Bram Pitoyo, Etc., Interlude, Links, Portland Creative/Tech Event Review

So, You Want To Grow A Community? The Big Picture

As we look forward to a new year for Portland’s thriving technology and creative communities, I thought I’d end this one with a big picture overview of why even the smallest community events, planned by people like you, could contribute to the city’s social and economic prosperity.

This is the fifth of a five-part series.

  1. Introduction: why Portland is the perfect place to start, and what to do about it
  2. Plan: write a goal statement that demonstrates depth and details
  3. Manage: help your sponsors use their time wisely
  4. Measure: continue to engage after and throughout the event’s lifecycle by using a social intelligence dashboard
  5. The Big Picture: examining Portland’s capacity for creativity and innovation, making a case for more grassroots initiatives (you are here)

Where does Portland rank in capacity for innovation and creativity? Where does it succeed, where does it lack? And how might they be enhanced by grassroots action?

Landry, Bianchini, Ebert, Gnad, & Kunzmann (1996) pr-posed fourteen mark of a creative city, all of which play an important role in how successful can a creative, innovative and grassroots initiative survive and prosper. Portland exceeded this metric in several aspects, but fell behind in another.

I chose to use their measures because it focuses on more ‘soft’ factors (the human–organizations–government connection) rather than ‘hard’ ones (infrastructure availability, cost.)

1. Hard factors and facilities

The quantity, quality, variety, accessibility of a combination of facilities are important for encouraging creative processes in a city. (p. 10)

Portland has its State University and Health State University research center located right in its heart, a small but burgeoning metro library system and education programs that interacts with the world around it. All of which helps transform information into knowledge. Portland State University’s Senior Capstone program, one that gives its students a chance to apply their learning to work on a community project, coveted America directly’s Best Colleges Programs to Look For in both 2005 and 2006 (Portland State University, 2006)

2. History

On the one hand it can inspire. On the other hand it can become a burden, a weight, (Portland State University, 2006)something that holds a city back. (p. 12)

Perhaps more true in reputation and perception than anything else, Portland had been casually called the place with a creative, idiosyncratic mind and soul of its own. The familial and sharing sensibilities left from the 60’s are still evident, though the danger of attribution of stereotyping Portland as a “tiny village where everybody loves each other” still remains.

3. Individuals and open communications

Innovative and creative projects are generally driven by committed, even obsessed, original and sometimes eccentric individuals. (p. 13)

Portland positively sanctioned creative and innovative deviance of its citizens. Not only is this evident in the wealth of fringe events that many such individuals participate outside of their workdays (the naked bike ride, Pedal The Bridge, etc.) Portland Development Commission specifically dedicated the Design and Creative Services as one of its target industry (Portland Development Commision, 2002)

4. Networking
The network between composers, artists, art galleries, collectors has created not only benefits for the participants, but also for the city which now has an important per-centage of jobs in the cultural industries as well as image advantages from the ‘public good’ that this grouping has created. (p. 15)

For a city of a relatively small size and close acquaintances, its design and technology sector had surprisingly wide arrays of associations and alliances, old and new alike, from PADA (Port-land Art Dealers Association) and SAO (Software Association of Oregon), to POSSE (Portland Open Source Software Entre-preneurs,) The Linux Foundation and Legion of Tech.

5. Organizational capacity
[…] elements of creativity and innovation need to run throughout the city’s decision making processes be that public, private or voluntary institutions or be they actors in the economic, social, cultural or environmental field. (p. 16)

Unfortunately, what Portland has in networking and open communication, it somewhat lacks in this factor. Case in point: Portland Development Commision’s Creative Services Center.

6. The recognition of a crisis or challenge to be solved
It is thus more difficult to generate innovation in situa-tions that are perceived to be satisfactory. (p. 17)

Many small creative and technology communities in Portland started with relatively little influence and power, and thus be-came innovative in their initiatives. In growing over the months with a more steady base of participants, they quickly becomes comfortable and, often, complacent. This is often evident in the fact that many groups are “clique”-y.

7. Catalyst events and organizations
Catalyst events and catalyst organisations are one way of creating opportunities for people with different perspec-tives to come together and to share ideas. (p. 17)

The mark represents one of the key pillars of this project: the bridge between the creative and the technology communi-ties. Currently, some events of this nature are present (and more is needed.) But this brings a clear need for the establishment of an organization that specifically addresses this issue, either from within the city (working with PDC, for instance) or in-dependently. This organization will serve as a voicebox for opinions and ideas from grassroots initiatives and individuals.

8. Creative spaces

A creative city requires land and buildings at affordable prices […] Cheap spaces reduce financial risk and therefore encourage experiment… (p. 18)

Compared to nine other creative cities around the US, like San Francisco, Austin and Denver, the Greater Portland area consis-tently ranks low in cost of apartment rent, Class A office space, total industrial space cost and median housing price (Greenlight Greater Portland, 2008, p. 25)

One other factor that’s equally as, if not more, important, is the availability of coworking space: a community-managed col-laborative work spaces for independent knowledge workers, who often needs non-traditional office space away from their homes. This can not only resolve their basic need for space for less money than a traditional office space, but also create a new work style more conducive to creativity and innovation called “coworking.” These are evident in Japan and Europe in the form of Art and Design Centers.

