Calgary Herald OpEd - Don't Underestimate the Importance of Culture

June 3, 2015 | Calgary Herald

With any change of government, there is often the desire to tackle problems and issues from different angles. With the changes that Alberta saw in the recent election — which could be characterized by some as a reset button — I believe it is essential that we start a conversation about cultural prosperity as being central to the future well-being of Albertans and Alberta, of our cities, as well as our rural communities.

Understandably, the focus of this election was very much about the economy and the challenging times we are all facing. This was furthermore compounded by the fact that we do not control some of these factors that are subject to geopolitical forces beyond our boundaries. We heard once again the theme of economic diversification come back to the forefront.

I am not convinced that our economy is not diversified. While energy plays a powerful role, representing, according to 2013 data from the Alberta government, 23.1 per cent of our economy, it is not the only economic sector in our province. Retail and wholesale occupies 9.4 per cent, while business and commercial services represents 10.6 per cent of our economy.

The focus of the NDP on a greater reliance on intellectual capabilities or leveraging the knowledge economy as a way to diversify is indeed encouraging as Alberta is home to a very diverse post-secondary system which acts as a fundamental catalyst to incubating the seeds of the 21st century knowledge economy. For example, while Alberta College of Art + Design students go on to be artists, designers, cultural workers, and much more, they have one thing in common with all other post-secondary institutions — they problem solve, think critically and question why. They simply think differently about the world around us.

And, there needs to be more. By focusing the conversation on the economy only, I feel we may miss the larger context which pertains to answering the essential question of how we achieve a healthy and productive society. This, in fact, should be our shared goal. I believe the three main components that measure the health and the worth of a society are economic prosperity, social prosperity and cultural prosperity.

The important element here to realize is that no one component can exist without the others, that all three are intricately connected and interconnected. By focusing on only one, or even two of the three, we as a society will jeopardize the achievement of our full potential. And contrary to what some may think, the cultural sector is not a luxury to have, but a necessity. It is well known that societies without strong cultural prosperity do not thrive, they simply exist.

The Legatum Institute in England describes this best when it explains that, “The values that motivate individuals, societies and nations are reflected and encapsulated in the cultural achievements that endure … These are the means by which successive generations have achieved greater self-knowledge and the study of their significance, both in the past and the present, animates ‘The Culture of Prosperity.'”

We see in Canada a growing number of cities developing cultural prosperity plans. These plans attempt to go beyond a mere culture plan that focuses on culture as the expression of the community — a critical role which also helps build a definite sense of pride in the communities we live in — and shifts it to culture as one of the engines of the community, which directly benefits economic and social prosperity.

So, what does this means for Alberta? It means that culture becomes a filter by which we measure our actions and our progress. It means that when we talk about economic development, we also talk about culture as an integral part of that development, not as an add on, or worse, a luxury. Recognizing the importance of cultural prosperity as a key factor will enable us to better integrate and properly plan our future by offering more choices and options that in turn will enrich — in all sense of the term — our lives.

So as a new government takes place and finds its footing, it needs to become a paradigm pioneer, rather than a paradigm follower, if it wants to have a chance for long-term legacy.

Dr. Daniel Doz 
President + CEO
Alberta College of Art + Design