The Edinburgh Toronto creative industries trade mission (for the daily despatches see #edintotoronto on Twitter) came to a close Thursday with a visit to nGen, a digital creative incubator in St Catherine’s, Niagara. Like many communities they have struggled to counter the collapse of heavy industries and find ways to grow new jobs. Unlike many such communities the region has a major tourist attraction in Niagara Falls and associated facilities from 5* hotels to upmarket restaurants for the yachting crowd.
Those amenities make it possible for nGen’s very well equipped but still very recent digital post production facilities companies to attract film and tv makers to edit away from Toronto or Hollywood. Similarly the presence of an established animation company, Keyframe, and supportive University College, help ensure there are skilled people looking to join or startup digital media companies. Perhaps most important of all, these young companies are run by people who want to stay in the area and help it prosper, rather than gravitate to Toronto or Hollywood. By providing access to expensive hard and software at discount rates nGensupports a growing band of ambitious local companies ranging from games and animation to feature film and tv.
This combination of factors echoes some of the points made by Richard Florida and others in analysing what makes regions or cities flourish. At the trip’s closing event we heard from his close associate at the Martin Prosperity Institute Kevin Stolarik, self styled “statistician of the creative class”. It’s one thing to describe the ingredients that have made small cities like St Catherine’s or a megalopolis like Toronto ‘work’ in creative industries terms, quite another to figure out what if anything can be done to repeat the trick in other places or other contexts. However ‘cultural planner’ Greg Baeker of consultants AuthentiCity gave an account of how cultural mapping has led to a positive policy outcome. The “no let loss” policy he advocated in his 2008 ‘Creative City Planning Framework‘ has been used as a means of protecting the bohemian art spaces which are a vital component in Toronto’s creative and urban ecology, particularly as the city is going through a massive building boom.
The ecology of individual artists, not-for-profit cultural organisations and entrepreneurial digital media companies like the nGen ‘portfolio’ or Temple Street Productions, Canada’s 5th largest indie producer (led by expat Scot John Young), gives Toronto a powerful advantage both within Canada and on an international stage.
Similarly the willingness of industry to engage with the college and university sector on both skills and innovation fronts was very evident. nGen has an ‘embedded’ member of Niagara College staff with expertise in VFX and allied areas, helping connect students to the portfolio companies and vice versa. Similarly Pinewood Toronto hosts the Screen Industries Research and Training Centre (SIRT) which in just two or so years has undertaken over fifty innovation projects with film and media companies in areas such as 3D and VFX in partnership with global companies like Autodesk and the major professional bodies like the Canadian Directors Guild. Back in the city cen University hosts the Digital Media Zo) an incubator for digital media start ups where creatives and techs collide and make connections.
None of these great things were the direct result of a grand master plan to make Toronto a creative city but there is a plan to keep it that way. The combination of a supportive city council, provincial tax incentives, dynamic Higher Education institutions, huge ethnic diversity, thriving arts and culture scene, entrepreneurial spirit and sense of collective purpose seems to be particularly fertile in this part of the world.
Edinburgh and indeed Scotland shares many of those characteristics but has further to go in making them connect up. Coming back to the two main reasons for the trip – connecting creative businesses and looking at what we can learn from Toronto’s success in ensuring the City Council and Creative Edinburgh can better support and champion the city’s creative sector – it seems clear to me that we have to make a real effort to broaden and deepen the connectivity between all of the city’s creative sectors from galleries to gamers. We need to identify the really key things that local and national agencies can do but aren’t yet doing to facilitate creative growth, whether that’s in city planning, business support or cultural funding. And we need to enlarge and speed up the contribution that Universities and Colleges are already making to fuelling the furnace.
Our own Institute for Creative Industries at Edinburgh Napier has, like others, made a good start with e.g. over 20 Innovation Voucher partnerships in the last 18 months but having seen where e.g. Sheridan and Ryerson have got to its clear we still have a lot to do. As it happens the timing couldn’t be better with the Scottish Funding Council in the midst of encouraging Scotland’s Universities to combine in developing an Innovation Centre for the Creative Industries. It has a real chance of becoming a reality and helping to make that crucial connectivity happen.