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Toward Circular Governance in the Culture and Creative Economy

Toward circular governance in the culture and creative economy: learning the lessons from the Circular Economy and Environment


This paper considers the two concepts: the cultural and creative ecosystem, and the circular economy. It explores superficial commonalities and differences, as well as what can be learned from this ‘cyclical’ thinking (which we later frame as relational and contextual thinking). We lay out the common narratives of circularity in the representation of environmental and cultural sustainability. The aim is to move beyond superficial comparisons and understand the conceptual shifts that underlie them. The paper then seeks to explore what lessons can be learned from this understanding for the creative economy, about which there has been recent debate about its environmental impact. The final section turns to the governance of the (proto-) circular economy, and explores what sort of a ‘fit’ these new ideas have with existing institutions, and what changes are likely to be needed to current institutions and governance.

0. Introduction

Discussions of the environment, the circular economy and sustainability have often by-passed culture altogether; or, they have viewed culture as simply an instrumental means of achieving environmental objectives. At first sight this may seem logical: we might assume that if anything ‘walks lightly upon the planet’, surely it is culture. However, a little reflection leads us to consider, for example, the by-products of a music festival in terms of litter and waste. Pushed further we might also consider the transportation that that both audience and the performers used to get to the venue; we could go further and examine the exotic hardwoods used in instruments, and so on. This type of extension of the argument is allied to the conception of all resources as being on a journey from being used to re-used, or to waste. The aim of the notion circular economy is not only to reduce this latter factor waste, but also to increase our awareness of the ‘incomplete circuits’ of re-use which produce waste and lead to the inefficient use of limited planetary resources: circular economy arguments stress logistical solutions. However, the circular economy concept is also a powerful communications tool; and one that links abstract ideas to concrete practices (this applies to culture as well as the environment).

This paper argues that simply taking the environment into account, adding it as an additional factor, or new item on an existing agenda is not enough. The problem of a ‘bolt on’ notion of environment to culture, and vice versa, is one that it undermines the holistic notion that the circular economy concept propagates - in this sense more ‘magical thinking’ than ‘circular thinking’. Interestingly, a parallel debate about culture and the creative industries has moved away from linear to circular and network concepts: the exemplar being the creative economy ecosystem. The aim here being to capture the processes by which new ideas become cultural artefacts and processes; which themselves are the foundation for new cycle. This re-conceptualisation from a linear ro circular understanding has caused both policy makers and creatives to re-consider their processes of creativity in a holistic manner. It has also led to a re-consideration of the very definition of culture and the creative industries, one that can no longer be just limited to, or concerned with, the artist, but must include the processes and activities of making, distribution, exchange and archiving.

Moreover, taking into account the expanded production system of culture means following its strands through time and space, as the circular economy urges us to do. Some questions that we may ponder regarding the waste generated by cultural activities, assuming that they do not go straight to ‘land fill’ but are ‘recycled: what happens when you dispose of your computer or phone, where do your discarded clothes end up, and how much energy do we use when we play music via a streaming platform?

The aim of this paper is to consider the two concepts: the cultural and creative ecosystem and the circular economy and to discuss the commonalities and differences, as well as what can be learned from this ‘cyclical’ thinking as well as its limitations. We sketch out the parallel narratives of circularity in the representation of environmental and cultural sustainability. Overall, the aim is to move beyond superficial comparisons and understand the conceptual shifts that underlie them. The paper then seeks to explore what lessons can be learned from this understanding for the creative economy, about which there has been recent debate about its environmental impact. The final section turns to the governance of the (proto-) circular economy, and explores what sort of a ‘fit’ these new ideas have with existing institutions, and what ‘accommodation’ is likely to need to be made in the institutions and governance (above and beyond specific targets and objectives: which is not dealt with here). In so doing we aim to expand and enrich the conversation between the creative economy and the environment; a timely task in this 2021 UN year of Creative economy and sustainable development.

