Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Mallorca: The Creative Island

Charles Landry is probably not a name with which you are familiar but it is a name with which you may become more familiar. Palma might, or rather should, become a Landry city. And what does this mean? Professor Landry is the person who came up with the concept of the creative city.

Landry's creative cities entail an approach to urban planning which goes well beyond the physical infrastructure of a city. It is an approach which is intended to drive innovation in order to make a city distinctive. It is one which demands the right conditions for people to apply their imagination in developing opportunities, in solving urban problems and in transforming cities in ways which still retain their cultures. It is also one which requires traditional structures, be they political for example, to be dismantled or changed in order to allow the space for ideas to develop.

Antoni Riera, professor of applied economics at the Universitat de les Illes Balears, is something of a Landry disciple. He believes that there is vast untapped potential which could make very much more of Palma than is the case. Fundamentally, and although Palma has much to commend it, the city lacks a certain distinctiveness, it lacks a specialisation. The creative city concept aims to address both these deficiencies. It also challenges decision-makers to consider pretty basic questions:  what is the city for? what does the city do? how can the city be better?

It all sounds terribly blue-sky but in fact it isn't. The creative city concept is in essence the urban application of thinking that has gone into reinventing many business organisations. It takes some of the attitude that has prevailed along the American west coast from Oregon to Silicon Valley in establishing a campus mentality and the room for minds to be able to come up with innovative solutions. Creative cities have sprung up. Barcelona is one such.

But perhaps Professor Riera is being too narrow in even his broad vision. Palma, it is true to say, generates almost half the gross domestic product not just of Mallorca but of the Balearics. It is vital in being the economic driver but it is not alone. The problem is that sometimes it appears to be.

So, rather than a creative city, why not a creative island? The same sorts of questions that would be asked of Palma could be asked of the island as a whole. What is it for? How distinctive is it? What does it specialise in? The answers might seem obvious. Tourism would be one, but this is a specialisation which lacks distinctiveness. If there were distinctiveness, we wouldn't forever be having endless debates about winter tourism. We have them because other places have similar problems and come up with similar half-baked solutions (if any). They end up chasing a largely illusory market by offering similar products. And why? Because they have not thought about what they (as destinations) are for.

Tourism is only part of the equation but it is a pretty important part. Yet it is importance that is derived from a massive strength which is also a massive weakness. The strength of summer tourism has been built on enormous capacity - hotel places most obviously. In winter, though, this capacity is all but worthless. It cannot be supported. Hence there is an economy with a gargantuan in-built imbalance. The winter tourism debate reflects this. One moment there are days of plenty, the next moment there are days of poverty. And all because no one had the foresight to appreciate the imbalance that was being established or to ask what the island was actually for or what it could be apart from just tourism.

The Landry-Riera prescription demands different structures. To continue with the tourism theme, there is one structure that either needs junking or radically altering. It is the regional government's tourism agency and its equivalents at island council level. What has the agency and its predecessors ever really achieved? What have tourism ministers ever really achieved? The first, Jaume Cladera, did more than most, but who else? Two of them are currently in prison. And why on earth is responsibility for tourism promotion being handed to the island councils? Are there great minds of tourism strategic thinking lurking within their cosy regimes? I would very much doubt it. The private sector needs to be driving all this, just as it did until 1983. 

Tourism is only one aspect. The creative island would need visionaries to make it a reality, to re-think what Mallorca is for, to make it distinctive. To make it new. Where, though, are the visionaries?

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