Creative Incubator—a Fancy Thing to Do?

It feels like “creative incubator” is a buzz term everybody is using these days. In the past few years, all around Europe, many of them have been opened. It is also the case in Central Eastern Europe—mainly thanks to injection from European structural funds.

It seems like a “new thing to do,” a thing to have, and a thing to support throughout various financial streams, and a thing to display as a “good practice” in one of many conferences dedicated to the subject. It was “clusters” before, now it is “incubators.”

First of all, let us try to investigate what is hidden under the term “creative incubator.”

The key word is “creative.” It is obvious that as a matter of principle, incubator, cluster, hub, or co-working cannot be creative. The adjective “creative” in this case does not only indicate that creativity is a characteristic feature of people who are the subject of incubation, clustering, or who come together to work in a shared space. It usually means that they are affiliated with one of the branches of creative sector. And here comes another popular term…

Because getting into definitions never ends up well, we tend to avoid discussing them. Most of the meetings and conferences on “creativity” start with “let’s not talk about definitions” (based on the former bad experience in that field). As a result, we use the same terms, while very rarely having exactly the same mental image of them.

For the purpose of this text, let us try to bring a few definitions. First in line would be “incubator.”

Concept of incubation is not something new for business. In this context it has been described as “an organization designed to accelerate the growth and success of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources and services that could include physical space, capital, coaching, common services, and networking connections.”

Not all business incubators are alike. Some of them are supported by local, regional, national governments, some are affiliated with universities, some are run by nongovernmental organizations. Some incubators are combining resources from both government and the private sector and some are solely owned by private investors. Some focus on specific type of business, some bring together different ones. What they all have in common—no matter if profit or non-profit oriented—is that they provide support of different kind to companies at startup phase or early stage of growth. Typically, the time of incubation is two years. Assumption being that after two-year period a company should be independent and strong enough to move out of the safe environment of the incubator and enter the “outside world.” The ability not only to survive but to be self-sufficient is usually one of the main indicators of measuring incubators’ success.

The second definition brought up here would be “culture and creative sectors.” This term is quite recent and it is smoothly replacing “creative industries.” One of the most popular definitions of the latter is the one formulated by UK Government Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS):

“Those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.”

As of 2015, the DCMS definition recognizes nine creative sectors:

  1. Advertising and marketing
  2. Architecture
  3. Crafts
  4. Design: product, graphic and fashion design
  5. Film, TV, video, radio and photography
  6. IT, software and computer services
  7. Publishing
  8. Museums, galleries and libraries
  9. Music, performing and visual arts

Introduction of the term “culture and creative sectors” might be a practical ploy in response to broad critique of using “creative industries” with reference to both (so called) traditional art-based activities and creativity. We shall not to get into arbitration on validity of that action and open another thread. Worth noticing is that it was done not only as a linguistic compromise, but also for policy-making reasons, and in this case it has practical consequences. The new term brings together “culture” and “industry,” at the same time making a distinction between one and the other. They simply look much better together in reports, and treated separately give basis for redistribution of financial resources.

Now, regarding the combination of “creative” with “incubator”—as it was mentioned earlier, term “creative incubator” usually implies specialization, describing a type of organization dedicated to support not just any kind of business, but specifically those affiliated with culture and creative sectors.

It would have been much easier to just finish with that sentence and not get into complexity and diversity of entities which are called (or have named themselves) creative incubators… Especially when in order to make the picture even more colorful, we can add “arts incubators” to the long list of definitions. Some do not differentiate them from creative incubators, yet others do. The National Business Incubator Association (NBIA) describes them “as a subset of business incubators that specifically target ‘arts and crafts.’” Then there is a number of definitions describing arts incubators as organizations designed to support artists and/or nonprofit artistic groups with various skills in order to help them secure their own growth, development, and professionalization, e.g. “provide artists with the business skills necessary to be successful in the marketplace.” What is crucial in this approach is the target group, i.e. artists.

No matter if one equates or differentiates “creative” with “arts” while describing an incubator— that is just semantics. What matters is hidden beneath these more or less accurate definitions: specific types of target groups being the subject of incubation. Target group means people, all of them different, with various set of skills and mindsets. It will be further elaborated, but in connection to the notion of target groups, the first distinction between different types of creative incubators can be introduced: those focused on specific branch of the sector, e.g. IT (sometimes even more specifically game developers), film, or design, others bringing together different creative branches (with common denominator: enterprise) and those mixing creative businesses (of all kinds) with art. Art Inkubator at Fabryka Sztuki in Łódź (Poland) can be an example of the latter and defines itself as “an organization supporting future entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and artists by helping them to enter the market, being a platform that empowers artists and organizations in implementation of their business and artistic ideas.”

Creative incubators vary depending on their ownership. Similar to business incubators, they can be managed by an NGO, public authority, university, private company, and in this case, some of them are being managed by an organization originating from the culture sector, an artistic center, and there are also hybrids combining one with the other.