1. Visualising the widening circuits of relationships

As is illustrated by the other papers in this Special Issue on Forerunner Practices emerging from the CLIC initiative, we can readily appreciate the case of cultural heritage which is usually about conservation and sustaining artefacts for the appreciation of future generations; this is, in a sense, a paradigmatic example ‘respectful’ use of resources. However, the work being done on active heritage management illustrates the point that viewing the act of conservation through a circular economy has practical consequences: exploring the sourcing a materials, tools and processes; as well as their disposal and re-use is but a first step. Beyond this, the material chain of wastes, is the problematic case of the visitors and tourists: on one hand, we have the energy budgets of long-distance travel by plane, the impact of new infrastructure (hotels and roads) in delicate environments, and the inevitable damage of the footfall of visitors. This extends the core dilemma of sustainable cultural tourism (Russo 2002) to include the environmental dimensions.

On the other hand, there is the social and economic livelihood of people dependent on heritage tourism for jobs. A clear illustration of this dilemma is that of the cruise ship business in Europe, and the pollution it causes. (Transport_and_Environment 2019) A circular economy perspective does not remove such dilemmas, but it can make the dilemmas more visible, and open up potential routeways to amelioration.

An important point regarding the inclusion of this paper in a collection primarily concerned with cultural heritage is to highlight the permeability, or shortcomings, of the boundaries between commercial culture, patrimony and heritage. Expanding beyond such a narrow definition of culture and heritage we can examine the cultural economy. From a ‘cultural ecosystem’ perspective (Pratt 1997), we cannot only appreciate how culture is re/made, but we also need illuminate ‘open circuits’ that lead to waste. Perhaps the most obvious is that of the fashion industry, the worst exemplar being ‘fast fashion’ which has used logistics to source cheap labour and materials, as well as narrowing the gap between a new style and its availability to consumers (Tokatli 2008). Critically, this has led to a shortening of the ‘fashion’ cycle from 4 seasons, to a couple of weeks. The cheap price has led to reduced wear, and rapid disposal of clothing, which is clearly wasteful. There are even difficult questions about what happens to recycled clothing, and the energy use of its remediation (Brooks 2019). Interestingly enough, it has been researchers on clothing that have pioneered work on Global Production Networks (GPN) - mapping the thousands of miles that a piece of clothing may travel from its sources to use, reuse and waste (Blair and Gereffi 2001). Whilst the main focus of GPN research has been the control of production chains, and who benefits from the added value, it clearly lends itself to a circular economy approach that examines resource use and reuse (Bair 2009). Examples of this can be found in the work on electronic waste: the material environmental impact of our digital lives, where the toxic materials in printed circuit boards are shipped around the world for deconstruction, disposal and reuse commonly with minimal control over labour conditions and leaching into the local environment (Pickren 2014; Widmer et al. 2005).

As with traditional notions of culture and patronage, we have as yet a limited conception of how the circular economy challenges cultural production: as yet it is more or less rendered invisible. As with tourism and heritage sites, the carbon footprint of bands touring the world, and audiences travelling long distances to witness ever increasing stadium, or festival venues is significant and is only just being recognised, let alone measured (Garrett 2012; Bottrill, Liverman, and Boykoff 2010). Although venues commonly have become aware of waste collection the recycling, and the contribution of travel is seldom accounted for (Dodds and Walsh 2019; McKay and Webster 2016). Again, the dilemma of live performance is inescapable (Auslander 1999), but it becomes visible and more accountable.

In the recent pandemic when most live performance has been on hold, there have been many attempts to innovate with virtual events. Indeed, the process of digitisation seems to be the brightest hope for a low environmental impact cultural future. The potential for smaller gatherings, and limited travel provide one scenario (albeit missing a significant conviviality of the ‘live’ event). However, even this has been shown to be a chimera. Music has played a leading role in digitisation from Vinyl, to CDs and MP3s the material consumption has (apparently) disappeared. However, as noted above, our playback devices are not environmentally benign (especially as most are non-repairable, and ‘upgraded’ and disposed of with increasing regularity). ‘The cloud’ which is the essential digital infrastructure that enables ‘streaming’ has a surprising heavy carbon footprint, and is all too material. Cloud storage is enabled via vast server farms where the data is held; like individual computers (multiplied a million times) they get hot and need huge amounts of energy to cool them. The latest shift to locating server farms in colder climes, and the increase use of solar energy is responding. In a shocking calculation, Devine (2015) estimates that cloud music delivery consumes more energy that the old vinyl disc.

