Economic meeting’s creative differences

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creative bizAs industry sectors go, the creative economy is a work in progress ? one with a bit of an identity crisis.

“If you ask 11 people their definition of creative industries, you’re going to get 11 different definitions,” said Kelly Lee, president and chief executive officer of Innovation Philadelphia, an economic-development agency focused on supporting and growing the region’s creative economy.

While that term might conjure thoughts of artists in paint-streaked smocks subsisting on franks and beans for the love of craft, it is the for-profit side ? including architects, engineers, information-technology wizards, and digital-media masters ? that is exciting communities for the economic-development potential it represents.

Philadelphia’s creative economy has an estimated annual economic impact of $60 billion, according to a 2008 study by Econsult Corp.

Yet a convention to be held next week in Philadelphia to showcase the region’s creative-industry heft, and to increase it, is not coming together without controversy.

A debate has broken out, mainly in the local blogosphere, over the decision by a member of Philadelphia’s creative economy to decline an invitation to participate in the Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit. The event, with Innovation Philadelphia as its host, is expected to draw 1,000 attendees.

Alex Hillman, a technology consultant and cofounder of Independents Hall, believed to be Philadelphia’s first shared-workspace business, will not be among them.

He had been asked to participate in a panel discussion on alternative workspaces. In an interview last week, Hillman said he turned down the invite in large part because the conference’s “top-down” structure is counter to the more grassroots nature of an industry characterized by “do-it-yourself” entrepreneurs.

On his blog at dangerouslyawesome.com, Hillman defended his decision:

“I don’t think that this conference aligns with our community or our approach to innovation. There is a lot of overhead and structure, which we feel inhibit innovation. The community that we are part of prefers to create, run, and attend events like Barcamp Philly, IgnitePhilly, and the Junto that are idea-based with lots of active community participation.”

His posting was met with an allegation by one visitor to his blog that his objection to the conference was over the reality that he would not get paid for his appearance ? an allegation Hillman denies. But most of the responses merely urged him to reconsider:

“If you truly want to evangelize this new approach to working, to organizing conferences, and to innovation, then shouldn’t you be taking your message to the people who need to hear it the most ? the ones stuck in a top-down conference on innovation?” one writer asked.

At Innovation Philadelphia, Lee said that while the conference was largely dependent on corporate sponsors, its content ? including workshops and panel discussions on entrepreneurship, workforces, sustainability, and technologies ? was the result of a collaborative effort by entrepreneurs, students, business leaders, and economic-development professionals.

“The content has something for everyone,” Lee said. “Our theory is it’s going to take all of these people working together in order to grow our creative industries in this region.”

Of Hillman, Lee said he had “done good things with (Independents Hall), and I’m sorry he is not participating in the summit.”

What Hillman and Lee agree on is that this region’s creative economy ? featuring such high-profile companies as Comcast Corp. and Urban Outfitters Inc. ? is one of the most vibrant and thriving in the country. According to the Econsult study, it is a sector of 56,000 for-profit companies whose employment was 4 percent higher than the national average last year. Together, those businesses provided 766,000 jobs with combined earnings of $32.5 billion. The average annual wage was $61,600.

Innovation Philadelphia’s goal is to increase the creative industries in this region an additional 2 percent by 2010. That would generate $1.2 billion in economic impact and 15,000 jobs, Lee said.

Key to reaching that goal, she said, will be the region’s colleges and universities ? “the people who are churning out the future workforce.” The exposure this region ? and its creative economy ? will get from next week’s summit should also help, Lee said.

The expected turnout is double that of the first creative-economy summit held in Philadelphia in 2006. The focus of that event was to define “creative economy” ? which had only become a familiar term when sociologist Richard Florida’s book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” was published in 2002.

Among the most-anticipated guest speakers are: Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love,” whose talk will focus on nurturing creativity, and Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, a think tank in Palo Alto, Calif. She is an expert on applying game design and game theory to work and business.

Hillman admires both of them and said he would want to hear their talks “if I wasn’t so angsty about the whole thing.”

(c) 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.