Building on Success: A Creative’s Guide to the City with Charles Landry

Photo by Lukas & Joe

What does it take to make a creative city? Usually, when we talk about creativity, we think about artists or technology disruptors. Outsiders who have an uncanny knack of reshaping society with a single idea. Like Steve Jobs with the iPhone. Or, Robert Stephenson and his Rocket locomotive. Ideas that have triggered global social changes whose impact far exceeds the devices that either built. 

As we transition into a world of mega cities, gig employment and environmental upheaval, we’re increasingly in need of new and radical problem-solving ideas and interventions to keep our cities functioning and liveable. Yet, we don’t tend to think about the systems that run the places we live in the same radical terms we think about people like Jobs or Stephenson. 

And as much as we like to think that the cities we love evolved organically and chaotically, in actuality, much of what we love about the places that we live is as a direct result of the intervention of people who are paid to think about them and run them in our interests. 

Bureaucracy is the often-undervalued resource that’s tasked with meeting the challenges that the future holds head on. A new public policy movement is rising grouped around this idea of flexible, creative bureaucracies. On the eve of the Creative Bureaucracy Festival 2020 and Think City’s involvement in it, The Citymaker spoke to its founder, Charles Landry, about the need for creative policymaking during these troubled times.

An international authority on the use of imagination and creativity in urban change, Charles Landry is a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, and inventor of the concept of the Creative City. He helps cities to employ innovative ideas and thinking to become more resilient and self-sustaining.

He is the author of a number of ground-breaking books, among them The Creative City: A toolkit for Urban Innovators (2000), The Digitized City (2016) and The Civic City in a Nomadic World (2017).

Where did the Creative Bureaucracy concept come from?

Charles Landry: The Creative Bureaucracy idea basically stems from the fact that people have talked about creativity for years and talk about web design and all sorts of artistic things. All of which is incredibly important, but one thing that’s really been left out is a big chunk of the world, which is the public administration. Given that the world’s changed dramatically even before the COVID event, the governments of all sorts—national, local, and so on—have had to ask themselves: how do we adapt to this new world? 

What are its core principles?

The three main pillars of the Creative Bureaucracy idea are quite simple: How do you create regulations and incentives that are appropriate for the period we have now? How do you improve the inner life of public administrations or bureaucracies, so that people working within them can give of their best? How can you create good relations and new relations, with the civic and business world? So in one slogan you could say, how’d you move from a ‘no, because…’ culture to a ‘yes, If…’ culture.

What made you decide that this new culture needed a Festival to coalesce around?

Charles Landry: Well, it happened quite coincidentally. I approached the main Berlin newspaper and wanted to do an event and wanted them just to publicize it a bit. So with their help in 2018, the idea—and it was based on a book, and things I’d been thinking about for 15 years—really took off.

Before that people thought I was making a joke, ‘creative’ ‘bureaucracies’, two words that sound like an oxymoron. But with their help, we really were able to launch something and 1,200 people came from 20 countries in 2018 and roughly the same in 2019. And so that put it at a different level. 

Then we transferred it into a charity called Falling Walls, that’s all about the walls that are falling and all sorts of disciplines, where do we go next? And within that structure, we were beginning to operate. Then, COVID happened. So we had to go remote and this has been a problem and an opportunity at the same time, because we’ve been able to engage people from across the world, [like] Malaysia. 

As you mentioned, the festival Is all virtual this year. What do you expect people to take away from this year’s festival? 

Charles Landry: We want to give people confidence that there are many of us out here. Many of us are trying things. So perhaps to over-do it a bit, to create a movement of these people who think, [yes, I have my own allies. I’m not alone, we’re in this together and we can learn from each other’ and all the obvious things that implies. We often say ‘creative bureaucrats and their allies’. It could be the civic sector; it could be task-forces; it could be organisations who have one thing in common with what the public administration ideally is about – which is the common good, the public interest.

Bureaucracies aren’t the most obvious place that people go to search for creativity…

Charles Landry: Bureaucracies that are more open than closed tend to give people within them opportunities. It also makes it easier to connect with the outside world, but on the basis of mutual respect. Obviously we can criticise bureaucracies. Many are not working at their best, but nor is business nor the civic sector, and so our aim is also to leave people with [the realisation that] these are the key things you need to attend to if you want to make your own organization better and more responsive.

One of the key issues at this year’s festival is the Coronavirus pandemic. How can Creative Bureaucracies rise to the challenges of Covid-19 and other health crises?

