Designing Creative Clusters: Learning from Shanghai

Hi all,

The lovely weather has subsided somewhat which means I’ve got more time to spend indoors and therefore more time to dedicate to this new hobby of mine. I’ve got to thank Dan Hill and Timothy Moore (editor for Architecture Australia) for tweeting about this nascent blog, they both endorsed it pretty quickly which is great. No better way to start the year really.

I had a couple of friends over last night, one of which, Matthias Hauesler, is involved in an ARC linkage grant with me about information design in transit environments. The Urban Informatics Team at Arup has done quite a bit of concept design work in this space, especially when the Sydney Metro proposal was still up and running. The basic idea behind this type of work and research is located between information design, interactive architecture and behaviour design (reference to BJ Fogg of Stanford University): all research shows that any kind of feedback has an impact on the way people make decisions, therefore on how people behave. Transit environments are a great testing ground for behaviour design as they are usually relatively controlled environments where passengers are likely to be a captive audience. The type of experience we’re looking to encourage is a more seamless transport experience, where transport becomes an enabler rather than an obstacle to a journey, thus increasing the appeal and functionality of public transport, and increasing the appeal and competitiveness of a city as a place of business. This ARC linkage grant is still being firmed up at the moment, but it promises to occupy a bit of my time over the next couple of years. More to come on this topic…

This got me thinking about another ARC linkage grant I have been a part of and inherited from Dan. Dan secured this research grant looking at the soft infrastructure of creative clusters in China and blogged about it in 2009 with Justin O’Connor and Xin Gu from QUT, Jiao Tong University, and Creative 100 in Qindao. With Dan’s departure, I have willingly taken the ‘principal investigator’ role for Arup, which has been a fantastic experience so far.

Just to summarise the premise of the research, we have been looking at how successful government-supported ‘creative clusters’ in the city of Shanghai have been. By ‘creative cluster’, we mean a building or collection of buildings that houses a concentration of creative businesses that work in collaborative competition. Clusters can present certain elements of shared soft and hard infrastructure that all tenants benefit from.  Our key research questions have been: Are creative clusters meeting their objectives? How are they supporting creative industries? What are the implications for cultural policy?

It’s no secret that creative clusters have been multiplying throughout Shanghai. The exact figure evades me at this moment but we’re talking about hundreds of developments throughout the Shanghai metropolitan area that are officially endorsed by the city’s government as ‘creative clusters’. Some of the early versions of these clusters took root in the old work unit typologies in the centre of Shanghai, such as Tian Zi Fang (pardon my Chinese spelling). But with gentrification and rising real estate prices in central Shanghai, Tian Zi Fang has become a bit of an expat Mecca (lots of French people, by the way) and taken on a retail and entertainment agenda, rather than a creative industries one.

We’ve been looking at clusters at a couple of scales: at the scale of the cluster itself, and at the scale of the city of Shanghai, as a canvas for creative entrepreneurialism. Getting an good enough picture of where all these clusters where in this city and what their locational strategy is was one of our first objectives. Building on Xin Gu’s extensive knowledge of the field and her network in Shanghai, we were able to compile a very unique georeferenced database of Shanghai’s clusters, what their principal activities are and what kind of building their are located in. It’s a work in progress, but it has yielded some interesting results so far.

What’s interesting about the database as well is that we used Google Maps as a free and user-friendly interface to crowd source the creative clusters and then verified the data through site visits and interviews. The Google Map can then be exported through KML data as an excel spreadsheet that I can use in ArcGIS (all a bit technical but interesting to share experience of how we’ve been able to collaboratively develop a great database).

I developed two maps from this database so far, the first, plotting out concentrations of officially-endorsed creative clusters in Shanghai in a density map. It would be technically incorrect to call these hot-spots at this stage, they’re just concentrations (there is a difference in the statistical definition of these two, something I know thanks for Sarah Williams at SIDL at Columbia University)

Concentration of officially endorsed creative clusters in Shanghai

We then compared this with the spatial distribution of promoted creative and cultural events as features on Douban (a sort of Chinese equivalent of Time Out crossed with Twitter) to get a sense whether there was overlap between the spaces of cultural consumption and production, which is one of the main features of creative clusters, according to the official definition.

Concentration of creative and cultural events in Shanghai as featured in Douban

This shows actually that the geographic concentration of creative and cultural events is almost the exact inverse of geographical concentration of clusters. There can be many explanations for this, but it does provide evidence that clusters are perhaps not performing as intended, as platforms for the Shanghai creative economy.

Indeed, a field trip to Shanghai in July 2011 confirmed this hunch for me. It was my first time in China and I wanted to get my head around what these clusters actually looked like and who used them. I hoped I would discover islands of creative ecosystems within the vastness of Shanghai’s urban landscape but instead, I found that clusters were being used for a very different purpose. Let me guide you through a couple of these clusters.

#1: Red Town

Red Town is located quite centrally in Shanghai, and is a classic example of the repurposing of a formerly industrial complex into a creative industries business park if you will. You can immediately tell that you’re within the orbit of one of these clusters by the concentration of westerners hovering around the place. As I made my way into this former steelworks, my eye was immediately drawn to the oversize sculptures packed into the so-called ‘Shanghai Sculpture Park’. It read as a kind of parking lots for eccentric public art, just waiting to be craned out of there for use elsewhere. The industrial scale of these was quite in keeping with the scale of the cluster in general. This started to shed light on the fact that the rezoning of these former industrial parks into creative clusters was possible by virtue of the fact that clusters in their contemporary form also house an industrial function, but this time, it is a creative industrial function.

