Unlocking the Creative Potential of Urban Professionals (Creative Innovative Cities: Part One)

Creativity takes many forms and to solve pressing challenges facing our communities will require the collective creativity of people across many professions. This post is part of an ongoing series investigating creativity and innovation in cities.

Creativity and Cities

Cities have long been identified as focal points of creative activity [1], with creativity, knowledge and access to information linked to economic growth, social and cultural development [2]. While attracting a ‘creative class’ to cities was seen as a driver for prosperity [3], such ‘creative city’ policy prescriptions have also been shown to exacerbate social and economic inequalities in cities in North America [4], Asia [5], Australia [6], and Europe [7]. Richard Florida, from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto - a strong proponent of such prescriptions - more recently suggests he was “too optimistic to believe that cities and the creative class could, by themselves, bring forth a better and more inclusive kind of urbanism” [8]. While we recognize the limitations of 'creative city' policy prescriptions, creativity takes many forms. Creativity needs to be cultivated throughout society in order to build creative cities that are inclusive of not only a ‘creative class’ but all citizens. We can strive for creative cities, but we also need creative approaches by creative professionals enabled by creative leadership.

“We can strive for creative cities, but also need creative approaches by creative professionals enabled by creative leadership.”

Orderly and Consistent vs. Vibrant, Creative, and Resilient

The planning profession is at its most aspirational and primed to tackle complex challenges when it unlocks the creative potential of urban professionals. Most people who enter the planning profession have good intentions to make a positive difference in their cities and communities yet are often stifled by a system that constrains their creativity. Take for example the ongoing measurement against performance indicators and compliance practices that can make planning more of an exercise in “no, because” rather than “yes, if…”.

Urban professionals can play a critical role in developing innovative concepts, delivering new outlooks in their communities, and contributing to tackling complex urban social, environmental, economic and health challenges. Too often, however, people's energy and creativity is obstructed by top-down systems that focus on orderliness and the status quo. Urban Designer, Simon Lapointe suggests, “instead of coming up with fresh creative ideas, [digging] deep and [looking] for ways to adapt to changing environmental, social and economic conditions, planners continue to create cities with pedestrians segregated from cars, low density neighbourhoods with large footprint totally dependent on the automobile. Why? Because that is what people want and that is what the council wants: safe and orderly cities. We want things to remain the same.” Lapointe continues...“Good planning is a dynamic process that involves planners, citizens, businesses, and community leaders, with the aim of creating cities that [are] vibrant. An orderly city and a consistent city is not a vibrant city” [9].

An orderly and consistent city is neither vibrant, nor fosters the creativity of the very people who could help improve conditions for all residents. Co-Director of the Collaboratory for Urban Resilience & Energy at the Manchester Urban Institute, Dr. Joe Ravetz, suggests urban professionals from architects, planners, urban designers, and environmental policy-makers need to be more like gardeners than designers. He describes “the task of planners will be to spot the seeds of social intelligence sprouting around, and start nourishing them.” (to see his full public lecture see here). We need to foster creativity and innovation in cities to ensure our communities are resilient in the face of forces of change and crises in all their many forms.

The Copeland Park and Bussey Building in Peckham, London was made possible by local collective action and knowledge. To see more visit here.

Leadership that Nourishes Creativity

Leadership can help foster creative talent but must develop ambitious managerial competencies. Robert Epstein, author of the report ‘How Creativity is Managed’ outlines key managerial competencies in his report ‘How Creativity is Managed’ to provide the platform for those under their leadership to express their creativity. Epstein challenges leaders to:

  • Give your people difficult or imposing problems to solve, ambitious goals to attain, and the support needed to manage difficulties.
  • Encourage broadening of their horizons, which means providing people with training in subjects or topics well outside their comfort zones.
  • Support capturing of possible solutions that urge people to preserve their breakthrough ideas and give them the tools to do so.
  • Manage teams by assembling diverse groups that can use brainstorming and other techniques to maximize their creative output.
  • Model the core competencies of creativity by walking the walk.
  • Provide appropriate resources to enable creative functioning in a rich physical and social environment that keeps people inspired.
  • Provide positive feedback and recognition to people who contribute new and important ideas.
  • Most importantly, creative people must be trusted to fail. That is where real learning occurs. [10]
“Most people can be trusted to do the right thing, but they are too rarely given a chance. The system works against them, stifling their initiative and knocking them back.” - from Making Massive Small Change: Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want (Campbell, p. 13, 2018).

Structure and rules are critical for order in the system, but to maximize the potential for creativity and innovation in our cities we must move towards a ‘sweet spot’ that balances between a system that is under-constrained and over-constrained (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: The 'Sweet Spot' for Enabling Creativity. Adapted from Making Massive Small Change: Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want (Campbell, p. XX, 2018).

Communities around the world are facing - and will continue to face - problems that will require creative and innovative solutions that challenge the status quo. When cities are united under leadership that fosters creative talent from within their own communities, they are more agile to implement small and large-scale change to tackle major challenges.

In the next article in the series we investigate creativity and innovation and how these terms relate to cities around the world.


  1. [1] Jacobs, Jane. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
  2. [2] Intelli (2011). Creative-based Strategies in Small and Medium-sized Cities: Guidelines for Local Authorities. Retrieved from: https://urbact.eu/sites/default/files/import/Projects/Creative_Clusters/documents_media/URBACTCreativeClusters_TAP_INTELI_Final_01.pdf
  3. [3] Florida, R. (2002). The rise of the creative class (Vol. 9). New York: Basic books.
  4. [4] Ponzini, D., & Rossi, U. (2010). Becoming a creative city: The entrepreneurial mayor, network politics and the promise of an urban renaissance. Urban studies, 47(5), 1037-1057.
  5. [5] Kong, L., & O'Connor, J. (2009). Creative economies, creative cities: Asian-European perspectives (Vol. 98). New York, NY.
  6. [6] Atkinson, R., & Easthope, H. (2009). The consequences of the creative class: The pursuit of creativity strategies in Australia's cities. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(1), 64-79.
  7. [7] Bayliss, D. (2007). The rise of the creative city: Culture and creativity in Copenhagen. European planning studies, 15(7), 889-903.
  8. [8] Florida, R. (2017).The new urban crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class-and what we can do about it. Hachette UK.
  9. [9] Lapointe, S. (2015). Has the Urban Planning Profession Made You Boring? Retrieved from: https://www.planetizen.com/node/74517
  10. [10] Epstein, R. (2015). Do You Have What It Takes to Help Your Team Be Creative? Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2015/12/do-you-have-what-it-takes-to-help-your-team-be-creative.
  11. [11] Campbell, K. (2018). Making Massive Small Change: Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want. Chelsea Green Publishing Vermont.

Do you have a piece of writing or project that aligns with the Design Outsider Manifesto? If so, would you like to use this platform to promote the work you are doing? Reach out to the team here.

By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.