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Why is Culture an Important Economic Pillar of a City.

Definition of Culture:‘The set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, …that encompasses … art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs’ (UNESCO, 2016).

Culture, as defined by UNESCO, plays a unique role in social progress. Developing culture is not a way to solve challenges, but rather a means to create a “space where individuals can express, explore and re-imagine complex and difficult issues (Howson, 2014).” This space, urban by nature, grows with the increasing interaction of its population – driving governments and city leaders towards investing in culture to underpin and support sustainable economic growth. Such an investment is not to be underestimated due to the role that culture plays in the promotion of any country as a partner for trade, investment, labor, education and tourism, all contributing to the nation’s economic growth and progress.

Cities, being the most densely populated areas, are at the center of a country’s economic growth.

To support this growth, cities should offer a stimulating cultural environment to attract skilled and creative people, who in turn boost the economy. Current trends in many parts of the world suggest that culture will play an increasingly important role in the competitiveness and identity of cities and nations. A rich and vibrant culture acts as “an indirect source of economic success (Howson, 2014).” Such an understanding of the cultural vibrancy of a city defines culture as a competitive and resilient economic sector in its own right, contributing to economic growth, technological innovation and social change (Montalto; Jorge Tacao Moura; Langedijk; Saisana, 2017). Furthermore, “geographical clustering, a prominent feature of the cultural and creative sectors, generates positive externalities in the areas where they are located, ranging from improved image and reputation and increased numbers of tourists to greater social pride and revitalized local economies (Montalto; Jorge Tacao Moura; Langedijk; Saisana, 2017).”

However, the question is: Can cultural value be measured?

According to Australian academic Julian Meyrick, “Quantitative measurements of cultural value have had their day in the sun. They are not going to go away, and they do reveal certain things about some activities. But the idea that numbers do not lie died with the global financial crisis. They lie all the time and it is only by adding a qualitative (historical, empirical context) component to our valuation strategies that we can develop a better sense of where cultural subsidy goes and what it provides (Howson, 2014).” Moreover, according to The Culture and Creative Cities Monitor “Investment in culture remains extremely difficult to track, and its impact difficult to assess, due to the lack of shared definitions, data and metrics, particularly at the city level (Montalto; Jorge Tacao Moura; Langedijk; Saisana, 2017).” Therefore, in 2019 while still at Nuqat, I and a group of colleagues (Azza Elhassan, Juliette Zeidan & Yasmena AlMulla) conducted a study that brought forward some initial research that explores and analyzes this concern on data, in particular for Arab cities.

Understanding the Role of Culture in Sustainable Cities A desktop research inquiry on two indicators of cultural vibrancy

The undertaken study supported a growing understanding of the link between culture and a sustainable urban environment. This was done through the measurement of cultural vibrancy, encompassing two identified indicators: first, the availability of an urban cultural infrastructure and second, the presence of innovation clusters across 12 Arab cities – Abu Dhabi, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Casablanca, Dubai, Jeddah, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Riyadh and Tunis. The displayed initial findings of this study (you can find an interactive visualization on this link) are not conclusive, but rather aim to guide a conversation on cultural gaps in the region and making informed, data-driven decisions with multiple stakeholders in determining what cultural investments are necessary moving forward.

The Why: Contextualizing the Aim of the Study

The Arab world is undergoing major transformations, from significant population growth to urbanization trends (and at the time of posting this article, the COVID-19 pandemic). Such transformations will have important economic, social, cultural and environmental consequences that need to be addressed and understood to ensure that the urban growth challenges are navigated with credible data that highlight areas of strength and potential improvement, specifically in cities. A study by the British theoretical physicist, Geoffrey West suggests that when a city doubles in size, its socio-economic elements will witness a 15% increase, yet, save15% on consumption of the infrastructure (Geoffery West TedTalk) making its growth more sustainable. Cities provide secure centers for competitiveness, innovation and development, and attract regional and multinational players in various fields; hence, focusing on sustainable urban growth, with culture playing an essential role (OECD 2007), is critical to ensure that urban challenges are met and allow the Arab world to keep up with global rates of change. According to the European Commission Report (Montalto; Jorge Tacao Moura; Langedijk; Saisana, 2017), the growth of cities is dependent on a better understanding of their critical elements of social, economic, cultural and environmental health through quantitative and qualitative analysis.

The lack of data and benchmarking findings on those critical elements is what led to this research inquiry.

The What: Research Structure

Focusing only on the cultural facet of urban development, the study involved a mapping exercise by collecting datasets on the urban cultural infrastructure and the presence of innovation clusters across 12 Arab cities: Abu Dhabi, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Casablanca, Dubai, Jeddah, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Riyadh and Tunis. The data collection was supported and validated by a network of major local players in the cultural and creative sectors. The choice of these two indicators was based on academic research that suggests their important role in understanding cultural vibrancy. Based on a 2015 report published by the Warwick Commission in Britain it was identified that “culture and creativity exist in a distinct ecosystem. They feed and depend on each other. The points of connection between the cultural and creative industries are where the potential for greatest value creation resides – culturally, socially and economically (Knell, 2015).” The selected indicators are defined as follows:

Cultural Infrastructure: A legally licensed entity such as museum, theatre, concert hall, sight and, or landmark that is part of the urban fabric of the city and that caters to the creative and cultural sectors (Montalto; Jorge Tacao Moura; Langedijk; Saisana, 2017). Innovation Clusters: A digital or physical cluster of spaces and, or buildings that bring together corporations, educational organizations, individuals and, or entities that focus on innovation, ICT, technology or creative sectors (Porter, 1990). The study's end result was of quantitative and qualitative analysis that is focusing on understanding the link between culture and sustainable urban environments by comparatively identifying the level of cultural vibrancy of each city.

What's Next?

We decided to push forward this research and make it our mission for the next year or so as we still believe in the importance of collecting data. Therefore in our next steps, we shall:

Highlight a city each month through an article with qualitative analysis and invite a cultural expert to see the city through their eyes.


Launch a crowd-sourced research to map the Creative and Cultural Industries by encouraging our networks to fill in their own entries


  1. UNESCO Global Report on Sustainable Urban Development 2016, p.133

  2. Howson Paul; Dubber John Culture Matters Report. 2014 Edition, p.7.

  3. Montalto V; Jorge Tacao Moura C; Langedijk S; Saisana M. The Cultural and Creative Cities Monitor (C3 Monitor). 2017 Edition, p.38.

  4. OECD (2007) Competitive Cities: A New Entrepreneurial Paradigm in Spatial Development, OECD: Paris.

  5. Knell, J. University of Warwick, Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth. 2015 Edition, p.9.

  6. Porter, Michael E. “The Competitive Advantage of Nations.” Rep. The Competitive Advantage of Nations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review, 1990.

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