As I made my way through the rest of the complex, I discovered a series of Italian furniture showrooms, the Vidal Sassoon Academy, Leo Burnett’s Shanghai office and a government endorsed art gallery, which was launching an exhibition of photographs of China’s largest engineering projects. Needless to say, there was no artistic merit whatsoever to any of these and no ‘creative workers’ in sight.

#2: 1933

The next day, I made my way to 1933, another cluster, another part of town. The journey to the cluster took me through what looked like one of the more ‘traditional’ Shanghainese neighbourhoods, streets lined with 2/3 storey terrace houses and laundry hanging randomly in the street. Most of these houses looked inhabited albeit in a dilapidated state. As I walked through and took some photos, people would bob their heads in and out of windows. The elderly in China were especially welcoming, but always insisted on talking to me, which we all know, could not have led to anywhere at all given my lack of Chinese, let along Shanghainese.

1933 is a cluster housed in a former abattoir designed by an English architect in (surprise, surprise) the 1930s. The building itself is quite spectacular and unique in a way, and contrasts quite a bit with the surrounding fabric of the city.

The interior was even more remarkable: the space was organised around a central vertical circulation core with a series of radially arranged flying buttresses that served as staircases as well as drainage (for the blood I imagine, how gruesome). It was quite difficult to photograph but I gave it a shot.

Once I got over the unusual architecture, I started to focus on the programming and occupation of the space. To be honest, for the footprint to the building, there was not that much usable space given how extensive the circulation spaces in the building were. At this stage though, I was still hopeful I would find studios, workshops and labs to peek into as well as gallery spaces to enjoy. But no such luck. This cluster had actually lost most of its productive capacity to retail and hospitality. This was the power of gentrification at work. Beyond the enormous dim sum restaurant located on the 2nd floor of the building, 1933 had become the home to the Ferrari Owners Club of China and the Ducati Cafe. Nothing creative or industrious about that!

#3: M50

M50 is one of the better known and more established creative clusters. Contrary to the two other clusters that I visited, M50 actually had galleries run by artists, a local music scene, cafes with free wifi. The place was teeming, some westerners but mostly Chinese visitors. This was the first time I had actually seen a cluster serve its intended purpose as support infrastructure for the creative industries. A closer look though started to reveal some cracks in this image. It turned out that few and far between were the actual artist studios and galleries. These had slowly been replaced by retail and corporate shopfronts, such as the very remarkable (not) Epson gallery.

As I exited M50, I couldn’t help but notice that the urban fabric around this cluster was in a state of transformation. The traditional typologies were getting rarer and rarer and larger high-rise developments had engulfed this central part of Shanghai. It became clear to me that it was this urban transformation agenda that had superseded the cultural agenda that cluster were allegedly designed to fulfil. This empirical evidence was starting to mount up to a very realistic and bleak argument: clusters have been instrumented as vehicles for urban regeneration and gentrification of parts of Shanghai. Their stated function as the support infrastructure for creative industries had actually been, in all the cases I witnessed so far, usurped by the property market and utilised as nodes of property value generation.

#4: Xin Dan Wei

Still on my crusade to find creative workers in China and understand how they worked and collaborated, I took Xin’s advice and trekked off into the depths of the French Concession (I was bound to love it, right?) for a chat with Lou Yen who runs Xin Dan Wei. Xin Dan Wei is a  modern version of a traditional work unit (since companies as such didn’t exist for a long time in China, work took place in these units) housed in a gorgeous traditional Shanghainese terrace. Spread across 5 floors, Xin Dan Wei is a collaborative ‘drop in’ work space for anyone really, from software engineers to urban farmers. The resources are shared: printers, garden, meeting rooms, the wifi. There are many ways to use Xin Dan Wei, you can drop in for  a day or get an annual subscription for a small fee. The in-house cafe serves gorgeous coffee (a rarity in China).

Unsurprisingly, this venture is not an official clusters like the other ones we’ve mentioned so far. It’s run for profit and privately. It seemed to be successful in the sense that it had really established itself as desirable co-working space but it also created a platform for Shanghai’s creative workers to interact with each other and collaborate on projects. It’s financial status and viability was hard to determine from a quick interview with Lou Yen, but there was no shortage of passion and dedication for the project.

A living example of this success is Emlyn Wang, the founder and director of C’est la Chine. C’est la Chine is a creative label that promotes and distribute Chinese design in the world. It does not limit itself to fashion or industrial design but rather seeks to gather all forms of design under the one umbrella. It’s a novel and interesting business model and it’s been doing well. I just got an email this morning from Emlyn, launching the new season’s collection. Well worth a look if you’re interested.

To sum up, the first year of research has set us on an unexpected trajectory, there is no doubt about that. As we enter the second half of this project, we’ll be leaving behind some of the evaluation work and moving onto the formulation of recommendations for the design and management of effective clusters. Whereas I have been focusing my attention on Shanghai, we’re also exploring  the creative landscape of Beijing and Qingdao, both of which are quite different from Shanghai. Keep watching this space as I am sure there will be more to report on on this front in the months to come.

So long.

2 Responses to “Designing Creative Clusters: Learning from Shanghai”
  1. Thanks! it would be nice to know though to what extent winning strategies are discussed within the “clusters”. So far it seems to just take urban development into account

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