Charles Landry: I think what the pandemic has showed us that bureaucracies can respond because they had to respond. Many things that seemed impossible, suddenly became possible immediately. So they triggered some sort of level of responsiveness, agility and flexibility. In addressing problems, opportunities were created. It gave us a glimpse of what could be: the air was fresher for awhile; the lockdown had allowed us to envision what a slow-down means.

In our high-speed digital age, isn’t it hard to tell people to slow down?

Charles Landry: Slow down doesn’t necessarily mean boring. It just means you have more time to reflect, to enjoy things—just like a meal.  And clearly, the pandemic has also allowed governments at every level to experiment. At the same time, they’ve had to adjust because the whole notion of place, space and time changes. [Even] how mobility works? What are we going to do with offices that might be more empty? Are we going to rethink planning? Are we going to have to create more interesting outside spaces that are projected from the weather in various ways and so on. One of our themes in the Festival is called the silver lining. And what that’s about is what are the positives we’re seeing? Can we embed them into the period beyond the crisis?

Do you think the pandemic has created a shift in our focus away from national governments and towards regional and urban administrations?

Charles Landry: Trust in government has, in this period, increased. A survey I saw about Australia said that government now is much more trusted than ever before because people see a role for government to show leadership. National governments often have the authority to develop the rule systems, but cities, as they’re nearer to citizens have much more legitimacy to perhaps implement the changes that we might see.

The Coronavirus has seen an accelerated adoption of new technologies worldwide. From track and trace systems to ecommerce to delivery and logistics services. But have we given enough thought to accessibility? By maintaining and upholding the way of life of the majority, are we at risk of disenfranchising a vulnerable minority who may not have the money to buy a smartphone or a data plan? There’s a very real risk that some of the most at-risk sections of society: the poor, the differently abled, the elderly or simply those people who are uncomfortable with new technology are being shut out of what we call the new normal.

Can we use this same technology to open up new modes of communication and forms of democracy that can help to address that imbalance?

Charles Landry: In some cities across Brazil and America IBM actually runs the data systems. So then you ask, who controls the data and so on? These are issues about the democratic impulse that perhaps we should have more control over. That’s where the MyData movement Is very important. Looking [at] the positive side, there’s a vast set of new opportunities emerging to tap opinions at a very fine level of detail and with greater immediacy.  

There was a deputy mayor of Helsinki who, 10 years ago, was already called ‘the Twitter Man’. He had about 16 or 18,000 followers. And he ran his office through Twitter and he said, the speed of decision-making was immense. Someone would tweet him, he would then tweet back to the head of works and said, ‘can we deal with this problem?’. So there’s both the potential efficiency within traditional systems using new technologies, but there’s also a completely different thing: envisaging new forms of engagement. 

How do we ensure that this data – our data – remains public and open source rather than being channeled into commercially owned proprietary data systems?

Charles Landry: This is a political choice. If we, through our elected officials and anyone else, decide that our data is our data, that it’s public data and in the public interest, decision-makers, politicians should need to safe-guard that. This is a political battle. If they don’t, then all we can say is, okay, you’ve given over one of the main sources of information, knowledge and potential to a private company. That can only be done through legislation, ultimately. 

It’s going to be a continual battle; it already is a battle. But it’s ultimately about our choices, our politics. Do we want that society? I personally don’t want it.

Often, Big Tech comes in promising tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in development funds, but with this take-it-or-leave-it approach that will allow them to end up owning the data of private citizens. How should cash-strapped municipalities respond to this kind of proposal?

Charles Landry: Public authorities are having more and more struggles with the demographic time bomb. in other words, less and less resources to do things. Of course, one can have deals with big companies. But then, people have to have confidence about that. There’s a parallel, for example, in tourism. Some places around the world that have had so much tourism that they cannot cope with it and it’s effectively destroyed the place. Very few places have had the confidence to push back. The same logic is when property developers say, ‘oh, I’m going to build you this wonderful tower. I know the buildings are all 10 storeys here, but this is 80 storeys’. That’s when you have to have effectively, at national – regional – local level, the vision of what is the type of society we want and we regard as acceptable. 

Powerful interests have always got to be contained—that could be an individual, a company and so on.

Increasingly, it’s not just companies that we’re handing control of our lives, cities and countries to; it’s machines, or more accurately, machine code, algorithms and artificial intelligence. We’re often told that these systems are faster, cheaper, more accurate and less inclined towards bias than people. Have we underestimated the influence or danger that these automated systems and processes pose to us in the public space?

Charles Landry: When the human factor is taken out, it doesn’t understand the subtleties. There’s interesting research, for example, on algorithms being created in the African continent. Are they culturally specific enough? Have I got a say in creating that model itself? The answer is no; we’ve just let others take the lead and race ahead. So there is great danger in that. It doesn’t take into account specificity, which is why you’ve already got a kickback because the whole notion of the human-centred city, human-centred development is just one expression of that kickback.

