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The art of collaboration

Catherine Carter

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking and writing about how we bring Canberra’s business and arts communities together to create a cultural capital.

I’ve argued that the business community needs to get behind the arts in Canberra, because it will benefit everyone. Reams of research finds that creative cities are more productive, attract higher wages and a larger pool of talent, and that there is “innovation spill-over” from cultural clusters into the commercial economy.

While the business community can undoubtedly do more to support the arts, I also think the arts sector could learn a thing or two about how Canberra’s business community operates. For there are great lessons found in the way Canberra’s highly-competitive companies work together.

In a small market like Canberra, business people know they can’t go it alone. Strategic partnerships and alliances make business sense because they deliver better outcomes – whether that’s staging an event, building a precinct or making a case to government. One plus one can equal three.

Economist Harold Hotelling observed way back in 1929 that businesses can by operating alongside their competitors. Hotelling’s Law explains why retailers and restaurants operate cheek-by-jowl. It’s why Sydney’s brides hot foot it to Parramatta Road in search of gowns – because they know if the dream dress can’t be found in the first few shops, there are plenty more options along the bridal beat.

This isn’t only the case for products and services, but for ideas too. In Triumph of the City, Professor Edward Glaeser argues that “ideas cross corridors and streets more easily than continents and seas”, which is why technology companies cluster in Silicon Valley.

Glaeser points to studies which have found inventors tend to cite patents produced by other inventors up to six times more regularly when they work nearby. The larger the distance between the inventors, the less likely they are to be cited.

Why is this important? Because in the hyper-connected global economy, where ideas can be shared instantly and talent and capital is mobile, collaboration isn’t optional. It’s essential.

That’s why sparkling office towers with state-of-the-art offices now feature open tenancies with ‘hubs’, ‘huddles’ and other fashionable meeting spots. It’s why staff are no longer chained to the same desk each day, and why generous staircases between floors encourage social interaction between different teams and even companies.

It’s not just for office workers. At the new ‘cathedral for science’ at London’s Francis Crick Institute, which brings together six of the UK’s most successful scientific and academic organisations, the philosophy of collaboration shaped the design, because some of the biggest breakthroughs may start with an incidental conversation in the line-up for coffee at the café.

Many arts organisations understand this instinctively, which is why they often co-locate in precincts. Collaboration can share costs and improve productivity, as organisations learn from each other. They are also more likely to convey legitimacy and attract more visitors than if they fly solo.

But too often, arts groups are pitted against each other in the scramble for funding, and this is ultimately a zero-sum game. The arts community may have little control over the government coffers. What it can control is how it comes together to ensure one plus one truly equals three.

One of the best opportunities for the arts community in Canberra may be the new precinct development unfolding – NewActon and the Kingston Arts Precinct are just two examples that will encourage co-sharing and cross-pollination of ideas.

But imagine what could happen if glass blowers and ballet dancers worked together? Or print makers and hip hop crews? Unexpected collaborations may not only create new ideas, but new ways for us to celebrate and recognise the arts in Canberra. And by creating something bigger than the individual art work, we collectively contribute to a stronger cultural sector.

Feature image: Martin Ollman

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up a boutique consulting firm, Indigo Consulting Australia, where she provides a range of specialist business and communication advisory services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author

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