What makes a creative city?

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Tabletop items by Basket and Weaves at the Lifestyle Philippines collective in Ambiente 2017 in Frankfurt, Germany. Philippine products were in exhibit through DTI's Center for International Trade and Expositions Missions (CITEM). Photo from CITEM/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It might be a bit odd that a government agency dedicated to exports, investments, and product development is mandated to develop the country’s creative community, but that is exactly why the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has mounted the ASEAN Creative Cities forum in time for the regional leaders meeting hosted by the Philippines. The forum is an opportunity to hear experts from the creative industry and exchange practices and benchmark standards on how to build hubs that can also sustain the economy.

While a DTI-backed forum can sometimes be simply a display of products, the two-day program started with a talk from Professor John Howkins, a renowned British author and academic on the creative practice, on how to develop an economy that also nourishes people in the arts.

Elsewhere, there are talks about soft power and nation-branding, success stories on design and digital entertainment, finding creative talents, and creating spaces and hubs for the community.

One of the popular and frequently cited creatives in attendance was Kenneth Cobonpue, the Cebu-based Filipino designer who has put the Philippines in the map of the international design community. Although during the ASEAN Success Stories on Design panel, Cobonpue cites that there is still much that the Philippine government can do when it comes to helping its own creatives, but acknowledges the promotions arm of the DTI, Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM), in helping local creatives such as himself achieve global renown. CITEM has been behind events, such as Manila FAME and has put a spotlight on local talent in international trade shows and expositions.

barbar.jpg Kenneth Cobonpue's Barbar, a modular piece that is a desk and a cabinet made with meticulous weaving techniques. Photo from KENNETH COBONPUE/OFFICIAL WEBSITE

DTI also has the Design Center of the Philippines, which has been mandated to as "a creative tool for improving the quality, competitiveness and branding of Filipino products in the global market," helping micro, small, and medium enterprises develop the design and concepts of their products.

The discussion also led to the possible Philippine cities that can join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network — which currently has 116 members across 54 nations and place development of creative industries in seven fields: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, music and media arts — and some mayors have approached the government to express their interest in submitting their application.

During the press conference for the ASEAN Creative Cities forum, DTI Undersecretary Nora K. Terrado emphasized that the criteria for making it to the list is very rigorous. "We need to evaluate whether that city is ready," she says.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Terrado — who currently leads the promotion of the country's domestic and international trade — during the ASEAN Creative Cities forum to talk about how the government helps homegrown creatives further their work and reach the global stage.

There is a notion that no money can to be made in the creative field. How is the government trying to dispel this notion with its programs?

The one that will [dispel] it will be the market, right? So not all ideas are created equal in terms of entrepreneurial success … but we do have a lot of interesting success stories around creativity that have proven to be a magnet for inclusive growth, for improvement of a certain city. For example, Cebu is one area that’s distinctly design-centric in terms of furniture. And it has produced personalities that have [reached] the global market, the likes of Kenneth Cobonpue. So other areas may even be in gastronomy [...] and this would be in the Pampanga region, like Mekeni or Boy Bawang … as simple as those ideas that are just created out of ordinary solutions out of mainstreaming something that is ordinary — and it’s now a favorite export category in certain markets such as the Middle East.

How does the government make sure these are not bursts of success but rather something sustainable and can trickle down to every creative in the country?

‘Yun nga ang dapat gawin ng gobyerno, we should highlight those success stories. There is a need to do more promotion, and that’s what I do in the DTI. I do promotions but I cannot promote everything, right? Now my focus, after innovation and promoting it in the startups, is [promoting] the creative components because that creativity will drive innovation. And when these are put together, we create intellectual property rights, which are registered and, therefore, if someone in the world would like to get that design, a copyright of some work, [the creator] would have some income that is categorized in the export sector as service.

The government role is to translate this into something that becomes an economic driver.

Nora-Terrado.jpg DTI Undersecretary Nora K. Terrado. Photo courtesy of TEAMASIA  

Coming from that, how do you make sure this is not just a responsive but rather a well-thought-out plan for the future of our creatives?