Of course, there’s lots of money involved and potential profits. The [system of] capitalism we are in, clearly needs to develop in a different way. Running rampant on its own, you can see the effects: we as individuals just become automatons in a robotic world.

Does this reliance on technology give us the wrong idea about creative bureaucracies? Are we making the assumption that creative solutions to problems, especially where they involve technology, have to be expensive?

Charles Landry: I don’t think they are. A lot of the solutions we’re talking about and the examples we’re trying to promote, have at their core: trust. Trust is seen as one of the big currencies and it’s an incredibly effective currency. Do I want a robot to do something or do I just trust someone to ‘do the right thing’?  I don’t think there’s a blanket answer to that. I think technological solutions can often be quite expensive because you have all these things like lock-in technological pathways that make sure that you have no option to get out of it.

Going back to the human factor – and based on words which are very vague but very important like ‘transparency’, ‘trust’ and so on – one of the elements that we’re trying to explore in the Creative Bureaucracy is giving away power to have more creative influence. Often the most creative act is for someone who holds the lever to give it away. Then those people act in, hopefully, responsible ways, [to] find their own solutions. You’re then into the field of what people call social innovation. What we really mean by social innovation, often, is recreating bonds of trust—and things like that that we had, for good or for bad, in traditional communities. But trying to find a version of [it], that is about our time now. 

Talking about trust. We have an entire generation raised in this digital era, and they’ve never experienced the certainties that previous generations have enjoyed. They know they’re going to have multiple careers in their lifetime; they know that technology is essentially going to be snapping at their heels when it comes to competing for jobs. The idea of permanence, and by association trust, has never been part of their culture. How do we build up that notion or concept of trust in our communities, in a generation of people who’ve never known it?

Charles Landry: Clearly the whole fake news idea and the promise of the internet turning bad and people misusing things and so on, has completely fragmented the notion of what is right and what is wrong. I don’t need to spell out various politicians who are working on that and trying to make sure that we never know what is truth. Of course, in that context, who can people believe? 

But I do think there will be a recreation. They will recreate forms of communities in new ways, but it obviously will be framed by a digital context. You can see all these initiatives where trust is being built in communities that are creating themselves. The problem is that these are fragments and the challenge of today is to bring these fragments together into something that’s more powerful.

[Those] promoting the opposite of this often [have] the levers in that [they have] power and access to different levels of resources. Which is why I think unfortunately, although I love looking at the world from a glass half full approach, I think there are going to be some real upheavals precisely on this point. It won’t necessarily be expressed in terms of trust or not trust, but essentially is about that.

And that’s fuelling this backlash we’re seeing against facts and a plurality of opinions and points of view?

Charles Landry: Technology is racing further ahead than our capacity to absorb its potential, which is partly an explanation of the backlash against other people—you know, racism and all of that, is partly to do with insecurity. But that insecurity may have been driven by not feeling in control through technology. So there may be a link between, to put it crudely, various new forms of racism and the speed of digitalization that brings me back to this questions of what are the key principles that are dear to us and we hold. 

Those norms are probably not very different than they ever were. One of them is perhaps that notion of autonomy: being part of the decisions that affect me. That doesn’t change, whether it’s 50 years ago, today or tomorrow, in my view. 

Coming back to the Creative Bureaucracy Festival, one of the things that COVID-19 has ushered in is this incredible and unparalleled experiment in business methodologies. Companies are doing their best to operate with remote staff working from home, but what are some of the potential impacts or outcomes that you can imagine coming from these radical new trends in both living and working?

Charles Landry: It’s just accelerated a process that was ongoing. In a sense, we’ve jumped five, six years ahead through the pandemic. We’ve just done a survey of the creative potential of people, of public servants, and one of the key things they’ve talked about is the flexibility of working. It’s not an either-or because clearly there’s a social aspect to being in an office with other people; it’s not a black-and-white thing. But quite clearly, if I only have to go into the office one day a week, I can live further away; if I have to be in the office five days a week, I’m going to try and cluster nearer and nearer to my place at work. 

So there’s a direct relationship between time spent in the office and distance people are willing to travel. This then, can revitalize smaller towns. People might try to mirror the buzz that they had in the bigger city. There’ll be work hubs because people want to be together. It might just be about being together and working. Sometimes there’s nothing as beautiful as being alone in a crowd. 

You can find more information on the Creative Bureaucracy Festival at and about Creative Cities and more on Charles Landry’s website,

You can listen to this interview here.