Districts of creativity

What can be learned when 44 international practitioners and policy makers in the creative economy from across the world visit Dundee for the day? That was the question posed to Creative Dundee and Open Change, with the challenge of facilitating an event to maximising learning and a sharing of the visitors’ rich experiences.

Scotland is a member of Districts of Creativity, a network formed in 2004 to “foster the exchange of best practice and experiences of stimulating creativity and innovation in business, culture and education”. The network pulls together thirteen highly distinctive regions, all of which are active in harnessing creativity as economic and cultural drivers. These include small countries like Scotland, regions such as Flanders Lombardia and Baden Württemberg, the US state of Oklahoma, Catalonia and the cities of Tampere, Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro.

Dundee’s recent designation as UNESCO City of Design made the city an obvious destination for the network’s three day visit to Scotland, so on 28 October the visitors enjoyed a highly intensive six hour immersion in Dundee’s creative economy.

They began with a visit to the world class bio-tech labs at the University of Dundee’s School of Life Sciences, enjoyed presentations on the video games industry at Abertay University, which included serious games exploring disease prevention. They also heard how Creative Dundee and the waterfront development including the V&A Museum have created a new optimism in the city. And all this before lunch!

We then took them on a coach tour of Dundee’s fast evolving waterfront, and provided the visitors with some historical context for their whistlestop tour. The final destination of the day was not in Dundee itself, but in Tayport – the technical textiles manufacturer Scott and Fyfe.

We chose the company as our final destination – and as the location for our workshop – because it exemplifies the value of creativity. Just a few years ago as the recession was kicking in, this 150 year old family-owned firm was facing closure. It took the bold decision to do two things – to become employee-owned, and to embrace creativity and design thinking at the core of its operations. A welcome address by Michaela Millar from the company was followed by our workshop in their innovation space.


We were keen pull together the varied and rich expertise of our visitors, to tap into their knowledge and to see how they responded to their visit to Dundee. Working in teams we focussed them on three key questions:

– How do you build an effective culture of collaboration and creativity?
– What can we learn from Dundee’s experience?
– What can Dundee learn from the Districts?

You can view the summary report on the outcome of this workshop from here, but some of the issues there raised were these:

How do you build an effective culture of collaboration and creativity?

– Encourage unselfish collaboration.
– Always challenge the status quo.
– Through example and showing evidence of previous success.
– Facilitating cross-collaboration between disciplines.
– Build diverse teams.
– Give freedom to your people.

What can we learn from Dundee’s experience?

– The power of optimism to rejuvenate again.
– Innovation and big ideas can happen anywhere, not just big cities.
– Regular events amongst creative workers.
– Positive attitude, governmental support, youngsters/students.
– Scott and Fyfe is cool.

What can Dundee learn from the Districts?

– Match making with other fields.
– Build ecosystems with unusual suspects.
– Learn fast, fail cheap.
– Connect with education. Internships.
– Bring in the bicycles. Free public transport.
– Start a foodie culture.
– Emerging global social enterprise.
– Creating entrepreneurial culture.
– Connect with different social designers.


Overall, the visit highlighted the value of such exchange visits as a process of learning for those involved, and as a means of gaining highly useful insights from them. Clearly Dundee impressed and inspired them by its achievements and its aspirations. From the workshop discussions it was evident that Dundee is emerging as an exemplar of how a small city can innovate by playing to its strengths. The building of a creative community in recent years was recognised by the Districts as a vital part of this.

As for learning from them, a critical issue is making global connections and internationalising, especially in social enterprise. Many of the suggestions made by the visitors, such as transport and internships, were framed in the context of the sharing economy, so this is perhaps an area we can explore. We still need to work at our entrepreneurial culture and at the connections we make with ‘less-usual suspects’.

Dundee can clearly take its place as a respected creative city that others can learn from. Equally, we have much to learn from them that will help us to raise our collective ambitions even higher and take on the challenges of our future.


The facilitation team: Hazel White, Gillian Easson, Mike Press. All photography: Kathryn Rattray

You can view all photographs from the event here.