The critical lesson from this brief perspective of the ‘event horizon’ of digitisation, culture and the environment is that there is still a growing problem with regard to the relationship between the environment and culture, one that is for the most part (apparently) invisible. Moreover, as cultural consumption in firmly increasing (in the face of economic declines), and driven on by the emergent middle-class growth in China, and India (Kharas 2010), the indications are that the challenge will become more acute, and more apparent in the near future.

Circular economy perspectives have a great potential in the visualisation and communication of resource use. They have the potential to ‘reveal’ hidden waste (that is either conceptually ignored, or physically displaced/hidden by relocation in space and time). Insights from GPN research when added to that of both the cultural economy and the environment highlight the parallel impact on human life in terms of pollution, poisoning, injury and unsafe work conditions (Maxwell and Miller 2008; Pratt 2008). We can recognise that a similar conceptual logic is having a parallel impact on culture, establishing the notion of a cultural ecosystem which has made visible the wider processes of re-making culture; and, who gains and losses from cultural production, as well as emergent threats to local cultural systems that contribute to the world’s resource of cultural diversity, nowhere has this been more keenly felt than in cities, the locus of much cultural production: the waste products are hidden and dispersed in the urban and regional system. Weaving together the above ideas we can imagine ways to make more visible the environmental consequences of culture. Visibility can potentially lead to a potentially more ‘creative’ response to close the circles as we have seen in relation to debates about digital streaming services, and touring performances; as well as the sustainability of local cultural practices.

The notion of the conceptual tools of cyclical systems that are extensive in space and time that can help to ‘make visible’ the open loops, waste, and over exploitation or extinction is another way of expressing a new policy agenda. Visibility is one thing, but decision making requires decisions of allocation and trade-offs, and this brings us back to economics as a default ‘scientific’ decision maker. Clearly, advances in environmental economics have sought to recalibrate our tools of valuation with respect to the environment (Pearce, Markandya, and Barbier 1989): generally, they still undervalue the environment . Moreover, they cannot compute an infinite value; a value which logically must be added to our earth. Similar efforts have been expended in relation to culture (Throsby 2010); however, again we run up against the valuation problem of extinction: of cultures, heritage or careers. It is worth noting that even measures such as GDP are now being called into question by many economists as failing to reflect the ‘real’ economy (Coyle 2014), but more so, unable to guide us in the future use of resources. This task must of course be beyond the scope of this paper, but it is nevertheless critical to acknowledge the role that many key indicators that constitute the ‘dashboard’ of global economics have played in exacerbating rather than mitigating our problems. The following two sections explore the notions of circularity applied to both the Environment and Culture. The aim is to move beyond superficial comparisons and examine the underlying principles of connection.

2. A sympathetic critique of the Circular Economy and the Environment

The circular economy is in essence a simple idea that seeks to promote awareness of the environmentally efficient use of finite raw materials, and the minimisation of waste that is intrinsic to linear models (Webster 2015; Stahel 2016). The model seeks to conceptualise the life cycle of resources and products as an idealised cycle of use and reuse; recognising also that, strategically, an incomplete cycle results in redundancy and potential waste (Whicher et al. 2018).The notion weaves together objectives regarding sustainability, life-cycle analysis, multiple reuse under the label of efficiency . Design, logistics and pragmatism characterise the tools that mobilise debates about the circular economy. In no small part the focus on empirical processes rather than abstract aims and goals has added to it popularity and its relatively smooth adaptation into many fields. However, this strength is also a potential weakness: the following discussion elaborates this point.