What we do is we work with the LGUs, kasi creativity, the creative economy is something that is organic, grassroots level, hindi ‘yan nanggagaling sa taas. Kasi it’s really people-oriented. It is the individual talent, the individual idea that is the key component of the output. So it’s not really driven by somebody who’s an investor, and we have to work with the LGU and identify which LGUs have the highest potential, who’s ready. Usually, when there’s a presence of an academic institution … like Dumaguete, they want to be [in the UNESCO Creative Cities network for] literature, and they are strong in that, and then the mayor is very much interested to drive it forward.

Of course, some mayors will be focused on bringing in more immediate economic drivers. But how do you tell them that there are opportunities for their cities to thrive in the creative field?

We create opportunities to promote, like this kind of session [the ASEAN Creative Cities forum], and really create awareness. [Another] is excitement, and drive up the opportunity, what is the potential and why I say this is for [your city]. For example, the mayor of Bacolod approached me [here at the forum] and he’s saying “Why aren’t you coming to me?” [I told him] I went there, but I didn’t find you! The right thing now is to invite you [here]. And then I got his attention. He came. And even as I was going out, he really ran after the secretary just to say “I need to be included in the area because of this,” etc. Of course, at the end of it, we need to evaluate whether that city is ready. It’s ready, willing, able. He is willing, but is he able? Is that environment able?

Is it still hard work to convince mayors about these creative initiatives?

Every LGU is different so the assistance and the support that we have to give the mayors vary. But in general, it starts with the mindset. Kasi ‘yung iba, bilib na bilib. ‘Yung iba sobrang bilib.  Sometimes you have to level [with them]. Kasi they only see [from the] inside. They have to compare the city against another. The bigger picture is they have to find a comparable city in the world. Of course it is good to compare themselves with the neighbors, but the idea is anong potential nila … because the failure rate is high. But it is better to try than not to try at all. If you try, you see how your citizenry is committed to make it happen. You need to have people with grit within the community to make it happen. And when a city produces somebody who is a Cobonpue, let’s say, or a Galang of Pampanga who is passionate about his food, it just happens.

DTI.jpeg DTI Undersecretary Nora K. Terrado with ASEAN Creative Cities panelists Paolo Mercado, Prof. John Howkins, Andrew Erskine, Katelijn Verstraete, and Colin Seah. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

One of the essential things for creativity to thrive is to provide spaces for it. Are there government spaces provided for the creative community?

The DTI has the Design Center of the Philippines, [which] is responsible for design promotion, design thinking, and product development. They do have a space. And we wish they’d have an iconic building, too. Their office itself is a design space.

Now there’s a lot of virtual spaces that … gets design thinking around. In DTI for instance, since we have nine FabLabs around the country — even the DOST (Department of Science and Technology) has innovation hubs and FabLabs in Bohol, Cebu, in Laoag, Zamboanga — it’s very interesting … Those design spaces allow budding entrepreneurs, creative entrepreneurs to start pursuing their designs at local costs. This is the time that they need those shared service facilities to get their ideas into minimum viable products.

It’s also interesting that there are cities outside the big urban centers that are thriving in the creative field. It’s not just Manila or Cebu. How does the DTI disseminate this information to other smaller cities?

Promotion, advocacy, and ... evangelism? (Laughs). You have to evangelize … like a missionary. In all forms of modes, you have to “preach,” road shows … Now we’re using a lot of social media. Every so often, in the creative economy, you really have to inspire the young people. Professor John Howkins said there’s research that the peak creativity of an individual is three to five years before they go to formal school. Now that I’m thinking of it, the former education secretary, Brother Armin Luistro, he was focused on making sure we have a better way of educating the kids, the law of preschool education. He embarked on that. Now I realize that it is because the peak of creativity is at that age, and they should be allowed to play. That’s an example of long-term thinking and how the government can use education as a [form of] primary intervention to ensure that creative talent is harnessed.