Culture that drives development

20 November 2015

The Hanseatic town of Visby, the part of the city within the wall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995.

Conservation of cultural heritage pays, research shows. It boosts the power of innovation, as well as growth and sustainable development. But renovating historical buildings is not enough.

‘Today, we’re good at caring for cultural environments and renovating historical buildings. But we need to get better at using them,’ says Christer Gustafsson, professor of cultural heritage at Uppsala University.

Jointly with Italian cultural economists and mathematicians, he has developed a model to work out how to maximise the impact of cultural initiatives and promote social development.

‘This way, restoring buildings is not just a cost but an investment too. The richer our cultural life, the better the chance of it becoming an innovative environment for business leaders,’ Gustafsson says.

His office is at Campus Gotland in Visby, but he travels frequently. Interest in his research is keen worldwide. In China, Indonesia or Brussels, for example, he has joined other experts to work on the EU agenda for cultural heritage research, Getting cultural heritage to work for Europe.

This report cites some successful projects in which cultural environments have been revamped and revitalised, and new jobs created as a result.

A revolution in thinking is how Gustafsson sees it. As the former Halland county custodian of antiquities, he invested heavily in renovating and refurbishing buildings of cultural and historical value by training jobless building workers in cultural conservation. Companies could then move in.

‘It was such a successful venture that we exported it to the rest of Europe and the UN named it the world’s most sustainable development project,’ Gustafsson relates. ‘This type of spatial planning calls for construction sector representatives to sit round the same table as conservers, politicians and businesspeople. The next step is to find the optimal use for the buildings.

‘We looked for partners who could analyse the cultural growth potential. The idea was to connect our project with someone who could apply the analytical method. Which projects have most potential for regional sustainable development?’

He approached Professor Pier Luigi Sacco, a world-leading cultural economist. Sacco’s view is that culture has grown steadily in importance as an engine of social development and is a key factor in future job creation. He has also devised an analytical method to find the regional locations where cultural initiatives can be most effective.

‘We began collaborating, on the principle that my research was about the buildings and his about the activities. We joked that I’d have the premises and he the contents. Now we’ve been at it for nearly a decade,’ Gustafsson says.

Sacco studies the role of culture in innovation-driven regional development. He has, for example, found a positive association between regions’ or companies’ active participation in cultural life and the great power of innovation they have developed.

‘Two examples of this are Apple and Google, the world’s largest cultural arenas today. There are also cluster theories that demonstrate this,’ Gustafsson says.

The method was further refined by the mathematician Massimo Buscema, who made algorithms to show how various phenomena, such as epidemics, spread. This kind of algorithm was usable in this case as well.

‘We collected masses of data on cultural activities and merged them with all available socioeconomic statistics. We then saw that in the areas of greatest scope for culture, regional development is strongest.’

Parallel to these studies, researchers have investigated where stakeholders have most wanted to operate.

‘In our studies we’ve seen that most companies with a propensity to innovate prefer to develop their operations in older buildings. This is the single most important factor — not tax pressure or closeness to customers, as one might think,’ Gustafsson says.

‘It’s a whole new way of thinking,’ he continues enthusiastically. ‘Conserving cultural heritage is not just about history and what is of value, but about how to build a platform for innovation-driven development.’

Today, the method is used in Halland and Västra Götaland. Gotland and the Mälardal region are also interested.

The method gives decision-makers and politicians new data and creates new financing options when, for example, industrial areas are restructured and old shopping centres abandoned. It represents a new situation for conservers of cultural heritage, Gustafsson thinks.

‘They’re often trained in arguing for cultural and historical values in a rebuilding situation. But now it’s not enough to know about handicraft methods and materials. They need to develop expertise in regional development and how to obtain resources on the basis of a proactive approach.’

All Europe is aware of this development. The EU agenda for cultural heritage research will be the basis for future Horizon 2020 initiatives, and also means a change in direction.

‘For the EU, it’s abundantly clear that some new action is needed. Europe is in political and financial crisis. There’s been a shift from valuing cultural heritage to pursuing a more socially oriented policy that also raises democratic questions, such as who owns cultural heritage.

Today, cultural heritage has great global value. After the Nepal earthquake, the media reported on how much world heritage had been destroyed. In civil wars, cultural heritage has been targeted; in Syria, for example, Islamic State is desecrating cultural monuments of huge symbolic value.

‘We were charged with drawing up the EU’s new strategy at a time when the world and Europe were changing.’

Gustafsson himself recently received research funding from the EU for the three-year project Changes, which is under way in collaboration with researchers from Leuven (Belgium), Delft (the Netherlands) and Milan (Italy).

‘Joining EU projects like this gives the department vital input and helps to improve the research and educational environment. We get direct input in terms of how research policy and cultural heritage policy are conducted in the EU.’


FACTS: Culture-driven growth


In studies of Northern Italy’s Veneto region, Sacco et al. identified prospects of economic growth only in areas other than the city of Venice itself, which has now become more of an ‘amusement park’ for visiting tourists. Although Venice hosts some of the world’s most acclaimed cultural events, the creativity of the artists, architects and filmmakers involved seems to lack positive spillover effects on the local economy. In contrast, the researchers found this association in other parts of the region.

South Sweden

The ‘Creative Force Fields’ project (2012–14) mapped cultural resources — activities, programmes, artists, musicians and venues — in two areas of Southern Sweden: first Halland and then Skaraborg. Mathematical models were used to process the material collected with socioeconomic data. The images derived from the results showed ‘creative force fields’ where culture exerts most influence on regional development. Special graphs also revealed the associations between various cultural activities and socioeconomic variables.