Creative Ecologies
Sponsored by the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau and organised by the Hong Kong Design Centre, the ”Hong Kong: Creative Ecologies ---Business, Living, Creativity” Design Exhibition has been held at Bridge 8, a prominent creative district in Shanghai, since middle of May this year. The event has given us an excellent opportunity to showcase our design talents and their works in front of visitors from all over the world who came to the Expo.

The curator has picked a very timely metaphor of “ecology” as the common thread for weaving together the dynamic forces which make Hong Kong what it is --- business savvy, internationally connected, sound legal system, vibrant labor pool, and most important of all, a thriving motherland in its backyard. The central message is: the creative ecologies form the backdrop against which Hong Kong’s creative class excels. Is that really the case? Apparently, being in the World Expo, a once in a lifetime occasion for displaying the best of a country, it is also an exceptional occasion for more critical reflection if one has the courage. Are the creative ecologies in our city diverse, open and full of opportunities as what they should be?

From our case research in the past 12 months, we have met with designers, entrepreneurs, business executives, design educators and customers, obtaining their views on starting and building a design driven business. The 10 designers who later became the protagonists of our cases are entrepreneurs themselves. They possess the rare combination of creative talent and business acumen, with some stronger in one area than others. However, they share one challenge in common: opportunities for Hong Kong design companies and startups are shrinking, while room for expansion across the border is increasing promising. Small design firms are struggling for survival just like the SME clients they try to serve because of overwhelmingly high operating cost and intense competition for local market share. More and more design firms are putting their hope for future business growth in China. Some of them have even relocated their bases to PRC, hiring local talents and luring Mainland customers. If that continues to be the trend, our creative ecosystem will run short of creative talents in the not too distant future, just as Leung Man Tao(梁文道)said about the “last cultural intellectual”. Actually culture and creativity are two sides of the same coin. Creativity can receive nutrient from the culture and culture can be elevated by creativity.

Types of Design Entrepreneurs
A healthy design ecosystem should have a diverse pool of creative talents. The different design entrepreneurs found in the current Hong Kong design landscape form the backbone of such ecosystem. Through interactions with over 100 attendees from the Entrepreneurship for Design and Creative Professional workshops (i.e. 7+1) and over 40 design practitioners and entrepreneurs from the workshop and present research, we have discovered some recurring patterns of entrepreneurial behavior for the design business. These recurring patterns have later been developed into a framework of seven design entrepreneur types (see Research Approach and Findings). These types represent how differences in talents, opportunities, resources, competence, context and scale are combined to build a design business.

The seven types can be summarized as follows:

  1. Artist - hope to enjoy more creative freedom and personal space and will not easily succumb to or spend time managing others
  2. Merchant - for the sake of business survival, will not be picky in selecting customers but often lack focus in business development
  3. Consultant - in order to preserve a professional image, will be highly selective in choosing customers and will also spend time training and managing staff
  4. Enterprise builder - professional but would spend large amount of time building systems and processes, continue to scale up the business, and even operate across different regional locations
  5. Platform host - build systems and processes that can be opened to outside parties as a platform for creating win-win business opportunities for oneself and others
  6. Thought leader - passionate about the design field and will take the time to help new comers, which also includes writing books, giving talks and passing on the legacy
  7. Apprentice - intend to start up one’s business while working for others so the person would spend time learning from the boss everything besides just design

These seven types of design entrepreneurs may also possess characteristics of the other types but there will always be one dominant type. A roadmap for career development entails changing from one type to another as the design entrepreneur resolves the tension between creativity and management, balancing the interactions between talents, context and works. Key issues to be addressed during the entrepreneurial journey are:

  • time management (personal versus others, creative development versus business development)
  • strategic management (ad hoc versus developing a focus and core competence)
  • scale management (stay small versus scale up)
  • resource management (development from within versus leveraging others)
  • product and service management (products versus services)
  • location management (locating the base and other access points to materials, capital, market, technology and talents)

What’s Next?
Our approach in investigating the problem is qualitative. Doing just an inital study, we are concerned if the data sets that can support our claim, although during one of our workshops when participants were asked which type they thought they belonged to, more than 15 out of 20 some attendees thought that they were merchants. Nevertheless, conceptually, the typology enables us to demarcate the characteristics of each type. We hope that this can serve as a preliminary framework for further qualitative and quantitative studies.

The next section will showcase the stories of ten Hong Kong designer entrepreneurs who have chosen a different path to build their entrepreneurial careers. Their behaviors reflect the characteristics of a particular type.

Alan Yip and Winnif Pang may choose to keep the scale small so they can have more autonomy over the creative process, while Viola Pak might initially choose to deliver whatever the clients wanted just to stay in business but has gradually found her focus in brand consulting. Tommy Li retains his stardom and keeps his professionalism by screening clients very carefully. As the scale of the company continues to grow, it takes an enterprise builder such as Steve Leung and William Cheung to build more comprehensive systems and processes to manage a diverse pool of talents and projects across different locations. Raymond Choy, a platform host, chooses to extend the systems and processes through cross-over

and licensing to outside business partners to unleash more values. Kan Tai Keung, a thought leader, looks at the big picture and tries to help others understand the current problems and make recommendations for future improvements through his writings, speeches, and teachings. He further wants to pass on a cultural legacy to bring pride to Chinese and Hong Kong design. Finally, Javin Mo and Hong Ko after going through their apprenticeship with the masters and exposing to creative ecologies abroad and in the Mainland have each charted a separate course in further developing their career.

For Hong Kong’s creative ecologies to be sustainable, there is, we believe, a need for more enterprise builders, platform hosts, and thought leaders who can build the systems, set the standards, and provide the opportunities for growth and learning. They circulate jobs and ideas for enriching the diversity of the creative ecologies. It is better for young creative talents to flourish in an environment with different types of design entrepreneurs than one in which only the merchants and a few star consultants dominate.

We believe entrepreneurship is extremely important to our city. Design entrepreneurship in particular not only provides jobs but the breeding ground for creative talents that will help make Hong Kong a more attractive place for congregating creative talents. Nonetheless, a hostile business ecosystem for SMEs will lesson our chance to attract and retain the creative class.

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