The contribution of culture to local development – reflections on the OECD conference

January 10, 2019

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by Issy Petrie, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

What role does culture play in improving our wellbeing? This was the question we discussed at the OECD conference on Culture and Local Development in Venice at the beginning of December.

Here at the Carnegie UK Trust, our objective is to improve the wellbeing of the people of the UK and Ireland. In order to do this we encourage evidence sharing and cross-sectoral working, and aim to promote excellence in wellbeing policy. Previously, we have worked with the OECD to explore innovative approaches to developing government frameworks on wellbeing and to develop guidance on wellbeing frameworks for cities and regions.

This conference was an opportunity to discuss the role of culture in transforming places for the good of our wellbeing. From Derry and Hull’s years as City of Culture, to the use of the arts for public health at National Museums Liverpool, culture is increasingly seen as an effective vehicle to improve individual and societal outcomes.

Rather than the ‘cherry on the cake’, the message from speakers was clear – culture continues to prove itself a worthy subject of specific policies (a significant industry in itself as well as driving skills in other industries) but it should also now become a vital consideration across all policy.

Throughout the conversations we had at the conference a number of questions arose: what culture are we talking about, where, and for who?

To harness the potential of culture for development there needs to be clarity over what we are discussing. The traditional view of culture may be of going to a big museum in the centre of a large city. For many of us is not our primary means of taking part in our culture. Instead, our culture might happen on the street, in schools, when playing sports – or online.

Professor Pier Luigi Sacco cited the purposeful use of time, acting in synchronicity with others and of being part of a community of practice (in other words, doing it, not just viewing it) as key to culture’s role in enhancing our wellbeing. We have seen this in our Test Town project, which linked entrepreneurial young people with vacant retail spaces. These pop-ups showed the potential of experience to bring communities together through learning a skill or exercising together. Through our Library Lab programme we have seen how community-based creativity can be innovative and engaging, connecting an established ‘cultural’ venue to a broad section of the community to enhance their wellbeing.

The importance of understanding places and finding the right scale at which to make change was a theme throughout the conference. Looking beyond the city centre and even looking beyond cities is key to ensuring culture can increase wellbeing for those who need it most. Place-based policies that take local circumstances into account are vital to ensuring culture works for all of us.

The important role of local government was also a recurring topic. Culture is an opportunity for local government to engage with citizens (and vice versa) on difficult questions, as well as being a route to build and recognise local cultural assets – our spaces, stories and skills.

When talking about local development the danger is that we focus on image, rather than impact. Walter Zampieri reminded us of the distinction – building the identity of citizens should be our first focus, not simply conjuring an image: ultimately, what works for residents will work for tourists, what works for tourists will not necessarily work for residents. Our Twin Town project has shown the importance of this. Rediscovering local identity through recognising unique place-based stories is a way to make the most of an important community asset. Social media has a role to play here as a relatively ‘open’ space for communication.

As the OECD has demonstrated with its decision to include culture and the creative industries in its wellbeing framework, it is important that government at all levels recognises the potential for culture to transform people and places. Even beyond city centres and big museums, culture has the power to enhance the strength of our communities, our collective economic ambitions, and our individual wellbeing.