The Economic Power of Arts and Culture

  •  The creation of networks of people is an important driver for economic development and can help to fully unlock creativity.
  • It can be argued that China is millennia ahead of the rest of the world in terms of understanding the role of networks, and cultivating them.

“The economic driver of the future isn’t a factory or a piece of technology or software. It’s actually networks.” – Sunny Bates

 Sunny Bates is CEO of Sunny Bates Associates and a director of Kickstarter and Creative Capital, an advisory board member of MIT Media Lab, and a Brain Trust member of TED Conferences. She advises big corporations including GE and Proctor & Gamble.

Bates is also an expert in human networks, and although she spoke at the Tripartite Economic Summit about how she spends her life with a fear of missing out, it seems she does everything but. Bates joked – though only half-heartedly – that her keynote address was organised thanks to a chance meeting in a hot tub on a boat with a New Zealand executive. Opportunities like these don’t seem all that uncommon in Bates’ life.


Sunny Bates / Photo: ATEED

Networks redefined

Bates insisted the economic driver of the future won’t come from factories, technology, or even software. But it will instead come from networks – networks of people.

“The most important thing anyone can do to drive economic development and fully unlock creativity is to create networks of people,” she said.

Bates pointed out that art and culture are critical economic drivers. The cities and regions that understand this are consciously creating conditions to attract and retain people and support their networks. They will be the winners this century.

The Tripartite Alliance was highlighted throughout the Summit as an example of where cultural cross-pollination is occurring, with tangible benefits resulting. “There is a beautiful cultural exchange going on,” said Melanie Higgins, US Consul-General in Auckland. “Culture transcends the boundaries and the Pacific connects us.”


Melanie Higgins / Photo: US Embassy

What are networks?

Guanxi is a Chinese word originating from the Chinese social philosophy of Confucianism, stressing the importance of mutual obligations, reciprocity, and trust with others in order to maintain social and economic order. It describes the importance of connections and networks that are formed between individuals – and the way that people find each other, and the way in which capital and ideas move.

Bates argues that China is millennia ahead of the rest of the world in understanding the role of networks, and cultivating them.

Most people think of a network as being something physical. But instead, Bates’ thinks of Rome.

In contrast to other big cities – particularly London’s Thames and the Seine in Paris – Rome has been strangely disconnected from the Tiber river. The river, although running through the heart of the city, has been neglected over the years, and people don’t use it.

For the revitalisation of the river, Rome didn’t build a stadium or a factory. Instead, they commissioned a massive art project. William Kentridge created a 550 metre frieze – Triumphs and Laments – running along one side of the embankment between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. Rome’s largest piece of public art since Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted on the walls. Instead, large, figurative stencils were placed on the river’s embankment and the wall then power-washed around them – a process referred to in the industry as ‘reverse graffiti’.

This revitalisation of the heart of the city, although only opening last month, has already made the waterfront a place that people want to visit. Rome has become the go-to European destination this summer.

How did this happen?

We often talk about things ‘taking a village.’ But the modern day equivalent is that it takes a network – and often a global one.  Allowing arts and culture to flourish and become an economic driver requires funding, public policy, and infrastructure. You need support not only from government, but from the public.

The project in Rome was created by a South African artist, commissioned by a Roman arts organisation, with funding through the US crowdsourcing website Kickstarter. The project raised over US$95,000 – easily surpassing the goal of US$80,000. Most backers for the project were based in America and will likely never see the artwork. But it doesn’t matter – because as Bates points out, networks know no borders. That is their power.

What is culture in an economic context?

Today, networks are immaterial. Moving beyond goods and services, networks still produce values and products – they just look different. Experiences, intangibles – a conference – these are all cultural products. They have intellectual property, a location where these experiences happen, and a process that leads up to them.

The recent hoverboard craze is another example of a network in action, Bates explained. They were born out of social network magnification and are now a global phenomenon. China’s Shenzhen has become the world capital of meme manufacturing – 600 manufacturers started producing hoverboards in the first six months of 2015. This idea of meme manufacturing typically starts in the west – an idea spreads through an elaborate social network. Tweets, likes on Facebook, and photographs posted onto Instagram have the power to shape the lives and economies of people and places on the other side of the world.

The economic power of culture and networks was also evident in a panel discussion on the ‘influencer economy’. “A lot of people underestimate the power of culture and how that actually impacts people’s buying decisions,” says Angelo Pullen, founder of 3BlackDot. Increasingly, YouTubers are “driving forces in culture for young men and women around the world.”

3BlackDot is essentially a network itself; the company has a number of YouTube stars under its umbrella, which Pullen describes as “a network of YouTube influencers.” Between them, these 22 influencers have some 70 million followers and receive around 700 million views each month.

Other examples of culture impacting economics that Bates spoke of included:

  • The Gates in New York were a group of gates comprising a site-specific work of art by Bulgarian artist Christo Yavacheff and French artist Jeanne-Claude. They installed over 7,500 vinyl gates along pathways in Central Park. Although this was initially rejected in the 1980s, it ultimately attracted many people, and helped to boost the arts scene in New York.
  • After a struggle spanning the seventies, eighties and nineties in Berlin, the wrapped Reichstag was completed in June 1995. For two weeks the building, the former centre of the German Empire, was shrouded in silvery polypropylene – highlighting the features and proportions of the imposing building. It helped shift Berlin into a celebratory mood with crowds gathering day and night and marking the beginning of the city’s twenty-year ascent to become the cultural mecca of Europe.
  • The 798 Art zone – or the Dashanzi Art District in Beijing – is a 50-year-old decommissioned military factory with a unique architectural style. It has been transformed into a thriving community for artists. The building brings together an eclectic mix of people that would otherwise not have an outlet.
  • The Lord of the Rings is a great New Zealand example of culture driving economics. The films helped to grow tourism by 40 per cent from 2000 to 2006. Six per cent of international visitors cited the films as their primary reason to visit New Zealand. The films continue to boost the New Zealand economy, estimated to be worth NZD$33 million a year.
  • The film and television industry in Los Angeles accounts for a significant amount of the US GDP, and is a critical mass for cultural migration. Furthermore, business in Hollywood tends to be done over drinks and a meal – which was fuelled a great culinary scene in the city.

Bates concluded her talk with an inspirational message that set the scene for day two of the Tripartite Summit.

“Networks are the structural basis for globalisation and for modernisation,” she said. “Networks know no boundaries, and cultural networks are powerful. They should be consciously created for the benefit of everyone. They can’t be violated, abandoned or ignored. Networks have power that can’t be explored without consequences.”

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