News | Gütersloh, 10/01/2014

Thomas Rabe on the Significance of Creativity in the Age of Digitization

In an op-ed in the FAZ, a German daily, Bertelsmann's Chairman & CEO explains why he believes the era of digitization will be "not the era of technology, but the era of creativity," and presents a new survey commissioned by Bertelsmann.

Thousands of people spend nights camping out in front of stores to secure the latest version of a smartphone. Germany’s Justice Minister publicly exhorts a search engine to disclose its algorithm. And from one day to the next, a major online retailer slaps certain books with unusually long delivery times. These recent developments would seem to indicate that our economy and society are witnessing the beginning of a computerized era, with the balance of power shifting from man to machine. But that is not the case! I personally am convinced that the era of digitization will be not the era of technology, but the era of creativity.

We are at the threshold of a new era. No product symbolizes the ubiquity of digital as strongly as the mobile phone. Next year, for the first time in history there will be more phones in the world than people. For comparison: on the day this comes to pass, only half as many toothbrushes will be in use worldwide.

Smartphones – Internet-enabled miniature computers, that is – are the synthesis of all the technological achievements that have inspired billions of consumers over the last two decades: online access, video screens, gaming consoles, search engines, e-readers, digital mailboxes, gateways to social networks, recording and playback devices, instant messengers and much more. And unlike a toothbrush, smartphones are picked up and used not just two or three times a day, but about 150 times.

Media companies have felt the digital harbingers earlier than other industries. The interiors of houses, cars and refrigerators are just setting out for where television stations, books, magazines and music have already arrived: in a continuously interconnected, data-driven online world. But as Soshana Zuboff wrote so aptly in this newspaper on the 15th of September: “What defines an era is far more than its technology.” I believe that the strongest driving force in the years ahead will be not a program or an algorithm – but people’s courage and desire to get creative, fulfill themselves artistically, and to create new things that interest and inspire others.

Europe is a place that has brought forth an incomparable variety of such artists, authors and thinkers over the centuries. So, as Europe's largest media company, Bertelsmann today published a study conducted by Enders Analysis that investigates the economic and social significance of creativity in the digital age. The study examines the European countries Germany, France and the UK. The results not only document people’s huge desire to be creative, but also the cultural and economic relevance of the creative economy.

Around 70 percent of all respondents described themselves as creative, and pursue creative activities in their spare time. They cite the media as a major source of their inspiration. In Germany, for example, more than 90 percent of respondents watch TV and listen to music each week, 70 percent use the Internet, roughly two-thirds read magazines, and nearly half regularly reaches for a book. So it is small wonder that people appreciate the value of companies in the creative industries: based on the results of the study, a projected 100 million adults in Germany, France and the United Kingdom rate the creative economy as “important” or “very important”.

Their assessment is borne out by economic indicators that were collected for the first time in this study. In the three countries under review, 3.3 million people work for one of 392,000 companies in the creative industry, as screenplay writers, editors, journalists, graphic designers, engineers, and so on. This is equivalent to the combined population of Munich, Birmingham and Marseille. Together, the companies generate gross value added of 128 billion euros a year – nearly four percent of the three countries’ total economic output outside the financial sector.

The creative economy makes a significant contribution to Europe’s cultural abundance and economic prosperity. Fortunately, the incoming EU Commission has indicated that it agrees with this assessment. It will soon be able to back up its words with action. For instance, in the protection of intellectual property: Europe’s creative minds deserve an up-to-date copyright law that empowers them to be courageous and invest in new ideas even in the digital age. Their audience is entitled to be able to find films, texts and songs in a digital world, and should be able to count on the neutrality of search engines and social networks.

We are entering a new era and have a great opportunity to actively shape its course. Even in an age of universal belief in technology, Europe can be confident enough to rely on the power of creativity. Because in the end, the billions of smartphones are just shells that need to be filled with creative content.