The Creative Industries Require More Organic Solidarity and Less Mechanical Solidarity

By Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

main image

IF YOU WISH to enhance material production, be this of electronic chips, fish and chips, or arts and crafts, the contemporary wisdom today is to aim for the establishment of a supportive ecosystem.

Until recently, the word “hub” was the cool term to throw around in this context. That word, once used in transportation contexts, has expanded in usage to signify a centralised point of activity and of collaboration across domains.

Today, ecosystem is a more popular and appropriate word to use. I am furthermore told (by ChatGPT) that “While both hubs and ecosystems involve the concentration of activities or entities within a system, hubs tend to focus on central points or nodes facilitating connectivity or exchange, whereas ecosystems emphasise the interconnectedness, interdependencies and systemic nature of the entities and interactions within a broader system.”

Let me repeat that last bit about ecosystems, about them being a consolidation of “the interconnectedness, interdependencies and systemic nature of the entities and interactions within a broader system”. An “ecosystem” is organic, in short. It is inherently more dynamic than whatever deserves to be called a “hub”.

At the risk of confusing the issue, let me analogise this dissimilarity to the distinction between “mechanical solidarity” and “organic solidarity” proposed in 1893 by one of the fathers of Modern Sociology, Emile Durkheim, in his book, The Division of Labour in Society.

Durkheim differentiated between two forms of social cohesion, the first stemming from individuals feeling connected through similarities in their work, educational or religious training, or in their age, gender and lifestyle; and the other from interdependence between people with specialised skills and from how this diversity in skills coalesces in a complementing fashion.

Why is this difference important to us today—to decision makers especially? Well, they do connote different mindsets and therefore different ways of understanding and manipulating a situation. If one is building a hub, the measures needed would essentially be more mechanical, concrete and physical. The measures of success would be more quantitative and economic.

If one is creating an ecosystem, however, then inputs have to be more subtle and sophisticated.

For the latter, the points of intervention would require more historical and anthropological knowledge, and the measures of success would be more qualitative and socio-cultural in nature. Much more patience and empathy would be needed in the latter case because more diverse personalities, skills and values would be involved.

In policymaking, the first mindset might be good in certain areas, like creating an industrial zone perhaps, or a special financial district, or even a tourist attraction. Where measures are aimed at society as a whole, the human interdependencies involved are both an asset and an annoyance.

Global Reputation

Enter the creative industries.

The term “creative industries” has entered popular usage in Penang, significantly emanating from the vibrant nexus between local artistic creativity and extensive technological innovations. The global recognition of George Town’s rich heritage in 2008, together with the fact that Penang has for decades been the Silicon Valley of the East, intermix the two policymaking mindsets against each other, confusing all involved.

While developing the cultural heritage and creativity of Penang requires a mindset anchored in organic solidarity, the manufacturing prowess of the state encourages a stiffer kind of policy thinking among decision makers which understands mechanical solidarity to be sufficient.

Without a doubt, the manufacturing capacity of Penang has been well-grounded since the beginning, in the 1970s.

As Penang’s cache of creativity regains its global reputation and becomes common knowledge again since 2008, the need to separate a mindset based on mechanical solidarity and on “hub thinking” from one based on organic solidarity and “ecosystem thinking” becomes an imperative.

Creativity in all its forms, to be properly supported, will require policies and activities that provide space for the commitment of many societal actors to develop, and for their activities to adapt and connect, and to complement each other.

Film-making, highlighted this month is a case in point. For it to grow, an ecosystem of enthusiasts with spaces to meet, discuss and argue must be conceptualised at policymaking level, and realised at societal level with the participation of artists, entrepreneurs and audiences alike.

Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: