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Cultural Diversity Lab: Project Overview

Published onNov 29, 2023
Cultural Diversity Lab: Project Overview


The London Cultural Diversity Lab is based in the Centre for Culture and the Creative Industries at City, University of London. City is a practitioner-facing university in the creative heart of Islington, central London, with a 130-year history of educating for the professions. The CIRCE project offered an opportunity to consolidate and build on the work that members of the Centre had already undertaken: in the UK, with the likes of Department of Culture, Media and Sport, local cultural development offices, national trade bodies, and the East and Southeast Asian diaspora; abroad, with UNESCO, the British Council, and community organisations in India and West Africa. As a CIRCE lab, we sought to embed our combined research expertise – drawing from cultural sociology, economic geography, gender studies, media and communications and the broader humanities – within the natural laboratory of London’s cultural ecosystem, to interrogate how rising attention to questions of “diversity” relates to compounding social and economic crises.


Since the late 1990s, London and the wider UK has been fêted as a creative economy success: an example of how jobs, regeneration, and place-making could be combined in an apparently unending stream. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the sector has experienced successive challenges: an extended period of public funding reductions over the 2010s; the impact of the country’s exit from the European Union from 2016-2020; a global pandemic in the early 2020s. Despite these “A-B-C” (Austerity-Brexit-Covid 19) shocks, creative industries continue to be placed at the centre of a national “2030 vision” to revitalise growth, work, wellbeing, international influence and green transition.

Underpinning this success and resilience is arguably London’s position as a global city and a node of global migration. This flux of population has gifted the capital with a seemingly never-ending stream of new knowledges, ideas and trends, facilitating an innovative mixing of ideas and a relatively safe space for experimentation. Yet this growth has often been at the cost of fundamental social inequalities. This past decade has also seen growing recognition that those who work in the sector do not reflect the wider populace: not only in terms of what gets seen, read, heard and performed but also who gets funded, employed or promoted. Alongside the intrinsic injustices, persistent structural imbalances restrict the very creativity that such industries are founded on. Such an apparent paradox lies behind the rise in “diversity” rhetoric, in public discourse, organisational strategy and government policymaking.

“Diversity” is a deceptively simple, everyday term to describe a hugely complex topic, both in the scholarly and policy literature and, moreover, at the experiential level of what happens in practice. It is commonly used not only to recognise identity and difference as productive features of mundane cultural life in a range of settings but also (particularly in corporate or public policy contexts) to nurture and “manage” it. In UNESCO’s 2005 convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, the term refers to diversity between nations in the context of a globalised trade in cultural goods and services, and recognises the need to protect longstanding heritage sites and community craft practices alongside the rights of artists. Within the UK, there is a related but different inflection, picking up from turn-of-the century discourses of multiculturalism associated with post-war decolonisation and processes of migration, and what is sometimes referred to as the “superdiversity” of global cities.

Such processes have been paired with a broader recognition of the need to be inclusive of gender and sexuality, physical and mental impairment, age and belief – whether codified and legislated as “protected characteristics” under the Equality Act 2010, or theorised and popularised using the language of “intersectionality”. It also includes reference to socio-economic advantage, regional imbalances, generational inequalities and – perhaps especially within creative contexts – the cognitive differences associated with neurodivergence. In this sense, “creative diversity” might be celebrated and encouraged as a resource for creativity, innovation and competitive advantage: a way to “think different”, be more sensitive to social complexity and cater to niche markets. Equally, notions of diversity have risen to the centre of a politicised “culture war” framing of heated public discourse, deploying nativist rhetoric amid a backlash to the perceived threats of globalisation by pitting the alleged values of a “left-behind” section of the population with those of a highly-educated professional “elite” residing in the metropole.

Within this critical conjuncture, our concern was to:

  1. explore what relationships exist, if any, between the rhetoric and practice of “diversity” and the experience of compounding “A-B-C” crises, and the continuing challenges over the course of 2023, within London’s cultural production ecosystem;

  2. consider what lessons policymakers might learn from this particular example for supporting the resilience and impact of cultural ecosystems elsewhere and amid other crisis conditions.


