I’m submitting a proposal to organize two panels at the 2009 Net Impact National Conference at Cornell University in November. This event draws thousands of students and professionals annually (last year’s edition in Philadelphia attracted 2400!) and it’s a major driver of the national conversation about business and social impact.
I’ve made it my mission to get the arts a fair representation at this conference, which is entitled “Advancing Sustainable Global Enterprise: Problem Solvers, Innovators, and Changemakers,” and inspired by last year’s crowdsourced WNYC show segment on arts policy, I thought I’d open up the process to all of you. I am pitching the two topics of 1) Art and Community Revitalization and 2) The Creative Economy as particularly relevant to Net Impact’s mission and audience. Here’s an excerpt from the email I sent a Net Impact board member making the case:
Rationale for Integrating the Arts into Net Impact
Net Impact seeks to make a positive impact on society by developing leaders who use the tools of business to improve people’s lives. Much of Net Impact’s current focus revolves around the role of the environment and clean energy in a sustainable future for business and society. It’s worth nothing that a century ago, the public conversation around the environment revolved around parks and conservation—issues seen as important, yet largely separate from everyday life. Even when concerns about pollution brought the interaction between business and environment to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s, calls to stop acid rain and save the whales were still treated for the most part as distinct causes, isolated from their broader connections to other areas of human endeavor. It has taken until today for a healthy and productive conversation to develop around the nexus between environment, energy, and the economy, which now provides such rich material for the conversations at Net Impact events such as last year’s conference.
I believe that a similar conversation is beginning to develop around the role of a different natural resource in the world economy: human creativity. Urbanist Richard Florida argues in his bestselling book The Rise of the Creative Class that a new model of economic development is in its nascent stages around the world, one in which the jobs gravitate to where the talent is, rather than talent gravitating to where the jobs are. Florida posits that the so-called “Creative Class,” which includes white-collar management professionals such as strategy consultants and financial advisors in addition to a “super-creative core” of artists, scientists, and teachers, chooses where to live (and thus, where to spend much of its money) based on a wide range of factors beyond simply the availability of jobs in their industry, such as the level of diversity, openness, and tolerance for new ideas in a community. Those metropolitan areas with high concentrations of creative class workers, continues Florida, then benefit from a competitive economic advantage over other regions.
So where do the arts fit into this paradigm? Cultural policy advocates and researchers argue, and in some cases have conclusively shown, that the arts carry with them a number of “instrumental” benefits for communities, which can be described as positive spillover effects that are associated with engagement in the arts or the presence of arts producers in a defined geographic area. These spillover effects can include decreased poverty rates and increased population in otherwise depressed areas; substantial economic impacts resulting from spending on behalf of nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences (Americans for the Arts estimates the total impact at $166.2 billion across the country, and for a number of reasons this number may represent an undercount); and rising property values that accrue to all landowners in the community. I suggest that two of these instrumental benefits are especially worthy of deeper exploration in a future Net Impact National Conference.
Art and Community Revitalization
A growing body of research literature now suggests that the physical presence of nonprofit arts institutions in a community or neighborhood produces collateral benefits to those communities in the form of higher levels of civic engagement, increased land values, and lower poverty rates; and that these benefits accrue to community members whether or not they participate directly in arts organizations’ activities. It makes sense: people like to live in and visit interesting places, and the arts make places more interesting; therefore, the arts help neighborhoods attract mobile individuals and strengthen ties to existing residents. This panel would explore whether the arts should play an integral role in community development strategies alongside more traditional methods such as workforce training and transportation infrastructure, and investigate the success of practices currently in use.
The Creative Economy
As more and more traditional avenues of work become replaced by new technologies and new paradigms, it is becoming increasingly clear that the only truly sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to absorb and generate new ideas quickly. This panel will examine the multifaceted role of creativity in our economy, both as the engine of entire sectors in and of itself, and as an essential tool in moving the pace and productivity of business as a whole forward. To what extent do the arts and creative industries have the potential to serve an R&D function for the rest of society? What do the arts have to learn from business, and what can business learn from the arts?
Just as Net Impact has much to gain by including the arts, the arts community would also benefit greatly from fuller participation in Net Impact. By their very nature, artists and arts organizations pursue a hybrid business model that often combines a significant earned income revenue stream with less tangible goals. Unlike standard for-profit enterprises, fundamental aspects of arts organizations’ products are not negotiable. For this reason, their audience development initiatives share much in common with the so-called “social marketing” necessary for many social ventures. Yet despite these and other commonalities, there currently exist few opportunities for those in the arts community to communicate with peers across the social sector. Incorporating the arts more fully into Net Impact events would do much to fill this unfortunate void.
As part of the proposal, I’m required to identify four speakers and three alternates for each panel, and provide their bios and a rationale for inviting them. So I put it to you: who would you want to see speak on these topics? I’m especially looking for people who not only know what they’re talking about, but are articulate and charismatic in front of an audience (a lesson learned from both organizing and attending previous conferences). Respond here in comments or feel free to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with suggestions. Feel free to nominate moderators as well as panelists. I look forward to your ideas!