“The DNA of the creative industries” / Sabine Pümpel

Sabine Pümpel

Innovation cultures and potential

-Sabine Pümpel

Why are some companies more innovative than others? How does the interplay between different systems work in the tension between chaos and order, so that they can use creativity to produce something new? What framework conditions are needed for a creative process? The DNA of the creative industries demands an open culture of innovation to enable them to become the driving force for the economy and society of tomorrow.


Why are some companies more innovative than others? Why do some people manage to achieve what others can’t? Several years ago, this question was the focus of a study by the consultant and cultural anthropologist Simon Sinek, who now teaches at Columbia University. He discovered a surprising answer: the pattern of success that separates all successful individuals, companies and organisations from the rest of the world is that the focus of their thinking and action is on the question of the WHY. Why do we do what we do? What is the motivation behind it, and what effect can our actions have? With this simple observation and insight, Sinek secured himself a place among the most sought-after consultants and speakers worldwide. “Start with the why” is his formula for successful leadership. The surprising thing about it is that it is the opposite of our dominant orientation. While we are all conditioned to train our attention onto WHAT we do – and in doing so, also finding the answer to the HOW -we have pushed the question of WHY into the background. In the age of industrial progress, we have promoted the WHAT and the HOW to the dominant paradigm of our thoughts and actions. These are the fundamental pillars of any economic business model, oriented to maximum productivity and competitive advantage. While this might lead to continuous improvements and optimisations, it does so by turning only the small screws, while the existing situation is not fundamentally called into question. In times of permanent crises, this is no means of solving problems, however, which must be tackled at their root. If we look at the creative industries, then the intrinsic motivation is a characteristic that always has been and still is the motor for creative effort. It is precisely in times of crisis that this is of great advantage, since creatives have a highly developed sensitivity to everything that happens around them, and therefore also around us. They tackle issues from the root up, analyse the causes and not the symptoms, consider problems from all possible perspectives and find new ways of approaching solutions to them by connecting and recombining what they have analysed. The fact that in doing so, the question of the “why” and the identification with their own work took precedence over the desire to make a profit meant that for a long time, the creative disciplines were banished to the margins of economic relevance. It is only now, during the course of the change in our society, which demonstrates limits of an economic framework based on a constant increase in productivity and the exploitation of resources that this entails, that we can and should make a reassessment of the creative industries. As a role model for alternative, useful ways and models of working, the creative industries really do offer an example of a new, value-oriented and therefore also future-oriented economy. Whether it’s a sustainable approach to the use of materials, providing a solution to social problems, changing consumer habits, overcoming digital overload or making productive use of networks, creatives are often first movers when it comes to social innovations and new-style business models which combine entrepreneurship with social impact and creativity. They have an awareness of the social and economic effect of their own activity, coupled with an ability and a sensitivity that enables them to become aware of changes at a very early stage, or even in advance. The desire to improve a situation often arises from a personal deficit or a personal need. However, the will to create, which follows this need, is placed at the service of a common good, a community interest, which goes beyond personal interest. The desire for unconventional solutions that arises from the ability to constantly change perspective, question what is presented as a given and combine what already exists in a new and experimental way is a problem-solving skill that creatives offer, as a result of which the creative industries play a substantial role in the necessity and striving for innovation. The fact that here, value orientation takes priority over everything else makes the creative industries a model for the future.


The desire to create something new, which combines the solution to a social problem with a high degree of motivation and identification, also created the impetus for Martin Hollinetz and his OTELO project: the creation of open, technology laboratories in rural areas, where committed people are provided with the space, infrastructure and advice to be able to realise their ideas. The focus is on mutual support, cooperation and sharing, exchanging ideas and experimenting, whether as a hobby or professionally, as a pensioner or as a start-up. The areas of activity range from cooking and sewing to making music, wood turning and tinkering with electrical equipment through to 3D printing and repairs. Otelo was created on the basis of a feasibility study in Upper Austria, which assessed the need for creative spaces with low-threshold access for people of all ages in rural areas. In a region threatened by the exodus of young people and an ageing population, committed supporters of the idea were quickly found who wanted to set something in motion away from the urban centres- following the approach and way of working prevalent in the creative industries. The organisational form and structure that was chosen to manage the laboratory was also unusual: a type of association model that has features of a cooperative, while at the same time guaranteeing each individual member independence and autonomy. The Otelo base consists of independent associations, run by volunteers, which are connected by a charter and which provide the “humus”, while eGen acts as the “greenhouse” for implementing ideas and further developing the network. The model can also be multiplied, and an impressive network spanning different locations has been established since the first Otelos were founded in Vöcklabruck and Gmunden. Otelo is one example of the open culture of innovation within the creative industries, and the innovation potential that they offer: how aims and goals emerge from needs, and from these, taking an experimental approach, new-style solutions that function as models and develop traction far beyond the area for which they were originally intended. Well-functioning ideas and formats from the creative industries can spread rapidly due to their open, social nature and be adopted by others. They can develop an impact that enables social innovations across the wide range of different communities. They create spaces for opportunity that permit far more innovation than closed systems, and which place people with their needs and abilities at the centre of attention. This is an open culture of innovation, which only functions, however, when it remains open, and is not – as can often be seen on the consultant market – transferred to a rigid methodology. Another effect is that as the example of Otelo shows, technological and social innovations go hand in hand. Nothing expresses this better than the claim made by Otelo itself: “Otelo doesn’t make anything; Otelo makes things possible”.


The basic structure of the carrier of the genetic information of all living things, DNA, is a double helix: two parallel strands around a shared axis. An image that excellently illustrates the way in which the creative industries function, with all their tight connections and fissures. It is the interplay of different strands, the relationship between chaos and order, of interpretation and inspiration with structure and function, of creativity and a love of experimentation with the desire to create and produce form. It is the combination of the WHY combined with another kind of HOW that is the driving force in the creative industries. That’s where their great potential lies. From a microeconomic perspective, the huge advantage of innovativeness is that for every question, every problem, an individual answer, an innovative solution is found. This is achieved not by repeating or continuing what already exists, but by connecting and recombining ideas beyond familiar thought patterns and routes. Instead of asking how we have behaved until now, we must always wonder how we can do things differently. We can learn a lot from this capacity for innovation in the creative industries. From a macroeconomic perspective, this really does give the creative industries a transformative power that makes them a catalyst for change and renewal. What developed on a small scale as a microorganism experiences a corresponding diffusion and dissemination through digitalisation – from an economic, social and cultural point of view. The individual responses, the innovative solutions, which are manifest many times over as local, new-style business models, come into contact with similar approaches worldwide, which network with each other and in so doing, accelerate change. The DNA of the creative industries is the fuel for the economy and society of tomorrow, which has already begun to develop. In order to make use of these industries, we cannot allow ourselves to stick to old patterns, must not resort to old methods in the way that we treat them, or bundle them into old structures and forms. We should not destroy their DNA, but must instead use it by adopting their open culture of innovation.


the author
Sabine Pümpel has been developing and supporting impulses for the Austrian creative industries since 2004. Until 2006, she was responsible for setting up and establishing the first federal funding programme (“Impulsprogramm Kreativwirtschaft”). Since 2008, she has worked in the aws (austria wirtschaftsservice, or “Austria economy service”). Born in Vorarlberg, she spent a year in Berkley in the US before studying commercial sciences at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. She then worked in product management at Kraft Foods/Milka and Ikea. During her sabbatical in 2015, she supported social businesses in Austria and South Africa. Since 2015, she has been a participant in the Ashoka Visionary Program, an international network for social entrepreneurship.