Our approach was primarily synthetic, aiming to assemble and triangulate multiple information sources and generate dialogue and conceptual innovation that could potentially inform better governance in this arena. We began by reviewing existing scholarly literature and then assembled a corpus of industry/policy reporting and practical initiatives addressing the need for diversity interventions in the UK’s cultural and creative industries in recent years, identifying around 80 such documents since 2015. In order to check this against the evolving reality of life “on the ground” in London in 2023, we supplemented this literature search with small-scale exploratory qualitative research – drawing from interviews, focus groups and observations, as well as more informal conversations – with around 40-50 key practitioners and informants working in this field. Finally, we held two workshop events, drawing from our existing networks to gather together academics, practitioners and other expert professionals to discuss the issues at stake.

A key issue here was to organise and make sense of this wealth of information. We identified four core themes, addressing the “diversity of diversities”, in relation to: the creative workforce; organisational form; spatial distribution; and cultural representation. Partially, this reflects disciplinary differences – respectively: the sociology of employment; management studies; human geography; humanities and cultural studies – differences that are, in part, reflected in the nature of public debate, which is often fragmented and disconnected. Clearly, however, each theme intersects with and inflects the other four and our goal is to explore and reveal these intersections in a holistic manner. A fifth theme therefore takes a cross-cutting view of policymaking implications, which are themselves transversal, requiring work across disciplinary and departmental siloes, public and private sectors, and at different spatial scales.

Coinciding with these primary research tasks, a central aim of CIRCE was to retain and develop links between UK and EU expertise around the creative economy, building awareness and potential pathways to exchange and collaboration. To this end, the lab, assembled from academics at the Centre for Culture and the Creative Industries at City, drew from existing links to creative community, industry, academic and policy stakeholders within the UK and elsewhere. Vice versa, the project’s goals were leveraged to build new relationships: enrolling City’s creatives in residence, for example, or commissioning a three-episode podcast from artist Laura Yuile on “culture-led housing”. We were joined by four new early-career researchers, who were also encouraged to bring their own strengths and interests to the project, and supported to bolster their own professional development and networks, in interaction with the wider CIRCE community.

While at first seeming to be a relatively incidental aspect of lab setup and structure, the nurture of interpersonal relationships, and the development of focused spaces for interaction and exchange, became increasingly central to our work, requiring active (but often invisible or overlooked) intervention and administration. This processual observation applies not only in the context of Brexit but as a particular feature of the diverse knowledges and practices that define the creative economy, especially given the considerable uncertainty in the academic labour market faced by emerging researchers. It also speaks to the challenges of connecting the informal world of short-term project working by freelancers, micro-businesses and loose-knit collectives to the very structured formality and lengthy timescales of the university – both in terms of building trust and aligning goals as well as processing contracts and payments.


An initial celebratory moment in the early years of the millennium tended to characterise the creative economy as a model of innovation and “good work”, allowing individuals to find autonomy, control and self-fulfilment and offering firms more flexible access to a range of skills and new ideas. For many this was the case. Fine-grained sociological attention, both qualitative quantitative, public reporting and arts activism has increasingly placed these assumptions under pressure. Over the 2010s, so too did a series of crises characterised by both calculated policy decisions and unprecedented external shocks.

A is for Austerity

In response to the global financial crisis of 2008-09, a concerted austerity programme was implemented by a succession of governments from 2010-2019, most dramatically prior to 2015. Considerable “efficiency savings” were sought throughout the public sector, particularly local authorities (the primary funders of much cultural provision, including museums, libraries, theatres and heritage sites), and closures of some national non-departmental public bodies, notably the UK Film Council. While other policy areas such as education and health were equally affected, culture is clearly hard to justify as a recipient of public support and is also subject to reductions in consumer expenditure. This reshaped not only what services were sustainable but also occupational pathways and organisational models within cultural organisations, and their geographical distribution. The period is therefore associated with accelerated diversification i.e. the need for both organisations and individuals to develop new (usually multiple) income streams; and instrumentalism i.e. more explicit accounting for a “return on investment” in cultural participation, in the form of economic, social or health impacts. To some extent this only intensified the longer-term turn requiring public services to conform to specific spending rules and outcome-driven targets, as well as a reliance on unpaid labour across the sector.

