Book Review – Advanced Cultural Districts: Innovative Approaches to Organizational Designs by Alberto Francesconi

December 2015
By Adrian Ellis

Francesconi, Alberto. Advanced Cultural Districts: Innovative Approaches to Organizational Designs. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian, 2015

This short book (1) about cultural district planning reads as if it is a light rewrite of a dissertation –  complete with literature review, case studies, and taxonomies galore. It has an appropriately clunky prose style, as in: “With the aforementioned premises in mind, we propose the use of some simple investigation tools for analysis and design of an advanced cultural district, because the aim is to provide a direction for the development of a complex adaptive system, rather than a precise and analytical pre-definition.”  I read it so you don’t have to! That said, it has some useful insights.

Francesconi’s definition of a cultural district is: “a recognizable but mutable territorial environment where culture-driven socio-economic development can be supported”. This is a slight spin on Frost-Kumpf’s 2001 definition of cultural districts  as “well-recognized, labeled areas of a city in which a high concentration of cultural facilities and programs serve as the main anchor of attraction.”

The author is primarily concerned with the management and development of ‘naturally occurring’ districts – what he calls ‘Marshallian industrial districts ‘ – in which cultural production and consumption are co-located, and the cultural industry or industries in question have developed organically. He contrasts these with ‘metropolitan cultural districts and museum cultural districts’ that concentrate on the consumption of culture, mainly attracting tourists and that only contribute indirectly to local economic development.

The central thesis is sensible if unspectacular.  The argument is based on a series of somewhat over-summarized case studies and a deeper dig into one –the development of a plan for a food and wine district in Valtellina, one of six projects for cultural districts in Lombardy, northern Italy, promoted by the Cariplo Foundation (2).  Francesconi argues that successful cultural districts prioritize quality; integration with their adjacent communities; and sustainability. He argues that local stakeholder participation in planning and management is essential: “In every instance one can say that there was a local player, be it public or private, that provided the initial [impetus].” More generally, he underscores the challenges of ‘top down’ planning that neglects  - or fails to identify – the tangible and intangible assets - cultural terroir – that are so critical to the character of a district. Finally, successful districts (the ‘advanced’ ones in his title) are planned through an iterative process, not the linear one dictated by the logic of many feasibility and planning methodologies. Success is therefore inevitably elusive, much like truth is in John Donne’s Satire

On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, [Success] stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.

Three other well made points in the book:

First, a reminder that ‘naturally occurring cultural districts’ are simply one manifestation of the clustering of production that the pioneering economist Alfred Marshall analyzed in 1890 in his Principles of Economics. ‘Marshallian industrial districts’ comprise small firms vertically and horizontally co-located – firms associated with each step of the manufacturing and distribution chain from raw materials to consumer sales that cluster in one place. Examples are musical instrument makers in Cremona or jewelers in Birmingham or Arezzo. Economic logic might be thought to suggest that there would be a competitive advantage in a bit of distance from one another and that co-location is not a rational strategy for competitors. But Marshall worked out why this is not the case: clustering allows easier recruitment of skilled labor and rapid exchanges of commercial and technical information through informal channels. These concentrated small businesses enjoy transaction costs reduced to a practical minimum. Physical proximity also allows for the transfer of tacit knowledge (e.g. craft skills) that is uncodified but critical to success. Critical mass also means that consumers are more easily attracted – a sort of collective branding strategy.

Second, culture and the arts play several interdependent roles in local development: due to their economic characteristics (strong intellectual and creative content, increasing returns, flexible specialisation); their social traits (high power of identification and rich symbolic content); and their positive impact on other economic fields (e.g. tourism and environment). They therefore justifiably catch the attention of policy-makers – and this applies as much to for-profit cultural industries as non-profit. For-profit culture industries often therefore act as a public good (in that they generate positive externalities that facilitate social and economic development. They are therefore at least candidates for public sector support. They facilitate and feed innovative processes in other, adjacent production fields.

Finally, Francesconi develops a useful framework for comparing cultural districts – something we are trying to do for GCDN members. His dimensions – more a checklist really – are:

1.  The district’s objectives

2.  The assets (tangible, intangible, financial etc.) that it control

3.  The assets in its physical area that it can leverage but does not control

4.  The district’s maturity, as measured by:

a.  Concentration of assets
b.  Proximity and access to it (i.e. transport links)
c.  The presence of activities and structures related to hospitality and tourism
d.  The extent of collaboration between local and external actors
e.  Level of integration between cultural and non cultural industries
f.  The level of participation of stakeholders in planning and implementation
g.  Sustainability or business model

5.  Governance model

6.  The extent of transparency in the design and management process