring that Amman becomes an attractive place to live in through promoting improved pedestrianization as well as increased green spaces and multi-use districts. A number of policies also need to be instituted. For example, the steps required for establishing a start-up cultural activity or business should be greatly simplified and facilitated. This should apply to those wanting to start a small software company as well as a theater group. Incubators that provide facilities and support services for these endeavors should be set up. In the case of companies or organizations that do not generate significant customer traffic, it should be made easy for them to register as home-based entities or to be hosted by existing institutions rather than burdening them with the expense of renting office space and having them suffer through the grueling and nightmarish process of getting the necessary permits and licenses for operation from the municipality and other governmental agencies.

Other policy initiatives include upgrading the country’s universities and more effectively integrating them into urban life. Universities are a country’s main producers of creative talent, and the quality of the talent coming out of them is directly related to the quality of education they offer. Beyond that, universities can greatly support and strengthen a city’s creative energies. They can function as centers of cultural activity offering public lectures, music recitals, plays, and exhibitions. Moreover, they can provide continuing education courses, mid-career technical training, and even specialized summer programs for high-school students. Universities also can greatly enhance the quality of life in the areas in which they are located through the variety of establishments that emerge in them (restaurants, cafés, bookstores, art supply stores, cinemas …) to serve students, staff, and faculty.

Such a strong relation between universities and their urban setting unfortunately is lacking in Amman. On the physical level, Amman’s universities consist of walled campuses that are separated and isolated from the city’s urban fabric and located along fast-moving highways, making pedestrian access to them from surrounding areas extremely difficult. This applies to the University of Jordan, the country’s oldest, whose campus is surrounded by heavily-trafficked streets on all sides, as well as to the newer universities that have been established along Airport Road, which is amongst Amman’s busiest and fastest traffic arteries. As knowledge centers, universities in Amman are not effectively connected to the local community, whether as providers of overall cultural activity or of specialized training that extends beyond courses intended to satisfy graduation requirements.

The cities of the Arab Middle East are still a long way from becoming centers of creative energy although they definitely have the potential to do so. In the meantime, I would argue that three of its cities have the best chance of achieving that goal. These are Amman, Beirut, and Dubai. Dubai is without a doubt the main magnet in the region that attracts creative people from all over the world. Dubai’s creative workforce, however, is transient rather than permanent, and its members eventually will return to their countries of origin or move on elsewhere. Dubai also is being held back by its intense emphasis on the commercial value of any activity taking place in it and by giving that commercial value priority over potential long-term cultural significances. Beirut, with its long-established openness to the world, is a leader in creative thinking in the region, as evident in its dynamic service-related sectors as well as publishing and media institutions. However, the unfortunate bouts of political instability from which it has been suffering over the past thirty years continue to greatly restrict its potentials. Amman may still not possess the creative intensity found in Beirut or Dubai, but it is moving in that direction along a gradual and steady pace. If the right steps are taken, there is nothing to prevent Amman from becoming the region’s leading center of creative energy.

Mohammad al-Asad

July 4, 2008

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