The argument about feedback loops in the environment, and their intended and unintended consequences has been a staple of the global environmental movement since the Club of Rome report (Meadows 1972). Consequentially, the notion of recycling and reuse has gained popularity as a way to mitigate against the ‘Limits to Growth’ scenario that the original report identified. The ‘Bruntland Report’ (World_Commission_on_Environment_and_Development 1987) added the awareness to a need to consider intergenerational equity expressed in terms of a sustainable planet that can be handed to the next generation in no worse condition than it was received in. Both reports, and the local, regional and international movements that followed them have brought attention to the need to conserve resources through efficient use as well as the challenge of responding in transversal modes. However, in a fast-developing consumer society waste has become endemic as well as a focus on novelty and that in part because waste is under-priced, if at all; and in the other part as it is hidden from view: either literally in land fill, or it is shipped away to another country, to be dealt with ‘later’ by somebody else: literally ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Whilst not a fundamental critique of the Circular Economy, in practice the lack of data and full accounting of the origins and destinations of products does undermine its potential effectivess. A circular economy perspective needs to be expanded to a global scale to be effective as would the effective tracking and tracing of raw materials; moreover, whilst circular economy principles are being legislated for in some countries, export of waste to other economies too often removes it from oversight. A parochial example is that in the UK taxes on landfill disposal have led to a rise in unregulated ‘fly tipping.’

The landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1990), and the subject of a series of reports, focused our attention on the clear and present danger of global heating and its diverse consequences in terms of sea level rise, desertification and population migrations. The focus has been shifted to the limitation of emissions that produce ‘greenhouse gases’ and that this is not amenable to a one state solution, but requires global action. In short, it has raised the severe limitations of a fossil fuel energy source, and led to a focus on the potential of renewables. Which brings us back to the core idea of the circular economy as a practical tool both in managing limited resources, and developing sustainable renewable alternatives. Whilst the circular economy can help, it is clearly limited. The third law of thermodynamics tells us that energy must be expended and hence the tendency to entropy (Korhonen, Honkasalo, and Seppälä 2018).

At its core the circular economy is a design solution: creating the system of good practices that promote efficient resource decisions. Clearly, as behavioural changes of users and producers are required, this is important. Reducing packaging, replaceable module design of products that can be switched out with new features, developing repairability, making components that are separable for efficient recycling that reduces disposal and ‘empty loops’ that end in land fill sites ( Murray, Demos, and Ecologika 1999; Keiller and Charter 2014). In this sense perhaps the most powerful aspect of the notion of the circular economy is a communications strategy that enables users and producers to visualise and identify opportunities for reuse rather than waste. With a little extension, awareness of the global production chains that ferry our waste around the world might be a powerful tool in applying political pressure to reduce the production of waste in the first place (Herod et al. 2013; Alexander and Reno 2019); but, as yet, this is a minor voice in the debate.

Arguably, another strength of the notion of the circular economy is one that expands our view of the product as an atomistic lump of material into one where it is perceived as part of a flow that touches parts of the world via its ‘tentacles’ either of sourced materials (such as the rare earth Coltan in a phone mined in war zones by underage, or unprotected workers), or waste material that has to be separated by hand, and eventually dumped in toxic land fill sites (well away from the original user)(Moran et al. 2015; Hayes and Burge 2003). Such an awareness is the first step to taking responsibility for the whole life cycle of materials in products: usually responsibility has been actualised via legislation, or pricing. But this has on the whole been ineffective so far.

A key weakness of the circular economy is its foundation on a cybernetic systems model which places stress on control points that resolve inputs and outputs from sub-systems. Despite their focus on motion, they stress mostly control, and not flow. Network models that have been popularised in recent years have challenged this unitary control system model of atomistic nodes with one based on, and defined by, flows and the diversities of such communications (Castells 1996). For example, the foundational model for the internet packet switching system was designed to navigate and avoid control points and divert flows around blockages. Such multivalent network concepts remove the weaknesses of control systems as functional models (Benkler 2006). They also open up the opportunity to consider a multiplicity of flows; this is how context can be critical in the ‘making’ of the dis/advantage of space and time, and social and cultural dimensions as constitutive of things (not detached or separated) as well as notions of multiple values (political, economic, social and cultural) that are based on experience or relational terms (Latour 2018), rather than functional ones determined by the system designer (usually money) (Zwiers, Jaeger-Erben, and Hofmann 2020). Such a network perspective changes the potential balance of power from a hierarchical to heterarchical model of activity, tactics and as we will argue in the final section on governance. The aim of the current section was not only to learn what the circular economy is, but also to explore some of its underpinning ideas. As a pragmatic model of logistic and of communication is has been effective. However, this effectivity has been undermined by the lack of data to document flows, and the capability of regulation to ‘follow the flows’ across borders. The following section explores the parallel narrative that has occurred in the field of the creative economy.

