Smart with a Heart

Mary Nordic Edge

I was asked to speak at NORDIC EDGE : ‘The largest smart city arena in the Nordics’. The 2018 theme was Smart with a Heart. Here’s what I said….

I´d like really like to talk about eventful cities – and how you build one, where city ‘smart’ development and cultural events grow together to shape the city, its spaces and its image. And I´d like to talk particularly about smaller cities – and how they use culture to put themselves on the map.

The smart eventful city – what does that mean? It´s not just a city full of events, but a city that understands its past, its present and where it wants to be in the future and has put culture in the broadest sense at its beating heart.

It’s a city with nerve and attitude, that has an irresistible story that it wants to tell about itself. It´s not a question of imitating big cities. It´s about place-making and a sure sense that events are bringing energy, are bringing people together and helping to develop the opportunities offered by the broadest knowledge economy. It´s about turning the city into an event in itself.

It´s not about a ‘creative’ city in the Richard Florida sense – I´ve always thought that his books create a sort of Sex in the City world full of the creative classes, overrun with people who have done degrees in media studies and who are obsessed with predicting trends. No, I mean a city where there is a highly developed sense of place – where you sense a tangible buzz: something unique that you don´t feel elsewhere – a city prepared to take risks, which is excited by the unexpected.

An eventful city comes together to discuss and debate, to share space and ideas, to explore, to be curious, and to create. There are many cities renown for heritage or a beautiful environment or their wealth, or a voluble middle class. That doesn´t necessarily mean that they are eventful. The ‘heritage’ heavy city may be extremely staid and museum-like. Claustrophobic, even. I´m ashamed to say that I think of Salzburg or Bayreuth and I shudder. So, the smart, eventful city has attitude – it has a culture in the widest sense that puts culture in the specific sense at the heart of the community. It wears jeans and drinks mojitos; it dances to every culture´s tune. It feels wide open.

The cities I mean are where there is a constant sense of what I´d call cultural flow: Where the widest population is really engaged with that flow; where there is ongoing dialogue – the orchestra doesn´t just perform; it talks to its audience and the audience talks back. Its theatre company is unafraid to embrace social issues and builds productions not only with its ensemble but with kids´ participation. The opera company commissions new work and then builds it with young artists and the local prison. It is where experimental rock musicians design their own festivals, build their own instruments and collaborate across international boundaries. It´s where architects design living buildings for people, not to impress other architects; where the new and immigrant population knows that their particular cultures are respected and not diluted, and that they are integrated into city programming as much or as little as they would like them to be. I´m talking about places where no one would dream of using the words elite or integrated about art or culture because art, culture and diversity are the city´s social glue.

European Capitals of Culture were, of course, designed to offer this kind of opportunity – and in some cases they have done so with considerable success and terrific initiative. In others, matters disintegrated into dispute and chaos. Few have really managed the legacy created in a structured or honest way, principally because of lack of real leadership after the ECOC team has moved on. And sadly, few have really grasped the tremendous competence that their team accrued to build the city solidly – and adventurously – for the future.

Stavanger2008 – just to boast about ourselves – was described the following year by the evaluators appointed by the EU as ‘artistically the best ECOC ever’. We chose to focus strongly on pure culture, not on a wider urban development or capital projects. That´s not to say that there weren´t considerable issues. Inevitable, in any project with a big budget and as broad and undefined a set of criteria as that set out by the EU, there will be frictions. These tend to be predominately between the perfectly reasonable entitlement felt by local artists and the European or international element of the years´ programme.

We tried to address that by building Stavanger2008 around a broad programme based on participation, which included multi-year residencies with international companies especially chosen for their will to collaborate (theatre, dance, music theatre/opera and a radical inter-racial puppet company) who were challenged to build sustained partnerships within the community. We also had the privilege of working with the wider Rogaland region which also enabled us to work with whole rural communities on major events in landscape involving artists from all over the world, local artists, the community and its children.

Other ECOCs have concentrated on capital projects, or regeneration, or on developing tourism. I used to think that if I heard the term ‘bed nights’ once more at an ECOC related meeting that I might stand up and shout REMEMBER CULTURE? (Actually, I think I once did).

I would argue that a smart city must have a cultural habit of looking outwards, of being curious and of constantly looking at the outside world. It must search for ways to attract new cultural resources and practices to build on what it already has.  Every commune designs a cultural policy – and if I can risk being politically incorrect (nothing new), despite the usual wide consultations, they all stay resolutely safe. Compromise rarely results in long-term positive dynamic growth.

I´d really like to see clear policies that support entrepreneurism, that insist on collaboration both within the city and far beyond and that, particularly, propose a broad plan for talent development. I don´t mean competitions, or specific awards for those already identified as future stars. The commercial sector already has that covered – for instance, Equinor – ex-Statoil – has its Rising Stars awards for brilliant young musicians. I mean that built into every Kommune and Fylke´s funding for culture organisations there should be a ring-fenced amount for the structured development and participation of young artists and makers, including their development in the digital world. This policy would emphasise the need to develop fresh ideas and how to realise them. If we don´t identify and train our talents and nurture potential – not just performers, but producers, arts leaders and teachers and culture managers – we will not develop the beating heart of our cities or make them eventful.