B is for Brexit

The period of 2016-2019 was dominated by the Brexit referendum and subsequent negotiations, with the primary effect being considerable uncertainty over the future relationship with the other 27 EU nations and the wider world. A key issue here concerned mobility for creatives, whether as a performing musician or as a touring exhibition, and the retention of EU migrants within the creative workforce, as well as the increased supply chain costs particularly for distribution of physical cultural goods (e.g. handmade crafts, artworks or vinyl records). Several years of uncertainty (over visa regulations or customs carnets, for example) made longterm planning difficult, disincentivising those without financial liquidity and who could ill-afford to change plans. Also at stake was a profound public debate, and sense of division, over cultural identity, particularly regarding migration patterns and regional distributional imbalances, and a sense that creativity remained the preserve of disembedded Remain-voting “elite” professional class, whether in fine arts, acting, or technology. This picture was acknowledged to be driven by London’s overwhelming dominance of the broader economic picture – while obscuring the considerable inequalities within the capital, not least among the creative workforce itself. Here there is a danger of acceding explanatory power to a simple binary framing that does not reflect lived reality for most.

C is for Covid-19

The events of 2020-2022 were determined by the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic and government’s subsequent response in lengthy “lockdown” periods and attendant financial support packages. Two issues are stark here. First the clear distinction between different goods and services, in which cultural forms and organisational processes (such as music venues, cinemas and television productions) that rely on proximity were clearly substantially affected, with knock-on effects for support workers further down the supply chain (e.g. in ticketing agencies or postproduction suites) while, conversely, the digitised platform economy, dominated by global tech firms, experienced a significant boost from increased home access. A second issue was that support packages for self-employed freelancers and full-time employees were designed around notions of “standard” work, revealing the sector’s reliance on “non-standard” (short-term contracts, multiple contract types) employment forms, with many falling through the safety net.

In summary

Such trends widened divisions between large organisations with multiple sources of funding and small, nimble, often volunteer-led enterprises – the “missing middle” grows. The apparent “resilience” of the UK’s cultural and creative ecosystem, widely discussed and often praised, is an undoubted testament to pragmatism, inventiveness and strategic diversification. Yet this period reveals how it is also contingent on hidden unpaid labour and paid work that can be highly irregular. A single individual typically needs to put in the “extra hours” of looking for work, pitching for contracts and funding, maintaining productive relationships, and investing in education and training, across multiple projects and professional roles, in addition to carrying out their primary roles. The capacity to carry out such work is typically dependent on free time, a pre-existing financial safety net and social networks, with unequal access to health insurance, sick pay and maternity leave. Unpredictable income not only makes it hard to plan but also to access credit, loans and mortgages. Such a situation is exciting for some but hard for most, favouring the young, the wealthy and the able-bodied while disadvantaging those with caring responsibilities and who are not already on the “inside”.


Workforce Diversity

While hard to see, these systemic aspects of “non-standard” work clearly act as a filter for those seeking to access employment in the sector. Consequently, the sector has been a fertile testing ground for Diversity interventions, usually framed using the umbrella acronym of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), and increasingly also Belonging (EDIB). In particular, there has been a sharp rise in industry attention to its workforce, fostering a host of reports, measures, strategic initiatives and policy lobbying. As well as a rise of research and reporting, this period has also seen an increased demand for the expertise and labour of “diversity” consultancy in CCIs, combining advice and training in awareness with subject expertise. This long-term process has been particularly noticeable since the international wave of protests and awareness prompted by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, while the Covid-19 pandemic brought the prevalence of non-standard work arrangements into public view on one hand and fostered hostility towards East Asian communities on the other. Yet, while such initiatives suggest that existing inequalities and issues of diversity are now being acknowledged and addressed, there is a danger of ‘overload’ and burnout as heightened demand to address systemic inequities falls on overburdened and typically already-marginalised individuals.

Organisational Diversity

Diversification and reductions in state spending have produced an extremely competitive funding landscape. For grant recipients or commercial suppliers, contractual compliance has become an important mechanism of governing culture – requiring organisations to meet targets around diversity and social impact, for instance. Funders are key gatekeepers in the ecosystem, although the bureaucratic requirements can de facto restrict successful candidates to “the usual suspects”. Interest has also grown in alternative (old and new) models of organisation, ownership and governance, particularly social enterprises such as worker cooperatives and Community Interest Companies (CICs). The latter combines the non-profit, prosocial elements of a charitable body with the greater control and agility of a small firm, setting clear rules around the use of profits and assets to meet community needs and address a social purpose. Other creatives experiment with new technologies such as blockchain-driven Decentralized Autonomous Organisations (DAOs). In both cases, the notion of a participatory “community”, going beyond employees and customers, bound together by common purpose, is crucial. Nonetheless, considerable amounts of invisible, uncounted, volunteer labour must go on to sustain such enterprises which, even more intensely than the broader cultural sector, suffer from a sense of demographic monoculture.

