Dialogue, collaboration and exchange: What makes a city creative?

21 March 2016

Last week, the project D.A.T.E. (Date Antwerp Through Experience) saw an invited group of international creatives visit Antwerp to discover the creative scene in the city. Following three days of studio visits, cultural excursions and networking opportunities, organised by This is Antwerp, Oonagh Murphy reflects on the experience and discusses some of the factors that determine a ‘creative’ city.

The under 35s are a generation of budget travellers, and explorers keen on collaborating with “locals” rather than simply observing their culture. From hostels to Airbnb, serendipitous exchange, the unexpected, and good coffee are all key to a successful city break for creative professionals. From a tourism perspective, culture acts as a unique selling point in helping individual cities to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Undeniably it’s difficult to find a city without a Starbucks, Zara or H&M but its what exists around these global shops that makes people want to travel, and some people to call a place home. Identifying what it is that differentiates a city, that makes it stand out from high streets in every other western city is the work of cultural theorists from Richard Florida to Franco Bianchini. While such theorists use metrics from educational attainment, taxation and return on investment to measure how creative a city is, it is the softer more fuzzy story of people, place and serendipitous encounter that I am interested in.

If we look at the 2012 London Olympics, it wasn’t London that made the games, instead it was the “Games Makers”, 70,000 people who volunteered their time to welcome the world to their city. It is a similar story with the 2014 Commonwealth games in Glasgow, which adopted the slogan “People Make Glasgow.”

This is Antwerp takes a comparable approach in that it seeks local people to blog about their city and their experience, the project fosters unique voices rather than a coherent company message. In a networked world, it’s the people that make a city unique, different and intriguing. They also make a city creative, but it is policy which facilitates creativity, and policy which justifies funding for museums and galleries, as well as providing permits for creative pop ups. As such, supporting local creatives to lay roots and grow with the city is a key function of local government.

The challenge then for city planners, and cultural place makers is creating civic spaces for locals and tourists to meet, to exchange ideas, to debate, to make. From coffee shops to studios, galleries to gigs, these places of serendipitous encounter, exchange and discovery are key to generating a creative city which welcomes locals and visitors alike.

Recognising the value of creative people, ideas and cultural exchange is Discover Antwerp Through Experience (D.A.T.E), a week-long creative bootcamp aimed at bringing people together to discover the city. The bootcamp which has been organised by This is Antwerp, focuses on attracting creative under 35s to the city. The rational behind this initiative is that Antwerp is a hidden gem, which alongside a solid cultural history, also offers a contemporary and creative scene likely to appeal to creative professionals who are keen to travel, network, and seek inspiration along the way.

As a key international port city, multicultural influence and passing traders are not a new thing for this city. However this week as a participant on the D.A.T.E Bootcamp I have observed a new kind of exchange of social capital, ideas and networks rather than products. Each of the participants brings with them a strong international following through Instagram, Twitter or YouTube and this social currency lays the foundation for trading – not in a monetary sense – but trading in ideas, debate and collaborative opportunity. As an international city, English is commonly spoken, alongside Flemish, which makes contemporary modes of trade possible. From introducing themselves to museums, galleries and cafes through Twitter in advance of visiting and continuing the conversation after visiting, D.A.T.E participants have demonstrated that a creative city is a city not only open to, but also excited for dialogue, collaboration and exchange. A creative city is not a fixed concept, instead, in an increasingly global world a creative city is one which is proud of its heritage but excited by and open to change.

Dr Oonagh Murphy is Associate Professor of Visual Arts Management and Curating at Richmond the American International University in London and. She participated in the most recent D.A.T.E Bootcamp this month.


Day 1: D.A.T.E Bootcamp 2016


Day 3: D.A.T.E Bootcamp 2016


Day 3: D.A.T.E Bootcamp 2016

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