Learning from Vanilla Ink

kate

So Vanilla Ink – the unique Dundee based jewellery start-up incubator and general creative powerhouse – is to shut up shop in the city; for a while at least. Kate Pickering has driven forward Vanilla Ink from an initial hazy notion of what she would have liked to have seen supporting her when she graduated as a jeweller a decade ago, through to being the creative exemplar cited in just about every talk and article about Dundee’s creative economy. Well, in mine anyway.

For Dundee this is an important moment – perhaps more important than we recognise, given the significance of design to the regional economy and to the future that we are seeking to create for ourselves. Personally it’s significant, in that I have worked with Kate in a very modest way over the last few years to support her in building her vision. Some reflection is therefore in order about what we can learn from the Vanilla Ink achievement, where it leaves us, and – most importantly – how we build on the incredible legacy that Kate has provided us with.

What, then, has Vanilla Ink taught us? It would be easy to say that it all rests on the remarkable Ms Pickering of whom I am hugely proud. But as an educator I believe that individuals who do remarkable things stand as an inspiration to us all, and as such help us all to raise our game.

It’s about vision

Right from the start, Kate had a clear vision about what she wanted to create – a workshop space to enable jewellery graduates to develop their businesses, supported by mentors and a structured programme of support that would help them to develop the skills, confidence and knowledge to succeed in the future. That was it. Hers was a vision propelled by the passion she has for jewellery, for the city she had chosen to call her home – and most importantly for people.

It’s about people

It was a vision about how people could work together, support each other and make their own visions real. This has echoes of the idea of the “social expert” – in which craft expertise (or indeed any expertise) is indivisible from social interaction, from mentoring and co-operation. This is in contrast to the idea of the “antisocial expert” who is competitive and selfish with their knowledge. Kate exemplifies the qualities of the social expert, and has created a project centred around the sharing of skill, confidence and creative entrepreneurship. I believe that a sustainable and convivial future is dependent on people who are passionate and caring about other people.

Telling the story

Visions do not become concrete unless they are shared – and to do that their story has to be told. Right at the very start, Kate told that story a little uncertainly, a little falteringly. But the more she told it, the more her confidence came, and the more vivid became the telling. The vision was just the start – it was the story, the narrative, the placing of this idea within her own experience and expertise that made this project a viable proposition. In November 2011 she was one of those invited to speak at Dundee’s first ever Pecha Kucha. Watch her presentation below:

Build alliances

Innovative places require innovative communities, and building communities is the most vital activity, without which change simply does not happen. Again, this is part and parcel of being a social expert, and Gillian Easson’s success in building the Creative Dundee community is evidence of this. Kate was a pioneer (to my mind anyway) in using social media as a means of building a real community around Vanilla Ink, and connecting with others, such as Jane Gowans and Hayley Scanlan, to demonstrate a vibrant community of creative women entrepreneurs in Dundee. Her use of Kickstarter for the first Vanilla Ink cohort was a brilliant demonstration of what crowdfunding could do to generate support, community and finances to raise the ambitions and profile of the group. Indeed, Vanilla Ink was one of the first UK Kickstarter campaigns. Kickstarter was a means by which the City could get behind Vanilla Ink and show its collective support.

Creative leadership

“Mike, I’m going to initiate and organise the first ever Scottish jewellery week. What do you think?”  I thought she was possibly a bit unhinged, and if it went wrong, then it would go spectacularly wrong, but when you are a proven and respected creative leader then that’s not really on the agenda. Creative leadership means forever looking outward, not inward, looking for new opportunities, creating a focus for your ideas, and bringing people along to share in what you create. From initiating Vanilla Ink, then a creative festival to celebrate jewellery was the logical next step. Creative leadership is also about being unpopular when that is necessary, it’s about facing up to setbacks and having the confidence to move on. It is about being brave. These are qualities that she has developed, and that the emerging generation of new change makers can learn from.

Knowing when to quit

There’s a real art to quitting. And indeed a science. I teach my students “the meaning of life” at then end of one of my lectures (no honestly, I really do), and this is in part about knowing when to quit – or rather about knowing when to reinvent. As the inspirational Charles Handy says “The world keeps changing. It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and the ways which got you where you are, are seldom those that keep you there.” I have no doubt that Vanilla Ink could have just carried on in the same way, but the world does keep changing, the challenges shift, and new opportunities arise. This is linked to creative leadership, having an outward focus that constantly scans for new ways of developing and implementing vision.

 

Some lessons for Dundee…. be cool

Finally, a few lessons for Dundee. The creative industries are great. They can be transformative to regional economies and to the profile of a post-industrial city such as Dundee. They bring the allure of awards and celebrations, which of course cities love. But they have two other qualities: they are VERY fragile, and VERY mobile.

We are at a significant moment in our city’s development, which is overlain by some equally significant shifts in employment nationally and internationally. Scotland has a much improved rate of new business start-ups, but we have yet to see the kind of support for new businesses and for the self-employed that the RSA, NESTA and other organisations have been saying we need to see, and which I have been writing about for some time. It is time that the city and the country took the needs of our fragile but vital creative industries more seriously. This is not about asking for hand-outs or subsidy – rather the infrastructure, business support and mentoring that our Millennial-driven start-ups need.

Kate exemplifies Richard Florida’s idea of the creative class – these are the creative knowledge workers in fields as diverse as engineering, the theatre, life sciences, education and business start-ups that all economies demand to retain their dynamism. As Richard Florida says “In the future, they will determine how the workplace is organized, what companies will prosper or go bankrupt, and even which cities will thrive or wither.” One key characteristic of the creative class is that it is highly mobile, lacking the traditional bonds and loyalties that formerly bound people to place.

When he was Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg wrote this in the Financial Times: “I have long believed that talent attracts capital far more effectively and consistently than capital attracts talent. The most creative individuals want to live in places that protect personal freedoms, prize diversity and offer an abundance of cultural opportunities. A city that wants to attract creators must offer a fertile breeding ground for new ideas and innovations…. Economists may not say it this way but the truth of the matter is: being cool counts.”

In Dundee we have made considerable progress, but we still have a fair way to go. I have yet to be convinced that the City truly understands the cultural dimensions of economic development, or indeed the needs of our fragile start-ups.

However, my belief is that by learning the lessons from initiatives such as Vanilla Ink, and strengthening the creative communities of Dundee, then we will continue to make progress. Vanilla Ink 2 Dundee will open up, and will take Kate’s vision into new territories. For this to happen we need new energies and ideas to join with hers. She showed us what was possible. Now let us build on that further and really put creativity to work in Dundee!

 

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