Creative Cities Around the World (Creative Innovative Cities: Part Three)

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.

In previous weeks we explored creative leadership in cities and the difference between a creative and innovative city. Is there a way to better understand what elements contribute to a 'creative city'? In this article we highlight the United Nations Creative Cities Network and the Creative Cities Index developed by Charles Landry and Jonathan Hyams.

Creative Cities Network

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations with the key objective to promote world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture. The UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UNCCN) is a project of UNESCO launched in 2004 that covers seven creative fields, crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music. Regarding the creative cities network, UNESCO has set out a second set of aims targeted at creative city development:

  • Strengthen international cooperation between cities that value creative and sustainable development.
  • Strengthen city initiatives which focus on collaboration across sectors.
  • Help cities with distribution and production within the creative sector.
  • Help integrate marginalized and vulnerable groups into the community and culture.
  • Integrate culture and creativity into local development and strategies.

The four example cities explored below are some of the participating members recognized by UNESCO as successful cities of creativity which are actively pursuing the UCCN objectives.

Bilbao, Spain

Bilbao is an excellent example of a creative innovative city. The city managed to reinvent itself from an industrial capital into a creative city through smart thinking, determination and innovation. It supports a vibrant community of creatives that include architects, industrial and interior designers, new technology developers, fashion designers, audio visual technicians, video game developers and craft experts.

“Creativity, design and culture are central to the city’s development strategy, owing to their important role for the development of the local communities, but also as a driver of the economic and social transformation.” - UNESCO

Bilbao has also successfully merged creativity with the city’s heritage and culture. Creativity has now become a way of life for many of its residents. Governance is also highly efficient as the city has formed a design and creative council to oversee the public, private and social partnership comprising of public and private members. This has created unity and clarity within the community. The city has also successfully marketed its achievements to the world and has generated a powerful brand name, drawing diverse talent from across the globe.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Despite being the capital of a still developing country, Bueno Aires has managed to nurture a prosperous creative community which grew by 89.1% between 2004 and 2012 contributing 8.6% of the city’s GDP, translating to roughly $6.5bn. Creatives make up 9.1% of the city’s work force, that projects an estimated community of over 137,400 creatives. Micro businesses account for 85.6% of all businesses in the city leading to a diverse and resilient economy.

The strategy behind the development of a creative industry was in response to some of Buenos Aires’ most deprived neighbourhoods. The city has focused on addressing inequality and uses the creative innovative city model as a tool to foster economic growth within targeted districts through economic incentives and public works such as transportation and the recovery of social and recreational space. The city has also established the Metropolitan Design Centre (MDC) in the heart of Barracas, one of the deprived districts. The MDC is housed in a renovated fish market which offers an enormous amount of space and services.

“[The Metropolitan Design Centre] houses classrooms and laboratories, city government design and fashion offices, and offers up industrial space for emerging designers and companies. It runs a range of workshops and seminars, public conferences, trade shows, open government events such as hackathons, and other activities centred around design and innovation.” – Buenos Aires City

Buenos Aires is a fantastic example of a city using the creative innovative city model to improve the quality of life and opportunities for its residents, in return receiving economic growth. It is also successfully developing its profile on the world stage as a capital for design.

Austin, Texas

Austin is successfully positioning itself as a major player in the tech industry striking a balance between tech and more traditional arts. The city is aware of its largest competitors, Silicon Valley and Seattle, and has taken note of both their successes and failures. Austin is not only the capital of Texas, but also ideally positioned geographically between major players New York City and Silicon Valley.

Creativity is embedded deep within the culture and has been for over a century. The city well known for its music scene, and since 1987 has hosted the world-renowned South by Southwest festival. SXSW infuses music, film and interactive media and contributes significantly to the economy, generating $350 million annually in recent years, comparable to the Super Bowl. However, in response to COVID-19, the organizers have opted to cancel the 2020 festival which has brought into question Austin’s economic dependence on the event. It has become clear that Austin may be over reliant on the festival's economic output. Reports have also shown that SXSW’s organizers may take some time to recover from the hardship. In response, the city is mitigating and re-evaluating its position.

The city’s creative community contributes $4.35 billion annually to the economy and has grown by 40% in the last decade. This represents 2.9% of Austin’s total economic output which is heavily dependent on natural resources and mining, signifying that there is still room for further growth. Austin is also the second fastest growing metropolitan economy sitting at 6.9% placing it firmly with its rivals in Silicon Valley. Three of the four cities at the top of the ranking reside within the bay area and Seattle sits in seventh place.

Governance has also taken note of Silicon Valley and Seattle’s failure in combating the housing crisis and failing infrastructure. The city has reformed and consolidated its construction legislation in order to streamline the process while accommodating the increase in construction. Developing a comprehensive strategy, it rezones key areas within the city for residential development and adds a transportation system to sustain the growth. Austin has adopted the predication “whether we build it or not they will come”.

Dundee, Scotland

Dundee is the UK's first (and currently only) UNESCO City of Design. Dundee has a rich history of diverse contributions ranging from video games, comics and medical research. Video games Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings were first created in the city and Dundee comic book graphic design developed iconic characters such as Oor Wullie, Dennis the Menace and Desperate Dan. With a £1 billion waterfront urban redevelopment project, Dundee is home to the V&A Dundee: Scotland’s first design museum. The city is also home to a dynamic digital media industry and a vibrant design and creative industries sector.

V&A Dundee: Scotland’s first design museum and the RRS Discovery

According to Dundee City Council, Dundee City of Design’s fundamental principles informing the action plan for 2019 – 2022 are, to:

  • Celebrate and demonstrate the impact of design, engaging citizens in design, the work of designers and opportunities for co-design.
  • Champion Dundee’s designers by promoting their talent, supporting their creative and commercial success, and involving them in decisions.
  • Actively participate in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network/ Collaborate and share in developing projects and learning from other UNESCO Cities of Design.

