How can creative and digital economies contribute to reconciliation and coexistence?

by Maude Morrison — This post part of a three-part series reviewing Build Peace 2018. You can read the other two posts here and here, and the opening remarks from Build Peace 2018 here.

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Creative approaches have been integral to Build Peace since its beginnings. But in 2018, we asked a more direct question about the role of creativity in reconciliation, exploring the link between creative industries and digital economies. Specifically, we explored how creative approaches can provide new economic opportunities and encourage collaboration that strengthens coexistence. Speakers explored how film, arts, music, dance and other creative approaches can bridge divides whilst at the same time promoting prosperity and inclusion. Illustrating this sub-theme, the conference was set amid Belfast’s vibrant street art scene, and participants explored the role of this art in changing perceptions of public space in post-conflict areas, as well as fostering opportunities for artists and tour guides.

Why care about creativity?

Creative industries are defined by UNESCO as ‘sectors of organized activity whose principal purpose is the production or reproduction, promotion, distribution and/or commercialization of goods, services and activities of a cultural, artistic or heritage-related nature’.

Across Build Peace, speakers emphasised that there is a unique value in creative approaches to catalyse unity, to build identity and belonging. These methods provide communities with tools and spaces to come together, to find their voices, tell their stories and together work away from the boundaries of a given conflict. As Daniela Zuluaga, Social Projects Manager at FTZ studio, said in the dialogue on this topic:

“Ideas, although abstract, are very powerful.”

If creative approaches are about the growing and sharing of ideas, then they must be taken seriously as a tool for peace. When coupled with technology, defined by John Peto, Director of Education at the Nerve Center, as an often neutral starting point in bringing people together across cultures, these are powerful tools for reconciliation.

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Whilst much has been written about the role of creativity in peacebuilding, less has been explored about the role of creative industries in creating economic opportunities that contribute to reconciliation. Traditional approaches of using arts for peacebuilding have often ignored the broader industrial and economic questions that can both help and hinder peacebuilding efforts. In Belfast, where creative and cultural industries are playing a major role in the city’s social and economic regeneration, this conversation seemed particularly important. We heard from Karishma Kusurkar, founder of The Design Salon how Belfast Design Week works to bring artists, the public and industry together to reimagine the city’s spaces and to revitalise the city’s creativity.

Three key takeaways emerged from these discussions:

There is still a tension between creativity and industry

At Build Peace 2018, the tension between creativity and industry was widely discussed. Concerns were raised about the growing commodification of the arts in a way that can threaten the social value of projects. Speakers recognised the fine balance between the need for projects to raise money and a social impact that cannot necessarily be commercialized. At the same time, we heard of many examples where creative industries are providing economic opportunities and avenues for reconciliation, both in Northern Ireland and abroad. The Black Box, where Build Peace participants gathered for an informal networking event, is working hard to build a community around the arts in Northern Ireland whilst recognising the need for financial support to artists.

Creative industries are not neutral

The perception of creative industries as inherently neutral was countered, mirroring the opening remarks that challenged the notion of technology as neutral. If both digital and creative industries have the power to tool us, there is a growing need to be conflict sensitive in our approach. Just as in traditional peacebuilding projects, initiatives deploying creative industries in conflict or post-conflict settings must be aware of the past, must seek to understand the social fabric of the communities in which they operate, and strive for genuine inclusion. Ellada Evangelou, Community Organiser, Rooftop Theater, recommends that we always be aware of the space we are operating in, particularly in post-conflict environments.

Creative industries can disrupt

Discussants also explored the power of creative industries to catalyse change, not just at the community level but at a sector level. As Monica Brasov-Curca asked from the audience, by embracing diversity and channeling creativity, can we work to ‘decolonize’ peacebuilding? It was posited that creative approaches can serve to disrupt power and wealth structures that limit the capacity of our field to bring about true change, enabling us to reach beyond traditional boundaries of change. Creative industries can help us reach more people, shine a light on systems and structures that limit us, and provide new economic opportunities for communities. By bringing in a more diverse set of actors and perspectives and providing spaces for communities to engage in peacebuilding through less alienating means than the traditional approaches, can we actually change the way we build peace?

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What does this mean for us as a field?

A continued recognition of the need to move beyond traditional peacebuilding approaches and to explore intersections between different sectors. The creative industries are a welcome part of this expansion, and serve as an example of the power of cross-disciplinary thinking. As speakers from different parts of the creative industries discussed the importance of mixed media, new technologies and cooperation with technology firms, the importance of collaboration within and outside of the creative industries became clear.

The discussion of industries and the economic element of peacebuilding remains a challenging one. The need to protect social value whilst at the same time ensuring financial sustainability is a shared challenge among the Build Peace community and one that grows increasingly pressing.

At the heart of Build Peace 2018 was the provocation that technology is no longer neutral. As a tool, we must understand its powers and the systems in which it operates. The same may go for creative industries. To harness the potential of this field to foster reconciliation will require a careful balance between economic, social and cultural values and a sensitive adaptation to local contexts.

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Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.

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