What being a creative and inclusive city means in Toronto, Amsterdam and Dubai

A blogpost by Martin de Jong and Abdulrhman Alsalay
Sign on grass, indicating step free route for wheelchair users

Can creative cities be inclusive too? Abdulrhman Alsayel, Martin de Jong and Jan Fransen recently published a new article in Cities in which they follow up on this question. By taking a closer look at cities on three different continents they determine to which extent cities which only recently have added the the term 'inclusive' to their city branding succeed in aligning it with their already existing creative city branding. In this blogpost they summarize their findings and showcase where these cities succeed - and where not. 

How the creativity of three Ts delivers exclusive economic value

In the past three decades or so, being a ‘creative city’ has been a strong recommendation for municipalities around the world: the label implies that they host and are able to attract a great variety of talents within their territories and reap the sweet economic fruits of having them in their midst. The talents’ high levels of education secure the creation of substantial value added, whether this be in finance, accountancy, real estate, advertising, arts, or any other business requiring the use of brain capacity in creative manners. Their cosmopolitanism promotes tolerant attitudes towards divergent lifestyles without them growing nervous over seeing conduct and phenomena they are not immediately familiar with. And their savviness in handling state-of-the-art technologies makes them receptive and agile in adapting quickly and fruitfully to the wondrous world of digitization. For a long time, it was thought that the key to generating robust economic development had been found for cities that knew how to generate the conditions for such ‘creative classes’ to be attracted, hatched and preserved. The confluence of Talent, Technology, and Tolerance (the famous three Ts) would jointly do the job and do it well.

In the past few years, a new city label has appeared on the scene, the popularity of which has grown remarkably: ‘the inclusive city’. At first sight, inclusion seems to sit very nicely together with creativity, especially in its tolerant variety. Creative cities enjoy the reputation of treating ambitious people of religious, ethnic, or other minorities distinctly better than other more conservative cities, they perform better in terms of gender equality and are more open to young talents whether they are deviant in some sense or not. Any hair colour, any dress code and brand of shoes will do, as long as people deliver economic value. What matters is that they understand how Artificial Intelligence works and twist it to the advantage of their employer, that they can do the company’s bookkeeping systematically and diligently and preferably in creative ways and that they manage to market its product lines with a good understanding of the exclusive needs of their customers. But that eventually and inevitably begs an answer to the question how creativity can be leading to inclusive urban communities and exclusive goods and services at the same time.

Bird eye view of a creative city layout with green surroundings

How inclusion operates as a Jack of all Trade-Offs

If pinpointing what exactly the creativity in the creative city refers to has proven to be a tough nut to crack, pundits on the inclusiveness of the inclusive city have barely had an easier job conceptualizing their favorite term. Cutting a long story short, however, it seems reasonable to claim that social and economic inclusion represent a multi-dimensional phrase often perceived as an unnegotiable moral imperative which in actual fact requires a balanced tradeoff across various exclusion grounds based on political and cultural preferences. Age, (dis)ability, religion and ideology, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, wealth, and income as well as location and nationality can all be used to exclude individuals or groups from any types of assets or benefits.

In quite a few cases, it is fully legal and ethically endorsed to use such exclusion grounds, such as using age requirements for retirement or suffrage entitlements or educational degree as in the case of job recruitment. In other cases, it is legally permitted but morally contested, such as applying capital or income standards for access to insurance policies or housing facilities. And in yet other situations, it is illegal but still surreptitiously or unconsciously done, such as for race and ethnicity in giving school advice to young children or sorting written applications before job interviews take place. Moreover, since all individuals are mixed bags of all these characteristics above, not all claims to fame and success can be honoured, and value systems as to what priorities and posteriorities should be set are likely to diverge: some pain must land somewhere sometimes. If gender equality in top positions in Dutch academia needs to increase some promising young male talents may not get what they deserve. Or vice versa. If claims to separate swimming classes for boys and girls due to religious convictions are honoured, mainstream European parents will be unhappy. Likewise for religious minorities if their wishes are rejected. In sum, however much people will want ‘inclusion’ to be an absolute moral right, in real-life situation it can normally not be more than a relative practical balancing act. Politics and policy are a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

How inclusive are creative cities?

In order to examine to what extent creativity promotes or reduces inclusion in its various shapes, the two authors of the blogpost and Jan Fransen from IHS set out to study branding practices and policy actions vis-à-vis creativity and inclusion in three global metropolises generally hailed as creative and inclusive cities at the same time: Toronto, Amsterdam and Dubai. We mapped their scores on both the three Ts of creativity and the seven exclusion grounds and based on those were able to compare their profiles:

As it turns out, all three cities do quite well when it comes to adopting features of and promoting conditions for being a creative city, but the picture grows far blurrier when it comes to the question how their policies handle the various exclusion grounds: Toronto excels in gender, age and disability, but shows average performance in religion and ideology, race and ethnicity, and income and wealth. Amsterdam impresses on religion and ideology, race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality, but deeply disappoints in age and disability. Dubai is generous to the elderly and disabled, but largely disregards all the other exclusions grounds in its policies. We must therefore conclude that all three cities can make reasonable entitlements to the label ‘inclusive city’ but on very different grounds, depending on cultural value systems and expressed through political preferences expressed by their municipal governments in policy reports and deployed through policy instruments. Another perhaps (even) more disturbing finding is that whenever characteristics of creativity actions do not coincide with incentives favouring inclusion, those promoting creativity tend to prevail. In other words: generating economic value takes priority over distributing it evenly across various income brackets. Whereas creative cities tend to be more inclusive in age, religion, political views and broader gender issues, their socio-economic inequality is likely to increase. Apparently, the one type of inclusion is not the other.

How creative can inclusive cities be?

It is one thing not to excel on all dimensions of inclusion, but it is quite another if exclusion on various counts cumulates for specific individuals and groups in the city. If exclusion comes down on people of a particular gender, education level, ethnicity and income bracket combined, we can say that a process of cumulative exclusion is taking place, causing massive injustice as well as enhanced risks to societal stability. Cities and neighbourhoods suffering from this phenomenon have a hard time maintaining the conditions needed for being a creative city too, since cumulative exclusion eventually eats up the very conditions for being a creative city. Talents want to live in liveable cities, Technology thrives if a critical mass of residents can handle it and Tolerance is only a tenable state of mind if poverty and addiction are not happening at the corner of one’s own street.

This obviously sets boundaries to how exclusive any creative city can be. There are not solely moral, but also broader social and economic grounds for embracing inclusion. For that idea to land more broadly among policymakers and businesspeople they should realise that prosperity revolves around more than direct financial wealth alone. Current valuation of what people contribute to urban development is far too strictly measured in monetary terms and rewards are unfortunately distributed accordingly. But there are forms of human capital benefiting knowledge and skill creation which are worth happiness. There are types of natural capital that colour our experience during and after work and prolong our lives. And there are ways of using social capital that truly give more meaning to our existence especially if they are not counted as money. All we have to do is open our eyes and change our book-keeping. Then we will see how creative inclusion can be.

The full article is available for download on the publisher's website.

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