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I hold a PhD in Communication from Simon Fraser University and am currently a postdoctoral fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University studying the role of art and culture in contributing to vital urban spaces and regional growth. My key areas of research include creative economies, fields of cultural production, cultural scenes, the cultural conditions of authorship, and the politics of humour and laughter. Below is an overview of the major research project that I am currently completing. It is part of my postdoctoral research conducted at Wilfrid Laurier University (2013-2014) and was supervised by Dr. Abby Goodrum. It is partnered with the Smart Region Initiative and Creative Enterprises Initiative.

The Role of Culture in Small City Economies:
A Case Study of ‘Stickiness’ in the Waterloo Region

Research Questions:

What is the role of culture in the smart city economy? What are the major gaps in art and culture infrastructure, accessibility, and distribution that impact regional attractiveness to current, new, and future talent? How can a region act through policy initiatives to turn itself into a desirable place to live? Is the investment in public space and cultural infrastructure an effective tool in developing regional ‘stickiness’ for smart talent retention?

Research Overview:

In March 2011, the Waterloo Region commissioned a study of barriers to attracting and retaining smart talent. The impetus for this comprehensive analysis was the chronic shortage of skilled high-tech sector workers. The resulting report, Waterloo Region Creative Talent Strategy (2011), offered a mapping of regional assets deemed important to key talent attraction, as well as a gap analysis informed by a series of “Talent Attraction Labs” that had brought participants from target industries into small groups in order to elaborate on their personal experiences of the livability of the Waterloo region. In particular, the report argued that the region lacked ‘stickiness,’ a concept used to describe and measure the ability of a city or region to not only attract, but also retain key labour force talent. Some areas deemed essential to ‘stickiness’ were diversity, nightlife, art, entertainment, transit, and street planning. Drawing upon this research document, researchers at the University of Guelph, the University of Waterloo, and Wilfrid Laurier University created a research and advocacy partnership called the SMART Region Initiative, the aim of which is to consider vital urban development ‘nodes’ of interest such as built environment, advanced informatics, and socio-economics and culture.

As a  postdoctoral fellow, I help coordinate the Socio-Economics and Culture Node of the SMART Region Initiative, under the supervision of Dr. Abby Goodrum, VP Research at Wilfrid Laurier University. My role in the production, analysis, and dissemination of key research data extendS the mandate of SMART to consider larger socio-cultural, economic, and policy implications of regional cultural development in the Waterloo Region. On the surface, the Waterloo Region is easily defined as a ‘smart region.’ It has a thriving high-tech industry, excellent ICT infrastructure, an impressive university and college network, and a growing economy and population. However, its status as a smart region is not being taken as self-evident. Indeed regional stakeholders have identified some very real social and cultural challenges to their smart region status (Canada’s Technology Triangle 2011; City of Waterloo 2013; Prosperity Council of Waterloo Region 2009). While creative people certainly live and work in the Waterloo Region, labour shortages linked to challenges of worker attraction and retention indicate that the current talent base is not sufficient to meet regional economic needs. Furthermore, a lack of art, culture, and leisure amenities have been specifically articulated as barriers to labour recruitment in creative workforce surveys conducted by government and industry stakeholders in the region. Many tech-sector employees commute from the GTA where they feel that their families’ cultural needs are better met. In attempting to ameliorate this, policy-makers and industry stakeholders are not simply drawing blindly on creative city ideologies, but are more pragmatically engaging with an explicitly stated barrier to regional growth.

With its population expected to increase dramatically over the next 10 years, the Waterloo Region along with its various municipal corporations is taking an active role in the strategic development of key infrastructure, including art and culture resources. The City of Waterloo has recently completed an in-depth culture plan, published in January 2014. The Economic Development Department at the City of Kitchener is about to undertake initial explorations of their own culture plan, and the art and culture advisory councils of Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge are engaged in discussions to collaborate on cultural planning issues of shared interest. With major policy development and creative sector growth expected over the next few years, this region offers a valuable case study for research on smart cities, creative sector workers, and collaborative regional cultural development.

The question remains, how can a region decide to turn itself into a desirable place to live, and use policy and investment in public space and cultural infrastructure to rapidly achieve this goal? The region offers a valuable case study as it works to rebrand itself, altering its cultural fortunes through concerted city building efforts and smart growth.