Old warehouse and textile factory that are no longer used were utilized to create the Kanazawa Citizen’s Art Center […] these facilities are designed to be used freely “24 hours a day, 365 days a year” […] The buildings were remodeled to serve as space for performance as well as practice, and di-rectors of these facilities were chosen from ordinary citizens. (Sasaki, 2005)

While a center in the true sense of the word is currently lacking, Portland possesses many coworking spaces for its size, whether they’re open/rent-anytime like Cubespace, Souk, Portland Innovation Center and ActivSpace, or closed/reservation-only, like LessDistracted and TENPOD.

9. Breaking the rules

…a more radical democratic approach to [incorporating creativity into city management] could turn this potential liability into an asset by creating new channels for a flow of creative ideas from the grassroots to city government. (p. 19)

Innovation means nothing if the desire to adopt it doesn’t come from the top-down. Mayor-elect Sam Adams dedication to supporting the creative, artistic and cultural initiatives are evident in his appointing of representative to chair a Coordinating Committee in the Regional Creative Capacity Strategy Project. The project aims to “build and support a sustainable creative community through prioritized strategies with clear costs and achievable ways to fund them” and ultimately make “creativity and innovation a regional value.” It serves to address three issues: expansion/extension of access to creative tools across the state, support of existing organizations and growth/advocacy of the creative community in general. Perhaps most importantly, the Creative Capacity Strategy team is composed of nonpartisan citizens.

By interacting directly with community members, the government unclogs the flow of creative ideas from the grassroots by removing bureaucracy. Unfortunately, there is no research-based evidence from this factor.

10. Bringing in outsider opinion

[…] immigrants, if their contribution is seen positively and is allowed to flourish rather than engendering a xenophobic response [can bring in outside opinion and influence] (p. 20)

Portland has seen increased influx of immigrants from across the US who seek to escape from rising cost as well as environment detriment to creativity. Citizens are usually more than happy to welcome them, and in this sense, Portland fits the definition well. But anecdotal evidences indicate that many moves here for similar reasons. This means that Portland attract likeminded individuals, with relatively few difference in mindsets, opinions and backgrounds. This means that a wide diversity necessary for any creative city to flourish in long term may be reduced.

In addition to this, Portland’s predominantly white demographic presents another challenge to overcome.

11. Attitudes toward risk and failure

[…] failure may contain the seeds of future success if it is analysed and not automatically punished […] Success, on the other hand, can lead to complacency. (p. 21)

One of the ways to encourage experimentation (and thus inno-vation) and better attitude towards risk is through the planning, development and launching of city and statewide pilot projects. Portland, like many other cities, has numerous. To encourage developments of projects, it will be critical to built a convinc-ing, evidence-based argument to stakeholders, using tools like the Toolkit Citizen Participation.

12. Approval and recognition

Innovation is risky and can be scary, as there are few guidelines to assess whether projects are being successful. For this reason, mechanisms to show approval and recog-nition are essential. (p. 22)

These mechanisms can best be demonstrated by citywide de-sign, architecture and art competitions. Currently, not many of these exist locally. The only notable example is the Portland Courtyard Housing Design Competition.

13. Self-reliance

[…] it is important to encourage internally generated ideas, in order to motivate people as well as a degree of lo-cal self-reliance and independence. (p. 23)

A report from groups conducted in Portland in February 23 and 24, 2004 by Impresa Inc. and Coletta & Company stated that “coupled with the creative climate is Portland’s independent, entrepreneurial climate. ‘People here are independent maver-icks, not part of the machine.’” and ECONorthwest’s research for PDC showed that 41% of the city’s creative services indus-try workers do so in non-employee firms, most of them as self-employed freelancers (Portland Development Commision, 2002). In addition to this, Portland also has the highest per-centage of small businesses per capita (Impresa, Inc., 2004)

14. Paradigm shifts

Taken seriously, the holistic, overarching concept of sustainability has implications for every aspect of urban life – [providing a] historic break at every level. (p. 24)

Much like what the concept of sustainability has brought to the consumer society, the ultimate goal of this project is for creativity and innovation to influence every area of urban life it touches. The challenge is to improve factors that the city lacks (diversity of internal and external opinions, recognition of problem among citizens, organization capacity) and ultimately use what it already has to its advantage (forming alliances between disparate groups of creatives through formalized organizations or informal events.)

Looking for the bibliography?

I’m still continually revising the paper. It’s going to be available shortly as a part of the next one or two posts.

Happy new year!

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One thought on “So, You Want To Grow A Community? The Big Picture

  1. Bram,

    This is a nice series of posts. Three thoughts:

    1) I used a similar Portland-style approach (something I’ve been doing for years) to create a national networking organization (http://www.internetstrategyforum.org), so the process is somewhat translatable.

    2) I’m surprised none of the posts in this series mentioned Cre8Camp, which you helped to get started (http://www.cre8camp.org).

    3) The Portland environment you talk about in these posts has helped to make Oregon Creative Industries take off as a meta-networking organization, beginning the process of partnering with structured and unstructured or grassroots networks to create a single voice to promote and advocate for the region’s creative economy (http://www.oregoncreative.org).

    Thanks again for your analysis.

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