3. Circular conceptions and the Cultural and Creative Industries

In order to appreciate the relationship between the cultural and creative industries and the circular economy and the environment more generally we need to spool back to earlier conceptions of culture as we currently use the term. Earliest conceptions of culture relate to humans’ relation to their environments; so, perhaps we have come full circle here. The exceptionalism of a particular category of human expression was popularised in the Renaissance in Europe, and achieved its most significant conception via humanism and Romanticism, culture 1.0. The significant shift was to shift perfectibility from the deity to humans - of course, this continued/s to be a contested view in non-Christian traditions such as Buddhist and Muslim - and the embodiment of genius in the figure of the artist. All art produced by artists was not sanctioned as ‘culture’, nor were all artists; the development of institutions that legitimated particular art forms and practices, and the ‘history’ of art were established in the 18th and 19th Centuries (White and White 1993). Coincident with this cultural conception was the role of the ruling elites, and later the nation state, in providing patronage and support for particular versions of culture. This became institutionalised as national support for particular cultural forms in the 20th century; these forms echoed the prejudices of social elites. State support was based both on what we would know call the ‘soft power’ of culture, as well as the rising popularity of neo-classical economic theory that determined ‘high culture’ as liable to market failure. Later social welfare economics has provided the classic legitimation of funding of ‘public goods’ such as culture 2.0. Whilst a more expansive model of culture is offered here, it is based upon a traditional artist centred model, expressed as concentric circles where ‘production and distribution’ are peripheral, or ‘non-creative’ (Bakhshi, McVittie, and Simmie 2008; Throsby 2008).

However, the emergence of the cultural industries in the latter half of the 20th C has through this rationale into disarray both but countering the market failure argument, and technology undermining Balmols’ law, and the rise of popular cultural forms (the latter of which represented a critical cleavage in the conception of culture since Adorno (Pratt 2009a)).

The notion of what we might term cultural industries 3.0 was first elaborated by Girard (1982), who presented the first shift away from the artist centred model; this was later elaborated in an economic linear model by French communications scholars (Menger 1999), and this approach was latter allied to institutional economics and policy approaches (Garnham 1987, 2005). Concepts of the cultural industries thus developed into more holistic approaches referred to as a ‘production system’ (Pratt 1997); later iterations used the terminology ecosystem to capture the circular, recursive and feedback character of cultural (re) production (Pratt 1997; Unctad 2008, 2010; UNESCO 2013; Unesco_Institute_for_Statistics 2009). Simply put, this model conceives the creative process as an iterative and heuristic one that encompasses a creative idea, its making as an (im)material object, its reproduction, distribution, exchange and archiving; which feeds into new ideas and so on (Kloosterman et al. 2019).

There is a common narrative shared by the ‘creative economy’ and the ‘circular economy’: the notion of feedback, holism, flows and process. However, they are not the same, and have a different heritage. As noted above mainstream circular economy debates are founded in technical and logistical concerns, and systems logics; in this sense they tend toward a technical, rational and economic determinacy. Technical in the sense of the primary focus on the scientific definitions of products and flows; rational in the reliance on rational decisions as predefined by (sub) system definitions and concepts of what count and inputs and outputs, as well as efficiencies; finally, economically, that those efficiencies are primarily expressed in economic terms, or derivatives. They struggle to bring in alternative ‘values systems’ or subject positions, and that recognise the distributional inequities as a result of institutional and individual bias, or partial knowledge. In this sense the reduction of all value to economic value- as common currency – (is a problem most starkly illustrated by normative practice in indigenous communities that have different conceptions that private property or land ownership (Lessig 2001). Such debates quickly run into an incommensurability problem. More generally we can see this as the challenge of unitary versus multiple value systems.