Research Objectives:

The objective of this project is to contribute to knowledge translation and integration between academic, government, and industry stakeholders. As a large and growing academic literature on the cultural economy and creative workforce exists, government policy makers can benefit from this academic work. My role with the regional SMART initiative enables me to offer this consultation and translation. At the same time, the prioritization of cultural development, and the acknowledgement of the creative economy as a major growth area, offers a unique opportunity for critical academic study in the planning and development of cultural policy in growing and diverse regions. This project seeks to explore how tensions between multiple stakeholders are resolved in the context of regional cultural development, as well as policy aims and implementation. Finally, drawing upon current creative mapping methods, as well as data accumulation currently undertaken in the region, this project will establish community specific metrics for the evaluation of cultural growth which will enable the collection of longitudinal data on the creative sector. This will also involve critical examination of tensions between government, industry, and public stakeholders, and well as gaps in regional art and culture resources and provision. As an extension of the cultural mapping data already being compiled by the region as part of their cultural development strategy, GIS software will be used to overlay cultural scenes, events, spaces and institutions with other regional socio-cultural and economic data. This will enable existing data streams to be brought together in order to drive further questions about uneven cultural development within the region, excluded demographics in official cultural planning, and barriers to cultural participation. Such data would be fed back into planning occurring at the regional and municipal levels through public research dissemination opportunities afforded through an association with SMART.

Theoretical Approach and Methodologies:

The current approach to cultural development in the Waterloo Region is very much grounded in popular urban planning ideologies which value the knowledge economy and the creative sector as important drivers of economic growth. However, policy-makers are also increasingly cynical about some of the place-making rhetoric of “creative city” approaches popularized by Richard Florida, which controversially made a meteoric rise to the top of many municipal and regional cultural planning agendas (Florida 2002; 2008; for a critique see Kratke 2011). Indeed, as policy-makers in small cities and regions are increasingly aware, Florida’s “creative class” theory is not generalizable to all places everywhere, and the development of creative knowledge economies often requires community-specific approaches. Unlike Florida’s concept, wherein it is claimed that high-tech sector jobs gravitate towards areas with high concentrations of creative talent, in the Waterloo Region, these jobs pre-exist the kind of creative economy and infrastructure that is deemed important in Florida’s creative class model. As such, urban planning approaches based upon the ‘smart city’ model, where growth is linked to a sophisticated ICT infrastructure, the presence of research institutions, and a culture of encouraging innovation, are more relevant to this region sometimes referred to as Canada’s ‘silicon valley’ (see Campbell 2012; Deakin and Al Waer 2012). A vibrant creative sector, including thriving cultural scenes and public spaces, remains a significant factor is defining smart cities, or in this case, a smart region. Cultural development in the Waterloo region has historically been uneven, and has tended to favour heritage and traditional cultural institutions over more popular and diverse cultural scenes. Having identified this as a barrier to long-term economic growth, the Region has invested aggressively in city-scaping, re-zoning, public transit infrastructure, bike lanes, parks, trails, festivals, cultural events, and collaborative work spaces.

These developments, trends, and issues can be mapped using Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of culture (Bourdieu 1993), an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the complexity of dynamic fields (Fuller, Warren, and Norman 2011) as well as the patterned and at times predictable elements of cultural production which occur when dominant stakeholders reproduce their positions in the field. His analysis of cultural fields is relevant to the cultural mapping approaches currently endorsed by cultural policy discourses, especially in relation to the evaluation and management of the creative sector (BOP Consulting 2010; Brennan-Horley 2012; Fuller, Warren, and Norman 2011; Gupta 2001). According to Bourdieu, a ‘field’ consists of social agents as well as the structural relations between them; these include individuals, groups, and institutions (Bourdieu 1993). Fields are characterized by strategy, struggle and conflict, as well as a balance of forces between agents which reproduces social stability. While the ‘fields’ considered by Bourdieu were narrowly defined by production type (i.e. the literary field; photography; art), his approach is also of more general applicability to cultural research as it offers a framework for engaging with complex, multi-stakeholder, cultural contexts (Brown and Szeman 2000; Negus 2002; Stabile 2000; Sulkunen 1982).

As an end goal, the strengths, gaps, and opportunities identified in this research project will be shared with the municipalities, region, and other relevant stakeholders in order to assist with their strategic planning. This knowledge mobilization and dissemination will take place through formal reporting to the cities, as well as through town halls in order to link cultural planning to members of the public, and through participation in academic conferences and publishing in order to contribute to scholarly approaches to cultural mapping in small cities.

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