Academic Spotlight: Is the Creative City a tool for neoliberalism?

Phitchakan Chuangchai is a 3rd year Warwick PhD candidate in Creative Industries. She has been granted a Masters’ and PhD scholarship from the Royal Thai government. Phitchakan’s research focuses on discovering whether the ‘Creative City’ discourse, which is endorsed by UNESCO, the British Council, and most recently ASEAN, is a Trojan horse for neoliberalism.


What inspired you to do your research?

I did my undergraduate studies in Chiangmai, then came to the UK to pursue a Masters in Cultural and Creative Industries. At that time my supervisor for Creative Cities (CC) in Warwick was thinking about expanding his research to the Southeast Asia (SEA) region. I was fortunate enough to attain a scholarship to pursue cultural management for my PhD thesis at Warwick. For me, it was a very natural follow-up from my Masters Research.

Throughout the course of my study, I’ve witnessed many changes in my hometown, Chiangmai. It has inspired me to want to study more in-depth the rapid transformations that I was inevitably a part of, most notably when the concept of “Creative Chiangmai” came into the picture. The focus of my PhD expands beyond Thailand into the ASEAN network. As you might know, the SEA Creative Cities Network (CCN) was established in 2014. My research centres around 4 main cities, which are Chiangmai, Cebu, Bandung and Georgetown.


An intriguing point is that your research links the idea of creative cities with neoliberalism. What does the word “neoliberalism” mean to you?

Neoliberalism is a complex concept. To put it in words, it is individualism, socially and culturally. Neoliberalism leads to class divisions, and to some extent an “every man for himself” mentality. A concept which is quite interesting for me is the Creative Class (CRC): Richard Florida mentions the phrase as a term used to describe a socioeconomic class that sees artists alongside technocrats like computing engineers as the main driving forces of the economy.


Can you tell us a bit more about that relationship between Creative Cities and Neoliberalism?

“Creative Cities” are essentially a catchy and attractive form of branding for cities looking to establish themselves on the international stage. It breeds a sort of neoliberalism that is focused on pure economic gain, without collective social benefit.


In your opinion, could you explain what the roots of neoliberalism are?

In 1995, cities like Birmingham and Manchester were left behind, after whole industries and factories were transferred to other parts of the world where costs were much lower. Charles Landry’s book The Creative City, published in the year 2000, discusses the fundamental purpose behind a “Creative City” (CC) mega-trend. One of the desired goals of CC is to help lower high crime rates and boost the economy, through tourism and investment.

In essence, CC is about culture-led regeneration, with culture as the key driving force behind the rejuvenation of a city. The problem is, many cities simply copy other cities’ strategies. This normally involves a major flagship project, or the construction of museums just to attract more people from the outside. However, what it fails to realise is that it doesn’t involve local people at all in the process.

If you take a look at North American and European cities, the techniques they observed in the past is a big contributor to the cementing of neoliberal societies today. However, this trend is not just confined to the Western World. To me, neoliberalism is not compatible with Western culture. It should not be compatible with SEA culture, nor any culture at all, for that matter.


How would you describe the Creative Class in Chiangmai?

It’s a Creative City that puts most of its emphasis on growing the economy, and that is different from what a Creative City should be. It has created an entirely new social class. The concept of the “Creative City” has changed from the idea of the regeneration of local communities to reaping more economic benefits. Coffeeshops and art galleries have now replaced the creative cluster with artists all around in Nimmanhaemin. It’s no longer what it used to be, but a new kind of tourist trap.

A coffeeshop in Chiang Mai. Photo credit: backstreetacademy.com

Some people of Chiangmai, the elites, are desperate to group themselves in this Creative Class, and adopt the CRC into their own identity. They wish to appear more powerful and superior than the other classes in society.


What were the other results and findings from your research within the SEA region?

In all 4 cities I study, the “Creative City” notion is engulfing SEA too fast. It’s the sometimes senseless and rash application of the term, without people really understanding what it means. As mentioned, Chiangmai attained UNESCO CCN status recently in 2017. However, some people who were interviewed on hindsight have regrets and wouldn’t choose to brand city under the “creative city” umbrella if they could make the same choice today. Having creativity as a branding limits the home-grown solutions from the local people. Locals don’t know what Creative Cities are. It’s just a ‘FAST’ policy, meaning to say policy is passed quickly through government but not really thought through in terms of long-term impact.


What are some of the impacts of neoliberal policy?

The sad reality is that traditional, local industries are disappearing. A short look at the crafts industry in Chiangmai would tell you that it is quickly disappearing. When Chiangmai first applied for the Creative City title, it did so under the ‘Design’ category. The natural thing to ask is, why design and not crafts, when Chiangmai is famous for its craft industry? It was a reaction of surprise from most observers, myself included.

Photo credit: Unsplash

What they tried to justify was that crafts in Chiangmai are already famous, so it was better to choose ‘design’ to provide a wider portfolio. What many people did not realise was that people who championed this were from the design industry, with vested interests. Fortunately, UNESCO saw through and did not award Chiangmai the title. It was only awarded to us when we applied under the ‘Crafts’ Category between 2017 and 2018.


Do you think neoliberalism can be prevented?

If everyone is aware on the implications of neoliberalism, then in an ideal situation, neoliberalism can be prevented. In reality, it’s very difficult for neoliberalism not to creep in. It’s very deceptive. Neoliberalism masks itself in sugar-coated policymaking. Social science and humanities research doesn’t have the same impact or weight as economic and statistical research – we can’t even compare its impact with that of the hard sciences. Thus, people tend to overlook social science and humanities research as being less important than the pure numbers and figures, such as tourism numbers, revenue generated etc.


What would you wish to be different, for the Creative City policy to work, especially in SEA?

Look at people (i.e locals) and take them into account in every decision made. At present, there is most certainly not enough evidence-based policy in Thailand. The hypothetical has more emphasis than the empirical, than the realities on the ground. In truth, the CCN will be able to spread throughout SEA, but it must be carefully measured and weighted.


Any thoughts on the “Coventry City of Culture (CCOC) 2021”?

The European Capital of Culture (ECOC) kicked off in the 1980s. It wanted to use culture to attract more people into the city, so it started with big cities like Milan and Paris. These are all famous tourist destinations, fashion capitals of the world. Soon after ECOC changed their scope to working with problem cities.

What the UK did was that it integrated the idea and now they do it every 4 years, rotating it every period. If a city is selected to be a City of Culture, it receives funding for the whole year to spruce up the city centre and reduce crime. Coventry basically follows a model like that of Birmingham.

Photo credits: Unsplash

As part of the rejuvenation process, Warwick Arts Centre, located within the University of Warwick, would be the biggest Arts Centre in the immediate areas surrounding Coventry and Coventry itself by 2021. CCOC would most definitely boost partnership by working with universities, such as the University of Warwick and Coventry University. By tapping into the University vibrancy and youth, CCOC can gain resources which help the longevity of the project.

What it must be careful of is to think long-term. A case in point is Glasgow, which attained ECOC status in 1990. A few years later, tourism and revenue generation took a major dip, and it has never really recovered since then. This shows us that having the ECOC, or any Creative City title does not have much long-term impact if people, at the heart of it all, are neglected.

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