Creative economy (3.0) debates have an advantage in being inspired by a mix of anthropological perspectives, and institutional economic thought, a broader sociological perspective, as well as notions developed by cultural studies of diversity of value. Accordingly, as a general field the CE 3.0 is more able to incorporate a less reductive and deterministic models. Recent work that stresses the issues of governance based on overcoming the historical ‘silo’ of institutions fitted to CE 2.0, or 1.0 has sought to make visible the hidden work of cultural economy; as well as the exploration via global networks of shifting 'out of view’ in space and time both ‘waste’ (There is a lively debate drawing upon anthropology of what is defined as ‘waste’) and ‘exploitation’(Pratt 2019; Devine 2019). Another striking example of the apparent ‘zero waste’ of digitisation is film streaming. In addition to the parallel cloud storage issues to music, film uses far more capacity and produces far more warming. Moreover, the economics of film making has since the ‘Star Wars’ franchise relied upon more income being generated from merchandise than box office (Proctor and McCulloch 2019). Much of that merchandise is aimed at children, and is made of non-recyclable plastics. The ultimate irony is perhaps Frozen 2.0, a film with a strong environmental message, but based upon a polluting model (Horvath and Gyenge 2018).

There are a number of weaknesses evident in this approach to the Creative Economy that echo those of the Circular Economy. In both the narrative innovation has redefined the object of analysis, expanding it from either an object or an artist to a system, moreover a system with tentacles that reach to the ends of the earth (Pratt 2017). The challenges are twofold. First, the global cities debates have shown the limitations of both the administrative limits to the city and the extensive flows of capital and commodities well beyond this city and the nations they inhabit (Sassen 2001) and how this is creating a new ‘power geometry’ (Massey 2007) of new inequalities and control. Remarkably little attention has been paid to the role of culture in these global cities and how it is used as an instrument of promotion, but also increasing as an economic force in its own right (Pratt 2011).

Second, the creative economy has been slow as yet to understand its impact on/in the environment as in the social world; in part hampered by a lack of data. In the latter the emergence of studies on the ‘work’ or culture, and moral questions of the immaterial economy have been notable (Gill and Pratt 2008). But as yet we have only indicative accounts of the global analyses of E-waste, and the carbon footprint of touring bands (referred to above), and those GPN studies of particular cultural industries (Pratt 2008; Power and Hallencreutz 2007; Coe 2013).

4. Governance

In this section we discuss the challenges that the previous re-conceptualisations of both environment and creative economy illustrated in the previous sections mean for governance of the proto-circular creative economy (a potential amalgam of the circular economy, and the creative economy). The intention here is not to specify policies and targets but to consider the means that society will need to mobile to make such polices (whatever they are) possible: namely the challenge to governance structures and institutions.

Reviewing the debates about the circular economy we have noted the tendency to technical reductivism in the approach. This is both a legacy of the cybernetics systems concepts, and the pragmatism adopted by circular economy advocates. As we can see there are internal contradictions which are exemplified by the sustainability debates post-Brundtland which sought to ‘draw the future back’ into contemporary calculations: causing us to evaluate the impact on future generations. The evidence of the ICC has focused attention on the timelines of actions. To be clear, within such a context the role of economics has been both part of the problem and part of a potential solution: normative economics ‘under-pricing the environment, or ‘discounting the future’ (so that it is less valuable); new techniques of proxies, hedonic pricing, and changing discount rates has not doubt helped with more appropriate ‘signals’ to the market system. However, it can be argued that these technical modifications of calculus are merely a sticking plaster on bigger issues associated with the wider marginalisation of social-cultural factors. To be clear, these ‘factors’ are not additional variables, as we might have expected in the revised models, but rather suggest a whole new model. Another example is ‘green accounting’ which focuses on changing the incentive model for shareholders to maximize the ‘triple bottom line’ (Slaper and Hall 2011)

This is why governance is important, and interventions from the Club of Rome onwards can be re-interpreted as constantly chasing a redefinition of the boundaries, or seeking to capture the consequences, of impacts. Whether it is framing by sub-systems, time and space, or the life cycle. As noted above the issues concern ontologies and taxonomies, and the epistemologies of causality based upon flow and relationship rather than atomism and randomness (the dominant logic of positivism). Rather than play catch-up, and revision of guiding ontology and epistemology are indicated. Arguably, this is what has been happening in relation to our definitions of ‘what the environment is’, and ‘how it is related to human activity’. Clearly, these are social and cultural, as well as scientific debates, and we have suggested the need to modify our conceptions in order to recognise them.

As also noted above, this re-conceptualistion process has also been paralleled in debates about the creative economy. Where the object of cultural policy - the artist, or the paternalism of the nation state - has been broadened from a heritage and patrimony focus, to one the includes (on an equal footing) the commercial creative economy. Critically, this move has begun to recognise the fact that these ‘Janus faces’ of culture are not a dualism, but a duality and the hybrid is a more appropriate model to capture this reality. Moreover, that taxonomies based on flows, and not objects, have expanded the notion of a system of cultural re-production. Similar to debates about the environment the questions of ‘what is culture’ and ‘how it is related to human activity’, have been raised as have the additional question of what the relationship of culture is to the environment and development. These latter two questions have been stymied by initial ‘bolt on’ and instrumental approaches: these have fundamentally failed to recognise the relational nature of cultural and environmental action, and as often as not used culture as an instrumental ‘fix’ to resolve implementation issues. The debate has perhaps been best advanced in urban regeneration (Pratt 2009b), and development contexts (Pratt 2015). Less progress has been made in respect to environmental issues where, particularly, in a policy context the environment is still an add on, rather than systemic transformation.

Policy making is one part of governance, but it pivots upon an understanding of the problem, and of the processes that generated it. Fundamentally, policy seeks to ameliorate ‘bad’ outcomes, and support ‘good’ ones. Hence, the ontology of environment or culture is fundamental to identification of the ‘object’ of policy action. Accordingly, there follow many boundary disputes between economic, environmental science, political, cultural and social concerns. Changing the boundaries redefines, or eradicates, the problem and opens up different solutions. Arguably, this is why the rise in interdisciplinary knowledge has been a signal characteristic of all of the sciences in the last half century.

A second part of governance is the institutions of its delivery and deliberation. Having institutional silos that reflect ‘old’ definitions of the object of policy, or the problems to be solved is clearly yet another barrier, or boundary dispute (Tett 2015). Thus, we have seen an on-going struggle within governments to act on transversal problems between institutions that are in many ways internally resistant to transversal operation: in capability and accountability. The designation of a new ‘department’ of Environment (or Culture) may simply exacerbate the problems of boundary dispute or hierarchical rather than lateral flow of knowledge; likewise, an ambitions umbrella ‘super department’ may be subject to internal disputes. This analysis of the problem only concerns one level of government: the potential for dispute between levels of government within a nation state, let along bi-lateral or multi-lateral relations between nations states is quite clear. Clearly, our public and scientific institutions have yet to match the problems that they face, not necessarily through any internal short coming but due to a legacy system and configuration of objectives and what processes they seek to act upon.

A third and final aspect of governance that can be considered is that of the understanding of value and values. Clearly, evaluation has been increasingly important in the way in which technocratic processes have been embedded into policy making to avoid the worst excesses of political self-interest. However, evaluation processes, despite attempts to extend the scope and extent of evaluation terms (in space and time) are still ‘hoist on their own petard’: the rely upon some agreement of a unitary and universal value. Such that in an ideal case the bottom right had cell of the spreadsheet gives a definitive and universal cost or benefit. Standing aside from the internal debates about ‘pricing’ objects on ‘indeterminate value’ (for example a landscape view, a human life, an ancient artefact, poem, song or habitat), we can recognise the other dimension of pricing that is fundamentally incommensurable: that of multiple value systems. We can recognise this in examples of the environment related to land value or environment as defined by indigenous peoples, and we can see this in terms of cultural values (even between two pieces of music). Moreover, there is a lively debate about the multiple social and health role of culture (and environment) in our lives which contribute or detract from overall ‘well-being’ (Crossick and Kaszynska 2014). Of course, there are innovative attempts to quantify and normalise this diversity; however, the counter - humanities and social sciences response - has been to assert incommensurability. This is not a dead end, but in fact an alternative route way to decision-making to embrace, rather than erase ‘difference’. It is a challenge which has been demonstrated in the case of inter-cultural dialogue: where the key is to acknowledge difference, and accept and understand it, and not to simply tolerate, or discount it (Wood and Landry 2007).

