Why We Need Culture At A Time Like This

In the fast paced, ever changing, complex modern world we live in today, what is the point of culture?

We are in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution, our lives are run by algorithms, we work for apps instead of people and every day we get more and more baffled by fake news. So how can sitting in a theatre for two hours watching a play offer something useful or relevant?

Well, it is relevant because culture is all about human connection. Sitting in a theatre, with your phone switched off, is about seeing the actors sweat and experiencing the same emotional journey as 500 other people. And then arguing about it in the pub afterwards.

Today’s impressive technology has created an illusion of connection. We peek at our friends’ curated food pictures on Instagram – yet nothing beats sitting opposite them to discuss their break up or holiday plans over real food.

Culture is the glue that binds us together. It is exactly the kind of connection we need right now. Think of the extraordinary Olympics Opening Ceremony which brought a city and a country together – demonstrating the UK as a global beacon of diversity – a place where you can dress how you want to dress, be who you want to be and love who you want to love. Celebration and a message of openness through the visceral experience of live music. That human connection is important.

Imagine your own life without music, film, design, theatre and books. The same goes for cities. This week I am in Seoul chairing the World Cities Culture Summit – it’s like a Davos for culture but without the Swiss mountains.

Any diplomat will tell you that getting 28 cities to agree on something needs an incredible amount of energy. But when it comes to culture it’s a breeze. Influential city leaders from New York to Shanghai, Moscow to Paris, Sydney to Amsterdam and Austin to Taipei are here in Seoul on a common mission. No matter what the political or economic circumstances at home, everyone is united: culture is the golden thread in cities.

This might be surprising when you consider the mega challenges global cities are facing. In London, we have a housing crisis, health inequalities, poor air quality, the threat of terrorism and Brexit. So it would be easy to say we’ve got too much on our plate to think about culture. But, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has made it a priority, which is unprecedented – but not entirely surprising.

Cities all around the world have realised what culture and creativity can offer. Culture makes cities distinctive, helping tell a unique story in an increasingly globalised and homogenous world. Our cities are defined by creative people – in London, punk helped shape the 70s and today it’s grime music. Bogotá has embraced grassroots creativity and is now the global home of street art, while Berlin has given heritage status to its underground night clubs.

Culture is also what draws in tourists. In London, four out of five come for culture. Then there’s the money – culture generates £42 billion every year for the capital, it’s one of the fastest growing sectors and the jobs are the ones least likely to be done by robots in the future. Why? Because you can’t automate the imagination (yet!).

Culture is getting hardwired into all the different bits of the urban engine – into regeneration, health, planning and public realm. Culture has gone from niche to mainstream as cities realise that it is not enough to just have great transport and efficient roads — cities also need a soul. They need culture and creativity.

But how do you do it? How do you plan, develop and grow something as diverse and unpredictable as culture in a major city? Creativity is a bit like a teenager – it doesn’t respond well to authority. Now that culture is a recognised core ingredient, central to the success of cities, how do we futureproof it?

It’s stating the obvious that cities have a lot in common and can learn so much from each other. Luckily, the World Cities Culture Summit is an IP-free zone and stealing good ideas from other cities is positively encouraged. Thanks to Bloomberg Philanthrophies and Google Arts and Culture we have just launched the World Cities Leadership Exchange. It will formalise the stealing of ideas with deeper exchanges between global cities who believe that culture is key. What will emerge? We want the best ideas to help us build the resilient, distinctive, engaged, vibrant cities of the future.

So do we need culture at a time like this? Absolutely. If we want a buoyant economy with the jobs of the future, if we want to breathe life into rundown neighbourhoods, if we want human connections in a digital world and if we want to fire up the imaginations of the future. We need culture more than ever.