Collaboration between local and national organizations has contributed to a vibrant creative community. Creative Dundee is a local social enterprise that leads collaborative projects which generate local, national and international opportunities for people and the city – to support Dundee’s strong creative ecology. This summer, UNESCO City of Design Dundee and V&A Dundee announced collaboration on a range of projects and partnerships rooted in the local community.

“[the partnership between the UNESCO City of Design Dundee and the V&A) cements Dundee’s commitment to design, and to using design as a tool to create change in our city” Annie Marrs, lead officer of UNESCO City of Design Dundee (

The city is now home to a cutting edge life sciences sector, a dynamic digital media industry, respected higher education institutions including the University of Dundee, Abertay University and major events such as the Dundee Design Festival. To read more about current projects, future opportunities and design stories in Dundee, visit City of Design Dundee.

The Creative City Index (CCI)

As shown in the examples above, 'creative' cities come in all shapes and sizes with no one-sized-fits all approach. Yet, is there a way to measure and track progress against aims and targets and identify if a city is closer or further away from 'creative city' aspirations? One such method is 'The Creative City Index'. Charles Landry and Jonathan Hyams developed 'The Creative City Index' as a tool for cities to monitor and support the development of their creative communities.

“(the goal of the Creative City Index) is to measure help identify and track progress against aims and targets, to identify opportunities to improve, to compare performance against internal and external standards." - Charles Landry, The Creative City Index

The index was also developed as an engagement exercise for use in seminars and public gatherings to involve citizens and the private sector in the decision-making process. Charles Landry states that the process can often be more rewarding than the results. The indicators are broad by design and cover most sectors within the city to encourage cross disciplinary discussion within the community and break down silos (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Creative City Index Indicators

According to Landry, “these domains are not necessarily the obvious atomistic categories but are more holistic, drawing together strands that affect all sectors, people, organizations and aspects of city life” (The Creative City Index). The reasoning is that each indicator should be relatable so that all community members can see their position within the larger strategy.

A Cautionary Tale: The Bay Area

Taking a wholistic approach to defining a 'creative city', the technology hub San Francisco Bay Area may not be as creative as widely perceived. The region managed to turn a gift into a curse and now that curse has become a crisis on the verge of a catastrophe. The region has experienced a mass exodus of working middle class families as a result of mismanagement and poor policy which has led to a crippling housing shortage. The environment left behind is now entirely reliant on one industry - big tech.

The division between the 'have’s' and the 'have nots' in the region is tremendous. The average software engineer in Silicon Valley can expect a starting salary of $160,000, 40% higher than the national average. Many remaining residents are reliant on low paying service jobs that very rarely cover rental cost. The average cost of a home in the bay area is around $1.2m. The cheapest of the nine counties, Solano County, sits at around $500,000. In San Francisco the average is $1.37m. In comparison, the U.S average sits at $275,000. From 2010-2017, income rates increased by 43% while housing rentals increased by 50%-74%. The 2017 census put the number of homeless at 28,200 of which 67% are unsheltered. In early 2020, Google pledged $1bn into the Bay Area to construct new homes and Apple has pledged an additional $2.5bn.

Regardless of whether big tech caused the sudden demand in housing it is up to city planning to adapt to the current condition. In the Envision San Jose 2040 General Plan, it stipulates an additional 382,000 new jobs but restricts housing production to 120,000 new units. City policy is failing those who will be pushed out of their homes as a direct result of poor legislative oversight. There are several key reasons why the Bay Area is in this situation. The first is that it costs three times the national average to build in the bay area. Much of this is down to the labour cost (directly correlating to the living cost), land cost (a result of the high demand) and government fees.

The bay area also has some of the most comprehensive building standards in the country. In some cases it can take nine months to a year before a planner is assigned to a case and then the process of an environmental study can take another several years. At any stage of the process residents can appeal the project through local control of zoning. The reason given for the appeal in many cases is the additional pressure that density would put on existing infrastructure.

The biggest culprit of the housing crisis, however, is Position 13 which was implemented in 1978. It caps inflation rates on property tax to 2% meaning it incentivizes the local government to instead approve and invest in commercial development as it generates taxable revenue. The final major factor, is the result of high demand. High demand has attracted foreign investment which essentially sits on real estate pulling it out of circulation.

While the Bay Area may have many successful creative and tech businesses, we need to recognize the limitations valuing creativity through a narrow lens of economic output. Nurturing an ecosystem for creativity to flourish requires an attention to a broad number of issues connected to overall quality of life.


Creative Cities come in all shapes and sizes with each city having specific strengths, challenges and opportunities. The examples above from Austin to Dundee show that a city should play to its strength when cultivating its own creativity. Creativity comes in many forms, and a creative city must embrace this attitude and highlight elements that make it unique from other cities. Rather than attempting to copy success from elsewhere, a creative city should stay true to its identity while at the same time also embrace change to improve the lives of its residents.

The success of creative cities around the world (and the cautionary example of the Bay Area) also make clear that economic, social, environmental and health outcomes are interconnected. A successful creative city is not simply a vibrant arts culture. While creativity can be narrowly defined through the lens of 'the arts', as the 'Creative Cities Index' suggests, creativity is not the preserve of any single sector but requires an 'all-hands-on-deck' approach. Creativity must be embedded throughout society to create a supporting ecosystem that fosters creative approaches to urban challenges in the city.

To read our previous article on unlocking the creative potential of urban professionals see here.

View from Union Street to the V&A Design Museum, Dundee Scotland

Additional Resources

  1. Creative city Index
  2. Creative-Based Strategies in Small and Medium Sized Cities: Guidelines for Local Authorities:

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