Directly connected with the issue of ownership is the model of governance and the actual offering of the incubator. What they usually have in common is physical space—offices, manufacturing, workshop, studios, conference rooms, artistic presentation spaces available at below- market rates. Some argue that physical space is the key condition distinguishing incubators from other types of support like educational programs. Within the structure of incubator, in most cases, incubated companies also share costs of secretarial office, telephone, printing, internet access, accounting services (very often included in the “package”) aiming at reduction of everyone’s overhead and operational costs. Some of the creative incubators also provide access to finance—in one way or another, may it be seed funding, venture capital, angel investors, or crowdfunding. Most of the incubators’ staff gives advice and expertise in many different areas or they hire external experts to do so. They also develop educational training programs of different kinds mixing various tools (seminars, workshops, coaching, mentoring). Here we are touching the core…

Listing features of creative incubators, their offer, even defining them in their diversity is relatively easy. (At least as a theoretical exercise.) Challenge starts with practice, and never ends.

With notion of people who are the subject of support, the users of the incubators, we can extract the essence, and at the same time, the main challenge of incubation in culture and creative sectors. As it was stated earlier, on many levels, creative incubators are not that different from any other types of business incubators, apart from the fact that they are dealing with a very fragile material: creative people. A group extremely internally diverse. According to previously brought definitions they fall under the same category being explication, the actors of culture and creative sectors. There is something substantially different between art academies graduates and those coming out of technical universities. E.g. it is simply impossible to use the same approach to a programmer, an architect, a designer, and a graphic designer. It is an awful generalization, but one that cannot be avoided at this point. Of course, there are some things they do have in common, but their approach to business, team work, and understanding of process of creation is very different.

And that’s only one level. Then, there are differences between departments (even within the same university). And then, there is separated from the crowd… human being. With all its complexity and flavors. And as a creative soul even more fragile and isolated than others. Not only lacking certain knowledge but also not thick- skinned as most business school or law graduates are. I am aware of yet another generalization and the questions it brings: why should “the creative” be treated any differently? It can be argued that “business is business” and the main aim of business is to generate profit. In the future, after leaving the walls of incubator, some of them might be mainly about constant growth. They might even succeed. They might generate profit, pay their taxes contributing to general economy, and create new work places. Some, on the on the other hand, might never grow—not in the geometrical, multimillion companies sense. But they might contribute to the society in the broader sense (at the same time being financially and organizationally stabile, self-sufficient). Some might fail and become the stereotype of starving artist. That is also a very likely. It is very much connected to their personal skills as well as to the branch they originated from or decided to start their business in. Not all types of business endeavors have equal chance of multiplying financial results. Nevertheless, that does not imply that those not primarily focusing on financial targets are not worth supporting by creative incubators (as long as they are aiming at developing sustainable business model). Awareness of the above-mentioned differences, the conscious decision of accepting the challenge (and responsibility), but not focusing only on financial targets, is also something which sets those managing creative incubators apart from others. Therefore, when one decides to start a creative incubator of a mixed, multi-branched character, they have to be prepared that the only thing which might work is tailored-made programs of support for specific branches and in most cases an individual, case by case, day by day, approach. At least when an incubator is expected to bring measurable results and not only be an affordable space for creation.

Second big challenge most creative incubators are facing (apart from constructing the program of support) is how to build the right atmosphere. One might think that this is something creative incubator should be great at. The climate, which at the same time allows incubated companies to focus, work, develop, and bring different talents and skills together in order to create, exchange, and learn from each other, is not easy to achieve. And it is not only about selecting “the right” people to be incubated under the same roof. It is also on how the space is constructed, how it is managed. There are already so many examples of well-functioning incubators dedicated to creative and culture sector all over the world. Some famous not only for their atmosphere but also for bringing very concrete results. That is where others should go for an advice or an inspiration.

The question arises: is there a need for more creative incubators? Is incubation the most effective tool to support development of culture and creative sectors?

Very often in relation to culture and creative sector we use term SMEs. Most of the creative companies will never even reach the “small” level (<50 employees), they will stay “micro” (<10). Only few of them have a potential to grow—both in terms of number of employees and generated income. As it was mentioned before, it all goes back to a very broad definition of culture and creative sector, to a variety of branches and people with different backgrounds cumulated under the same term. It is different for a programmer, designer, filmmaker, and visual artist. For some of them it will be more than enough to develop a proper personal business model. For some it may function as an NGO or help them enact their social entrepreneurship interests.

I do not know if there is a need for more institutions or just the necessity to find the right model for the right place. Local needs may be addressed by an incubator or something else, such as a training program. Incubators are safe and affordable environment for businesses to grow in and gain the potential to become self-sufficient. In order to run a business one has to become an entrepreneur. And for that, specific set of skills and mind-set is needed. Incubators definitely can complement talent with business skills.

Agata Etmanowicz

An advisor and consultant for Art_Inkubator at Fabryka Sztuki in Łódź (an organization supporting future entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and artists by helping them to enter the market).

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