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Friday, February 17, 2006 | Balboa Park, a unique 1,200-acre complex of museums, theaters, gardens, shops and restaurants, as well as the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, is poised to become part of an economic cluster serving the San Diego region.

Together with the Center City Development Corp.’s plans for a creative complex to replace Golden Hall as the city’s administrative center, the park is prime real estate capable of being configured into a creative cluster. The Center City Corp. and Balboa Park leadership need to think about how to link the two complexes with other complexes in the region and to find a way to use modern transportation to make them the centerpiece of the region.

Today, corporations and the communities they serve must put themselves at the forefront of this sweeping change in the structure of the world in which we live and work. It is imperative that we begin in earnest to attract, retain and nurture the most creative and innovative workforce we know we need; and in the process, create a new overlay of our land-use planning too.

Michael Porter in his book The Competitive Advantage of Nations, first published in 1990, pointed out the importance of “economic clusters.” These “geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, specialized suppliers, service providers and associated institutions in a particular field that are present in a nation or region” are central, he argued, to survival in the wake of an uncertain global economy.

Porter championed the cluster concept and communities around the world eagerly embraced it. Looking back, it was key to the success of many industries and to competitive community development worldwide. As we talk about the development of creative industries today and the foreshadowing of a whole economy based upon creativity and innovation – the dawn of the “Creative Age” as the Nomura Research Institute put it – we are more acutely aware of the importance of a new overlay called the “creative cluster.”

As early as 1985, the Washington D.C. think tank Partners for Livable Communities identified Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Oakland, California and Chattanooga, Tennessee as cities that undertook efforts to create an industry culture by cajoling or otherwise attracting key segments of the cluster to move or locate geographically to form a hub for “transmitting and augmenting personal knowledge quickly.” For this reason they are cited by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, among others, as leapfrogging other cities by capitalizing on the advantages of “proximity and collaboration.”

Partners for Livable Communities assessed links between quality of life and the economic success of cities, and concluded “cities that are not livable places are not likely to perform economic functions in the future. Enhancing livability therefore should be a central objective in every city’s economic transition strategy and the elements of livability should be employed as economic development tools.” In the creative age, developing the “creative cluster,” like Porter’s earlier industrial or economic cluster, is equally important because art and culture are central to ensuring vibrant economic activity and to business success in the 21st century knowledge economy and society.

Partners for Livable Communities identified Seattle as a city that has developed and implemented a strategy for attracting and nurturing high tech development. The city’s Seattle Center caters to over 6 million art patrons annually who enjoy 29 professional theater companies, seven theaters, 15 symphony orchestras, a variety of choruses, the recent Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museums, developed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as well as five other cultural museums celebrating, among other things, the city’s Nordic and indigenous American heritages. Other cities have also recognized the importance of the “creative cluster.” Chicago’s Millennium Park, conceived in the early 1990s by artists, architects such as Frank Gehry and landscape designers, has resulted in the transformation of unsightly river tracts and parking lots into a world-renown destination for residents and tourists alike.

All this has not gone unnoticed by America’s own Silicon Valley. John Kreidler, the foundation executive who was hired some years ago to lead Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley, is aggressively developing a similar plan. He has said quite pointedly that creativity is “part of what sustains and propels Silicon Valley forward.” A central aspect of the organization’s mission is to “try to energize the civic and business leadership, especially the business leadership in the Silicon Valley to take interest” in the relationship between art, culture and commerce, and creativity and enterprise to success in the 21st Century global economy.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that initiatives that promote education and infrastructure, and in the process more regional livable places with strong and vibrant creative clusters will be the hallmarks of the most successful 21st Century cities and regions. Those communities placing a premium on cultural, ethnic and artistic diversity, and reinventing their knowledge factories for the Creative Age will likely burst with creativity and entrepreneurial fervor.

John M. Eger, Co-Founder of Envision San Diego, and Van Deerlin Chair of Communications and Public Policy at SDSU was editor of the Smart Community Guidebook, published by the State of California ( 1997) and most recently, The Creative Community, SDSU Press, (http://www.thecreativecommunity.org

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