Birmingham’s creative sector and the city council took a step closer together at an event looking at how innovative thinking on everyday issues can make Birmingham a better place to live.
Michael Wolff, the co-founder of brand agency Wolff Olins, led a workshop at the newly-opened Fazeley Studios generating ideas on how creative thinking can be integrated into all areas of the city’s life.
Last year Mr Wolff sparked controversy when he accused Birmingham of trailing in Manchester’s wake in the creativity stakes, and consequently the image stakes, saying the city should appoint a creative director along the lines of Peter Saville in Manchester. He hit out at Birmingham City Council and Marketing Birmingham, accusing them of failing to deal with Birmingham’s image problem.
But this time round, Mr Wolff’s tone was much less confrontational and he shied away from direct criticism of Birmingham City Council and indeed the whole question of whether Birmingham should employ a creative director at all.
Representatives from Birmingham City Council joined around 50 people from the city’s creative sector at the event organised by Creative Republic, a lobbying group for the creative and cultural industries.
Mr Wolff said he designed the event to focus more on concrete ideas to improve everyday life in the city rather than how to improve “brand Birmingham” and challenged attendees to come up with actionable ideas on areas such as transport, education and how to look after an aging population.
Birmingham City Council director of public affairs and communications Debra Davis, who took part in the workshop, said: “I have to say everyone’s ideas are amazing, this is so valuable.”
She added the event should be seen as a wider discussion around the Big City Plan.
“There were some serious ideas that I could see taken further. Some of the ideas really resonated with me.”
But she was reluctant to commit herself on the question of whether Birmingham City Council should appoint a creative director.
“The success of the Creative Republic event proved that rather than relying on input from one individual, the key to future successes will be based on very many creative people from all walks of life working together.”
Addressing attendees at the event, Mr Wolff said: “I don’t want to thwart any discussion about a creative director but what I was asking specifically was to see if I can give people an experience of what creative direction means.”
Michael Wolff praised the ideas generated at the event, which was captured in cartoons by Birmingham cartoonist Alex Hughes, saying some of the ideas generated were “incredible”.
Although in the past he has said he would love to take on the job of creative director in Birmingham, repeating this in a recent edition of Design Week, he told The Birmingham Post that this was not his ambition.
He said the post, if it were to be created, should be filled by someone living and working locally.
Mr Wolff co-founded brand agency Wolff Olins in the 1960s. By the time he left in the early 1980s, it had developed a worldwide reputation for branding and has since gone on to devise the controversial 2012 Olympic logo.
Inviting old people to school dinners, free Tai Chi, passing a new law which requires every empty building in city to be filled with art - these were just some of
the hundreds of ideas generated at the workshop.
Attendees at the Creative Republic-organised evening were asked to imagine they were part of team of people working underneath a Birmingham creative director on ways to improve life in the city.
It seemed like Mr Wolff, the man who caused such a stir last year when he said Birmingham lacked creative direction, was almost an adjunct to the event.
But his previous comments arguing that Birmingham should have a creative director along the lines of Peter Saville in Manchester put him firmly centre-stage in a heated debate last year over whether the city should embrace the idea.
Birmingham City Council and Marketing Birmingham came in for a few harsh words from Mr Wolff who accused them of not doing enough to enhance Birmingham’s image as a creative place.
He described the “b in Birmingham” logo as “like a bus stop without the details of the bus service” and claimed creativity was more important than healthcare and education.
But this time around, the debate was much wider than whether or not the city should have a creative director and went far beyond how to “brand” Birmingham.
“Should Birmingham have a creative director?” said Mr Wolff. “I don’t think that is the point of this event. We could have about 80 creative directors - as many as it takes to make things happen.
“I’m more interested in this workshop motivating creative people on how they can contribute to Birmingham and look at all the strands of the city in terms of culture, the arts as well as things like violence and crime.
“Whether there should be a creative director at some point in the future is another question.
But with or without the figurehead role, Mr Wolff believed the public sector should be at the heart of any drive to embrace creative solutions to everyday problems.
“We need the council to say “we control finance and stimulate commercial activity, we should also be stimulating creative activity.”
“In other words if the council manifests creativity in everything it does that in itself will act as a catalyst. It’s about looking at all the things you could do, in terms of things like security, health and education.
“It’s more about doing things with imagination so again and again, as you deal with the city, you see things which make you feel that somebody thought about that.”
When pressed for an example of what he means by a local authority manifesting creativity, he gives the example of prisons.
“Prisons really are a sad thing because crime itself is already a failure of our society. But at the end of the day prison should be about learning to be a more effective person so put a university campus in the prison, make the prison about education.”