Cowan et al

Canada must refuel for cultural creativity

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

A new strategy is needed to connect Canadian creative talent with business and technology

(Globe and Mail photoillustration)

Culture is lost at Canada’s economic crossroads. Sixty years ago, the Massey report created our first cultural “road map” by boldly recommending the establishment of a Canada Council to support our creative and interpretive artists.

Its recommendations also strongly encouraged a National Library and the growth of our core national cultural institutions: CBC-Radio Canada, the National Film Board, our archives and museums and scientific research. It affirmed the importance of culture to Canadian society and linked the development of a distinctive Canadian culture to our sovereignty and survival.

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These recommendations produced remarkably positive results. However, culture has since been relegated to “niche” status under successive governments, and the cultural sector as a whole has been relegated to the periphery of policy-making.

Now, as we face the challenges of a highly competitive global digital economy, Canada’s under-capitalized but lively and diverse cultural and creative resources could become important strategic innovation assets.

Governments, federal and provincial, have been searching for the magic ingredient that will unlock the secret of innovation. The issue is critical and urgent. The Conference Board of Canada, measuring innovation in 17 peer countries, has ranked Canada as a woeful 14th.

Last October, Innovation Canada: A Call To Action, an influential report prepared under the chairmanship of OpenText’s Tom Jenkins, emphasized the centrality of innovation as “the ultimate source of the long-term competitiveness of businesses and the quality of life of Canadians.”

The mobile digital technology explosion has already transformed many aspects of our daily lives. It has dramatically changed our workplaces. Old business models and habits are being challenged, new forms of expression are emerging and our children, the digital natives, are functioning in new ways.

It has radically altered how we communicate with family and friends, and how we relate to our cultural assets: how we listen to music; how we create and read books; how we distribute and view films; how we find information; even how we experience theatre, opera and ballet.

In order to surf this digital tsunami, we need to understand the broad role of the creative sector in the innovation agenda, and consider how we manage the changes, challenges and opportunities that will be beneficial to us as Canadians.

Throughout history, creative communities and organizations have been in the forefront of envisioning what might be, venturing beyond traditional boxes and testing boundaries. They are key elements in any measurement of the quality of life. They nourish and inspire innovation.

Canada needs a new innovative economic “road map,” firmly linking dynamic creative and cultural sectors with open and welcoming business and technology sectors. This collaboration is essential to our achieving the Canada we want to be.

Our innovative arts, culture and heritage sector already generates more than $46-billion for the Canadian economy and employs more than 600,000 people. These figures alone suggest that governments and the business community should recognize the potential of this sector to be mobilized and to play an evolving role in pointing the way to a successful innovation strategy.

Canadians should be made more aware that there is a much broader creative constituency than just those in the traditional visual and performing arts. Creativity is nurtured within many professional sectors: architects, graphic artists, fashion and industrial designers, video game creators, journalists, broadcasters, research scientists of all kinds, health-care professionals, academics, teachers – and many others – particularly among those involved in our dynamic digital technology sector.

One can only begin to imagine the incredible economic benefits for Canada from a “coalition of creators,” encouraging the nimble minds from the vital cultural sector to collaborate with other creative design sectors, and the burgeoning digital technology sector. Together, they could provide innovative fuel for all of our new media platforms and become effective drivers for fresh sustainable growth.

With new connectivity tools already embedded in nearly every home, business and institution, the essential infrastructure is already in place for governments to launch a comprehensive national, culturally inclusive, digital innovation strategy.

In doing so, this fresh economic paradigm will undoubtedly lead to a renewed focus on shared values and subsequently to the creation of a new, vibrant and inspired cultural road map. An updated Massey report would build on the close interdependence of innovation, economic policy, arts, culture and the broad creative sector to establish the resilient framework together for a dynamic society.

Time is critical and opportunities fleeting. Our economy, our culture and our reputation as an innovative and creative nation depend on it.

Edgar A. Cowan is a media consultant (arts and digital). John Hobday is a former director of the Canada Council. Ian E. Wilson is former librarian and archivist of Canada.

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