Spatial Diversity

We note a particular paradox whereby many of the above issues around access, ownership and unpaid labour are exacerbated by the substantial living costs of London. Rents and mortgages (both housing and workspace) remain high thanks to an artificially sustained property market during an ongoing housing crisis and the Covid effect of working from home and relocation. Much of the UK’s unbalanced creative economy remains centred on London, despite high-profile relocations from parts of the BBC and English National Opera, as well as commercial investments such as EMI North, loosely associated with the government’s “Levelling Up” agenda. Within London, one particular innovation since 2018 has been the Creative Enterprise Zone model, in which coalitions of creatives and related businesses, residents and developers bid to take a lead on local development that remains affordable and community-engaged. Artists, cultural organisations and developers increasingly form (often-uneasy) partnerships to secure affordable housing, co-working spaces and funding for community-engaged arts – usually with the express intention to counter gentrification and displacement, although not always successfully. This remains tricky terrain to navigate.

Representational Diversity

A meta-story here regards the question of how much is known and who, in all these debates, is seen and heard. There remains a tension between the quantity and quality of growing visibility: historically underrepresented communities have become in some ways hyper-visible in recent years (e.g. on-screen); yet too often at the cost of stereotyping and homogeneity, obscuring the diversity within diversity. The UK’s data collection regime is relatively fine-grained in this regard, allowing for a range of ethnicities and “hybrid” categories (e.g. Black-British) that can be monitored, while still missing much nuance. The acronym BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), favoured for a long time, has recently been abandoned by government agencies in recognition of the huge variation it contains. (B)ESEA (British/East and South East Asian) has emerged in a counter-movement – particularly in response to anti-Asian violence and stereotypes perpetuated throughout the pandemic – but this too threatens to homogenise diasporic groups too much, especially if mobilised in quantitative terms. Once again, it is the resultant quality of understanding, and the possibility for shared experiences to be articulated, that is most highly sought – not a somehow “correct” accounting for the full range of available identities.


It is difficult to provide a definitive answer to the question of the impact and effects of Austerity, Brexit and Covid on the creative industries, and how they are manifest in the experiences, and generation of patterns and processes of inequality. It is at least clear that some may have mistakenly presumed that CCI were exempt from the scourge of inequality. Clearly, the sector is not exceptional in this respect; it is nonetheless perhaps a surprise for many to discover that the CCI exhibit such patterning far more than the rest of the economy. In part this is due to a poor starting position – but also due to the relative lack of resilience of the sector.

The UK is rightly known for its promotion of creative industries, their scale and relative success. Yet policies have favoured a focus on growth at the expense of equality and inclusion; accordingly a focus on output measures have overshadowed compositional measures. This reveals further lack of understanding of how the CCI actually ‘work’: that is, those organisational forms, such as project-based working and freelancing, that are historically non-normative across the wider economy, alongside the high-risk and rapid turn-over of its primary activities. Indeed, it is within this unorthodox organisational form that many inequalities are found and amplified – while, at the same time, rendered ‘invisible’ to a policy (and political) gaze that remains structured by the historic norm.

It is therefore notable that a body of pioneering scholarship by academics working with, or challenging, policy makers and the industry has exposed a complex set of inequalities. Together these create a ‘wicked problem’ to solve. This research has only been possible due to the unusual coverage of questions in population surveys in the UK: in particular, those covering questions of ethnicity, alongside gender, socio-economic grouping, age and location. Researchers have pointed to the unique intersectional forms of inequality that are found in the CCI – uniquely framed by “the creative industries” as a relatively novel research and policy object. This has created a distinctive lens through which to view a rapidly changing part of the economy.

Initial debates about representation typically begin with appearances on stage and screen. The debate has been augmented with insights into inequalities of craft and skilled workers who support the ‘talent’. Sadly, conditions of inequality are as poor, if not worse for these workers. Our studies reveal that a further layer of intersectionality is revealed when we explore the inequalities of power and responsibility in the CCI. In this light it is not surprising that the problem is difficult to resolve.