So what are these events which underpin the vibrant smart city? What is the balance between festivals, parades, special events and the ‘normal’ August to June cultural season? For leaders and city-makers, there has to be a consensus about programming – that is, balancing what you know the audience wants with innovation and real adventure. For the city there must be a plan which nurtures venues and creates new spaces indoors and out for all kinds of expression, with a clear and sustainable strategy for digital resources.

First, there are the city´s standard existing organisations. It is not enough for the theatre company or orchestra or university arts department just to produce a user-friendly season and to sit in its venue expecting people to walk through the door. The city with nerve and attitude never patronises its people. It develops trust between its key culture institutions and their audiences – I say audiences plural, because no smart performing arts institution has just one audience. So those organisations must always lead by offering a truly visionary mix: classic work, established and emerging artists, performances – and online platforms – presented in way that dares to provoke real discussion, and lots of new, surprising work which will create its own momentum. There must be opportunities for participation, talent development and engagement with youth. Note that I say ‘with youth’ not just ‘for’.

It´s inevitable that I mention opera given my present position, but I do believe that opera companies have an amazing opportunity to engage with the city. At Bergen National Opera we´ve expanded way beyond the main stage where we have fiercely enlarged the theatricality and visual excitement of our repertoire and expanded its audience. We´re into all kinds of collaborations with communities, hotels, chefs, video-makers, craft-makers, prisons – where certain inmates became our interns. We´ve just commissioned a young composer whose day job is writing music for gaming. We´ve formed all kinds of international partnerships which keep us on our toes in terms of design, theatricality and the kind of artists who have astounding voices but also great communication skills.

Festivals: eventful cities thrive on festivals, especially if they are positioned strategically across the year. Festivals offer fantastic opportunities for both the large city audience – for world music and rock – but also for visitors (back to bed nights….) and for niche audiences: say, for street art, experimental music, slam poetry or art film. Smart festivals offer a particular opportunity for international guests to collaborate with locals, stimulating projects which could not happen without that synergy, driving cross-border dialogue bringing new ideas, energy and confidence. Festivals also can be important to city branding. Edinburgh named itself ‘the city of festivals’ and created an excellent and effective umbrella organisation, embracing the international, fringe, science, children’s and books festivals along with the New Year fest, Edinburgh´s Hogmanay – Edinburgh Festivals – which in effect sells the city as a multi-entertainment smart destination. This ‘festivalisation’ of a city can contribute enormously to the eventfulness of the city so long as it is well-managed and kept free of clashes of identities, dates and funding. More easily said than done, but in the case of Edinburgh, strong leadership from the resolute founding chief of the Festivals Association kept the peace in a city not known for its social harmony. In Austin, Texas, however, there has been considerable resistance to cultural life being elevated to the mainstream and as such professionalised. Their branding proclaimed Keep Austin Weird! If I´m honest, as a Scot, I sometimes wish that proud, polite Edinburgh could be just a little bit more weird too.

Well-planned one-off events are also special opportunities for the eventful city to experience something spectacular, and also to gain kudos and visibility. The city of ´s-Hertogenbosch – home to the great artist Hieronymus Bosch – put itself on the map by planning an amazing art restoration event around his anniversary, which then connected a little- known city to global networks.

Don´t forget the massive potential of cross-media events – food and opera; literature and visual art; jazz and fashion – combining differing tastes and publics, building creative clashes and subversive dialogue.

I´m not going to talk about the print or digital media, because that is a three-day subject in itself – but a city that has a media culture of knowledgable opinion and honest interest in the city´s position in relation to the nation and wider world has a huge advantage over one where attention is focused on mud-slinging and celebrities’ backsides. (Pace Kim Kardashian.)

In Bergen, we are much preoccupied with new culture buildings. In recent years, few things have caused more conflict – instead of bringing people together, the plans have driven organisations apart. The discussion right now is premised on bricks and windows and vehicle access.

But a smart, eventful city must have living buildings which help to bring together the diverse needs of those who make and consume culture in the city; buildings which bring civic pride and a genuine city-wide sense of ownership; buildings which gather citizens, making them know that they make an essential contribution to a vibrant spirit and sense of place.

A smart city building is not about any individual or company´s ego or an architect´s kudos, but about creating a living hub for the city. That hub needs community spaces, education resources, cafes, casual meeting spaces. It needs to welcome everyone from singing kids to sceptical politicians, from feisty grandmothers to introvert singles. It has to underpin the way we want to live in the future.

All this needs leadership: brave, long-sighted, honest, imaginative leadership that has both thick and thin skin. Thick skin to stick to the long game of being smart and eventful, with thin-skin enough always to listen and to react with sensitivity. And, smart cities need leadership that builds teams that trust each other, share passion, and believe in the place that they are helping to make.

They also need gatherings like this one, Nordic Edge: forums to share ideas, to talk shop and to dream. I´d say the last of those three is the most important one. Let´s all keep dreaming. It will keep us smart.

Mary Miller
19/09/2018

Photo: With co-speaker at Nordic Edge, Bent Sørensen, director for Aarhus 2017, European Capital of Culture