Opinion | Can London Avoid a Creative Brain Drain?

Opinion | Can London Avoid a Creative Brain Drain?

April 20, 2016
  • People flock to London for its creative vitality and cultural attractions but for how long? International NYT writer and author Alice Rawsthorn chats with Creative Entrepreneurs.

    It has more museums than Paris, more theatres than New York, and more bars and libraries than either. It is home to some of the world’s most compelling creative entrepreneurs, from artists, designers, architects, and writers, to musicians and filmmakers, and to renowned schools of architecture, art, drama, music, film and fashion.

    Those are just some – though by no means all – of the reasons why London’s 

    Can London sustain its creative vitality in future?

    creative economy has flourished, becoming critically important to the city, not only financially but by defining its identity. 

    Can London sustain its creative vitality in future? There is no doubt that it needs to. Not only do the creative industries generate over £22 billion a year for the city’s economy, they employ more than 700,000 people, one in eight Londoners. And why do tourists flock to London? Not because of the weather. Four out of five of them choose to visit because of its cultural attractions. Will they still come if London loses its creative dynamism? Possibly not.

    Sadly, there is a very real risk of that happening, because London has already lost – or may soon lose – several of the advantages that have made it so conducive to creativity and creative entrepreneurship in recent years. 

    Historically, London has often experienced creative highs, but seldom for very long. Until recently it was a place that prided itself on nurturing great ideas, but was resigned to failing to profit from them, which is why so many talented filmmakers left for Los Angeles or New York, and fashion designers for Paris or Milan. That changed in the 1980s, partly because the Greater London 

    London’s creative economy benefited from the decline of its traditional industries

    Council (a forerunner of the Greater London Authority) pioneered a strategy of nurturing what were then called the “cultural industries”, but mostly because of the availability of inexpensive, if dilapidated industrial buildings as workspaces for creative practitioners and entrepreneurs.

    In other words, London’s creative economy benefited from the decline of its traditional industries – the docks in the 1960s and 1970s, manufacturing and wholesaling in the 1980s – which left derelict factories, wharves and warehouses all over the city, especially in the East End. Londoners have always been traders, but by the early 1990s they no longer traded in things, but in intangibles: money in the financial services sector, and ideas in the creative community. 

    Those ideas were commercialised by a new wave of creative entrepreneurs, who thanks to affordable workspaces and powerful new digital tools, could 

    Those ideas were commercialised by a new wave of creative entrepreneurs

    market them worldwide from London. Cue the opening of commercial art galleries across the city, and the emergence of flourishing cottage industries of indie fashion designers in Shoreditch, digital effects studios in Fitzrovia and tech designers around Silicon Roundabout.

    Recent advances in technology have been even more helpful by enabling creative entrepreneurs to raise investment capital from crowd funding, and trumpet the results on social media. But those benefits apply to anyone anywhere and London has lost what was once its prime attraction to the creative industries, thanks to the soaring price of property. London is in now danger of suffering the same fate as New York, whose creative practitioners 

    Recent advances in technology have been even more helpful by enabling creative entrepreneurs to raise investment capital from crowd funding

    and entrepreneurs have been priced out of the city, fleeing first to Brooklyn or Los Angeles, and latterly to Detroit, New Jersey or New Orleans.

    The exodus has begun. Not one of the artists shortlisted for last year’s Turner Prize was based in London; nor are many of the emerging British artists featured in Frieze magazine. Some artists, designers and programmers have left for cheaper foreign cities like Berlin, Brussels, Bucharest or Lisbon, but increasingly they are heading for other parts of Britain, principally Manchester and Glasgow, or rural areas, as are young creative entrepreneurs. 

    Barring an inspired intervention by the government or GLA, which scarcely seems likely given the severity of public funding cuts, the cost of working in London seems set to rise further. Like New York, the city may remain affordable for creative colossi (although Google is expanding in Manchester, and the BBC has already set up camp there and in Glasgow while rationalising in London) but not for the next generation of creative entrepreneurs. If the creative industries continue to leave, London will become progressively duller, though its loss may be the rest of the country’s gain, as it benefits from the ideas and energy of those creative émigrés

    Alice Rawsthorn writes about design in the International New York Times and is the author of "Hello World: Where Design Meets Life."

    Photo by Michael Leckie, Courtesy Alice Rawsthorn

    @alicerawsthorn



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