5. Conclusions

This paper has explored what can be learned from the recent debates about the environment in the Anthropocene as seen through the lens of the circular economy, as well as that of the creative economy. We identified a variety of similarities and differences as well as shifting substantive concerns; however, underlying this we have sought to extract a more fundamental logic that indicates a fundamental challenge to how we conceptually and practically address the challenges of a finite and fragile world.

The first point that we can make is that the notion of circularity is an appealing, and easily communicated idea; one that challenges the commonly held perceptions of isolated things or actions. Alerted to this logic practitioners, and the general public, can at least appreciate, and perhaps follow the links in the chains through the ‘life cycle’ of familiar products. However, there are difficulties as the ends of chains may be invisible to casual inquiry, ‘hidden’ in space and time as they extend via complex routes to the ends of the earth. The recent consumer interest in origins, and the labour used to produce goods has shown just how difficult it is to establish these linkages. Quite simply, there is little information collected either by producers or statisticians. It is not as simple as checking up on the numbers employed by a company a production chain passes through many transformations. The new field studying Global Production Networks indicates the way forward; although it is notable that very little has been written about culture and the creative economy in this context.

Second, and following on from the idea of networks and life cycles we are caused to question taken for granted taxonomies of ‘things’; definitions which commonly only account for the (im-) material presence in the here and now: for example, a singer delivering a song. It is questionable to extract the singer from the song, the expertise, training, the composition, the backing musicians, and even the theatre ticket sellers and concert promoter. All of which were necessary for the singer to perform. Thus, we are encouraged to see products not as ‘stand-alone’ but assemblages that don’t just ‘exist’ but are assemblages, and achievements for a particular moment in time.

Third, with respect to the notion of circularity, is a deeper philosophical point: relationality. By reconceiving the ‘life of the product’ as constitutive of that product: literally as the sum of its relations is an approach that has been pioneered in Anthropology, but applied to analyses of globalisation (Appadurai 1990). Studies have shown us the diverse ways which we are part of a web or ecosystem, one that is far messier and more recursive than cybernetic systems. Critically, relationality has two dimensions. First, that unlike cybernetic systems the focus is on inputs and outputs, and nodes; rather relational networks focus on the flows; a shift from quantity to quality. Second, the meaning and value of a product is defined by its relations, it is contextual. This ‘value/s’ issue is one that have undermined both environmental and cultural analyses. Economic attempts to devise shadow or hedonic values assume that simply because products such as feeling, or a view, are not traded as market goods, they can still be assigned a price/value. This means that the commonly used universal measures of value – such as those produced by hedonic pricing are of limited utility in a multi-value world: where value literally changes depending on its location in space and time.

Fourth, and finally, if these assemblages (Ong and Collier 2005), situated in networks, are to be manged or governed than we will need mechanisms that can affect assemblages: not isolated objects. Potentially, we need to re-think that ‘objects of policy’ and how they might be influenced in one way or another. Precisely in which ways, and to what ends was not the topic of this paper. However, what was clear from the discussion of governance is that it was fashioned to interact with an object that no longer exists; if it was appropriate or effective, it was for a ‘previous’ object of culture. The new hybrid of culture and the creative economy is a more complex entity, and it requires us to imagine new institutions and scope of governance. Simply adding some new objectives to an existing system will miss the point

We have drawn out some key issues about relational understanding, and relevant taxonomies; moreover, in both the cases of the circular economy and the creative economy how practitioners, consumers and governments have found the ideas easy to understand but quite difficult to adopt. We identified that governance, rather than simply policy outputs was a key area for attention; in particular the existence of iterations and a calculus potentially suited to a carbon profligate age that assumed infinite resources and no limits to life, let alone growth. Accordingly, we have suggested that this relational understanding of the creative economy will need to act as a guiding star of our future actions.

Written by Pr. Andy C. Pratt

Pr. Andy C. Pratt is an internationally acclaimed expert on the topic of the cultural industries. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences. He has held academic appointments at University College London (Bartlett School of Planning) and LSE (Geography, and Urban Research Centre), King’s College, London (Culture, Media and Creative Industries). He joined City University as Professor of Cultural Economy in 2013.


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