The role of creative hubs in fostering sustainable development

Thought Leadership


The role of creative hubs in fostering sustainable development

Lim Wen Yi
February 9, 2023

Lim Wen Yi

Wen Yi is a freelance writer who works in strategy consulting. She is passionate about education, policy and graphic design.

October 4, 2023

2021: International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development

The 74th session of the UN General Assembly (2019) declared 2021 as the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. This resolution was a watershed development for creative industries after a long-fought battle to be recognized with equal commitment and standing amongst other parts of the economy. 

Creative industries across the globe have been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Budget 2021 statement released by Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana), 93 percent of Malaysian artists and cultural workers have been negatively impacted throughout the pandemic. Distressingly, 70 percent have lost all or most of their income. 

While the government has recently announced RM15 million in funding allocated to Cendana in its 2021 Budget, the Malaysian creative economy remains nascent in many ways. Even prior to the pandemic, it contributed only two percent to national GDP for the last five years, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DoSM).

A lack of government support and industry growth has resulted in a Catch-22 stagnation of the local creative economy. Increased and sustained governmental assistance for our arts and culture communities is an important precondition to ending this vicious circle.

More importantly, the creative economy has an indispensable role to play in fostering sustainable development. Creativity and culture are key pieces to achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), primarily included under SDG 8, as well as SDG 9, 11, 12, and 17 to a lesser extent.    

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Photo from the United Nations.

Innovation, inclusivity, and community empowerment

Economic value aside, the creative and the cultural underpin sustainable development through three main pathways: innovation, inclusivity, and community empowerment.

As digital disruption hurtles through traditional systems, countries are in a race against time to boost their innovation capabilities. In the Global Innovation Index 2020, Malaysia’s Creative outputs were our lowest scoring indicator. The Index identified particular weaknesses in trademarks, industrial designs, and printing & other media.

Any substantial progress in this area must – unquestionably – account for our creative industries. The Malaysian creative sector currently employs around one million workers. These individuals contribute skillsets crucial to reimagining our future as we emerge from the troughs.

On our path toward a digital economy, lines of disparity are at risk of becoming more entrenched. Most than ever, development approaches must be driven by human- and community-centric values.

Truly inclusive development retains and nurtures that which is uniquely human – creative expression, cultural diversity, empathy. As the portion of society most deeply enmeshed with these values, creatives continually explore ways to empower themselves and their communities. 

Born out of this process was the creative hub. Defined as “a physical or virtual space that brings together [those] who work in the creative and cultural industries”, a creative hub is where ideas and creativity take center stage. They cut across makerspaces, theatres, studios, and even abandoned warehouses.

There are currently 103 creative hubs listed on Creative Hubs Malaysia, a digital platform under the Hubs For Good collaboration between The British Council, Yayasan Sime Darby, and Universiti Malaya’s Cultural Centre.

A hub is not a co-working space

The idea of a coworking space in Malaysia is generally understood as swanky serviced or rented workspaces in prime real estate locations, particularly in Kuala Lumpur. These spaces offer a range of subscription plans dependent on the space and facilities one requires.

Users of a coworking space also gain access to an exclusive members-only community, for which networking events, workshops, and other experiences are occasionally held. Without generalizing, many popular coworking spaces in Malaysia function as just that – a place for digital entrepreneurs or small companies to rent an office space.

While there are many benefits to being a member of a coworking space, some believe that their exclusivity deepens divides across income, industry, and socioeconomic status. In contrast, a creative hub is founded upon the notion of inclusivity – of creative and cultural workers, as well as its broader community. 

Creative hubs also differ from coworking spaces in terms of the specialist technology and dedicated workspaces for the industries they serve.

Hin Bus Depot in Georgetown, Penang, operates a gallery, library, artist studios, arts and event spaces, and retail space for creative businesses. In Kuching, Sarawak, the Borneo Art Collective’s Borneo Laboratory is a ‘design and make’ laboratory that curates and creates projects on art, furniture and films.

At the Me.reka makerspace, we house a multipurpose workshop space, a VR lab, a textile and design studio, amongst other facilities. While hubs are a relatively new concept in Malaysia, there is an estimated 1.2 million people working from creative hubs globally.

Creative hubs for the community

Creative hubs are a product of their context. As an extension of its community, a hub’s features depend on the distinct geography, culture, funding, and needs of the people that use it. There is no cookie-cutter model of a creative hub, allowing each one to have a unique value proposition to their communities. 

That is not to say that these hubs operate in silos. On the contrary, the desire to network and support each other’s communities is a crucial characteristic of creative hubs. Perhaps because no one understands the strength of collective movement better than the creative community!

The support that a creative hub provides for its creatives cannot be emphasized enough. Artists, makers, and all other cultural workers have too often suffered from the disempowerment of being a freelance individual without access to support from formal employment systems.

Hubs like Me.reka run programs to equip freelance workers with entrepreneurial and technical skills to navigate the gig economy. Other examples of support include small grants for artists, micro-businesses, and non-profit organizations.

The most significant pull of creative hubs is the opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals and businesses, inspiring collaboration and experimentation across creative sectors. Many hubs specifically look to create social impact with their work, empowering creatives and communities to be makers of their own solutions.

In order to keep their hubs financially inclusive, owners of creative hubs continue to experiment with numerous business models. These include hosting programs, space rental, sponsorship, retail sales, etc. According to a survey by media outlet The Conversation, program and workshop-related revenue is the leading source of income for creative hubs in Indonesia.

Founded on vastly different principles to traditional workspaces, the adaptability and volatility of creative hubs have made them somewhat of an enigma to the more conservative institution/individual. However, this is also their greatest strength: the resourcefulness and resilience to continually adapt under challenging conditions.

In a world where change is perhaps the only constant, creative hubs have gotten a head start on some of the key skills necessary to succeed. The Malaysian government and our private sector alike would do well to support their development – ultimately investing in the future of the creative economy.

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