A first step is to recognise the nature of the problem. Efforts to do so continue to evolve, both through research as well as responses from creative workers and collective industry representation. Second and third steps are to identify causes and then provide a remedy. These are more problematic and further exacerbated by the flux in which the CCI exist. Alongside policy flux, and socio-economic uncertainty, it is critical to highlight the unique restructuring of the CCI that has taken place in the last 25-30 years: namely, the shift from employment in large-scale public institutions to private employment in micro-businesses or on a freelance basis (often then contracted back to public bodies) a combination of outsourcing and post-Fordism. The CCI have developed complex and delicate ecosystems, with repeat-contracting of project based enterprises alongside equally unstable intermediaries, balancing the demands of the system. These relationships are poorly-researched and understood: they are clearly not addressed by ‘generic’ industrial or arts policy; meanwhile systemic instability and unpredictability causes problems for monitoring and governance.

Accordingly, it is not surprising that ABC(+) crises have impacted in different ways. In one sense, as “crisis” is the normative condition for CCI, one might expect them to be resilient. In another sense, the imposition of external shocks has the potential to break inherent resilience. Public funding cuts have spread virally through the whole sector as a result of the interdependence of for- and not-for-profit activities – not primarily due to cuts themselves but due to the ‘hollowing out’ of institutional and organisational capacity, undermining the sector’s ability to ‘go on’. In this sense, Austerity has been the most damaging blow. However, Brexit and Covid have been new waves of instability. In the former case a predictable impact that could have been managed if the CCI had been politically ‘more visible’ in government. In the latter case, again, lack of visibility or political power lead to further oversights. Of course, taken together these impacts have been fatal to many businesses and activities. We can see the compound impact when, for example, trained musicians move out of the sector; never to return.

This last point raises another issue. Research on the CCI has identified a set of problems with diversity and inclusion and set in place many initiatives to address them. However, such problems originate, in large part, outside of the sector – primarily in education and training; that is, who is supported to participate in the sector. Moreover, since the cultural ecosystem is relatively unregulated, it is challenging to adequately monitor and difficult to implement policy systematically. Arguably, such gaps in talent pipelines and ecosystems can more easily be addressed by those with access to additional power and resources, outside the sector.

A key final insight for the CIRCE project concerns the nature of “impact”, which often appears in policy prescriptions to “add creativity” to increase X (where X is growth, employment, tourism, wellbeing, social cohesion and so on). Yet impact is not linear and mechanical but bidirectional; impacts on the system itself must not be forgotten. If this ecosystem has been resilient in the face of crisis, it is for systemic reasons that cannot be taken for granted. Polycrisis requires the active protection and promotion of cultural polydiversity: a plurality of diversities – not just of available goods and services, or of demographic representation, but of strategic approaches, collaborative spaces and economic models. This should draw attention to internal processes of intermediation and underlying socio-economic infrastructure.

A different way of conceiving of creative impact might be as a way of holding space for apparent societal contradictions to be worked out in public. This can be a balm or an escape; it can generate inspiration and new languages; it can also be a provocation, criticism or disruption; it can enable difficult conversations to take place. A key policy implication then simply concerns first the recognition and then the governance of an open cultural and creative sector as an ecosystem in itself – albeit one which is irreducibly diverse, hybrid and dynamic.

There is much to learn from the UK experience in terms of “joined-up” policy experimentation, demanding institutional work to mediate and translate between multiple government departments, industry actors and civil society, across spatial scales. Tying the centrality of cultural value to a concerted industrial strategy, together with the underlying importance of social infrastructure, is an ongoing task to embed policy innovation within national, cultural and institutional contexts.

But a growth strategy, difficult enough to develop in itself, is not sufficient for the CCI. An innovative and inclusive growth process needs attention from the start. Access to training and education is obvious but so is support for creative work as a viable career option. Of course, a major failure in achieving a diverse and inclusive workforce is not simply access but issues of retention, which often relate to the work quality and employment conditions (notably, entitlement to holiday, sick leave, maternity pay, and pensions). Until these issues are addressed, little progress will be made. In this light, the CCI appear as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for the changing pattern of work in the 21st century: flexible and agile but casualised and precarious. The question finally hinges on whether social contracts forged in the 20th century can be refitted for the 21st century. Put more optimistically, the CCI would be a good place to begin the new experiment of how to fix this issue.

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