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The Anatomy of the Creative City

Patrick Cohendet ab; David Grandadam a; Laurent Simon b
BETA, Universit de Strasbourg, Strasbourg, France b HEC Montral, Montral, Canada

Online publication date: 24 February 2010

To cite this Article Cohendet, Patrick, Grandadam, David and Simon, Laurent(2010) 'The Anatomy of the Creative City',
Industry & Innovation, 17: 1, 91 111
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/13662710903573869
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13662710903573869


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Industry and Innovation,
Vol. 17, No. 1, 91111, February 2010

Research Paper

The Anatomy of the Creative City


*BETA, Universite de Strasbourg, Strasbourg, France, **HEC Montreal, Montreal, Canada

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ABSTRACT The aim of this contribution is to depict and analyze the dynamics of situated creativity by
presenting an anatomy of the creative city and an understanding of the emergence and formation of creative
processes in these particular local ecologies of knowledge. We propose to study the anatomy of the creative
city by defining three different layersthe upperground, the middleground and the undergroundas the basic
components of the creative processes in local innovative milieus. Each one of these layers intervenes with
specific characteristics in the creative process, and enables new knowledge to transit from an informal micro-
level to a formal macro-level. In order to illustrate this point of view, the creative city of Montreal is analyzed
through two main case studies: Ubisoft and the Cirque du Soleil.

KEY WORDS: Creative cities, communities, upperground, underground, middleground

Increasing research in economics and management suggests that creative cities may
develop by providing, through investment in cultural related facilities and other related
amenities, a fertile place for a creative class of workers to imagine new products or processes
that will ultimately bring economic growth and wealth (Florida, 2002, 2008; Florida et al.,
2008). In spite of its appealing perspective, this theory has received a significant amount of
criticism (Malenga, 2004; Peck, 2005; Scott, 2006, among others). If neo-liberal economists
consider it as a new way to promote government spending rather than tax cuts as incentives
for job creation, some of their opponents see this approach as an elitist theory omitting to
take into account the rising inequality and increasing economical divide the new economy
has brought. Here, we suggest that, despite these criticisms, the work initiated by Florida
has set the background for an emerging field of research, which opens a large agenda
for studies on situated creativity (see, for example, Belussi and Sedita, 2008; Lange et al.,
2008; Lazzeretti et al., 2008; Potts et al., 2008; Sedita, 2008; Staber, 2008; Visser, 2009).
In this paper, we aim to clarify and improve the concept of creative cities by presenting
what we consider as the most sounded criticisms to Floridas approach. In our perspective,

Correspondence Address: Patrick Cohendet, Service des Affaires Internationales, HEC Montreal, 3000 Chemin de la
Cote-Sainte-Catherine, Montreal (QC), Canada H3T 2A7. Email: patrick.cohendet@hec.ca

1366-2716 Print/1469-8390 Online/10/010091 21 q 2010 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/13662710903573869
92 P. Cohendet et al.

the major shortcomings with the work of Florida are that he often considers who these
creative people are, rather than what they really do. As a result, what Florida suggests is
more a necessary condition for having a creative city (by accumulating talents belonging to
the creative class), rather than a comprehensive vision of the actual processes that lead an
urban milieu to be more creative. In other words, what we have is an anatomy of the creative
class, but what we lack and what we need is an anatomy of the creative city, and an
understanding of the emergence and formation of creative processes in these particular
local ecologies of knowledge. Our aim is therefore to depict and analyze these dynamics of
the creative processes in order to better characterize the notion of creative cities.
What is suggested is to have a closer look at the anatomy of the creative city by defining
three different layers as the basic components of the creative processes in local innovative
milieus, which we name the upperground, the middleground and the underground. Each one
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of these layers intervenes with specific characteristics in the creative process, and enables
new ideas to transit from an informal micro-level to a formal macro-level, through the
accumulation, the combination, the enrichment and the renewal of bits of knowledge.
The upperground is the level of formal institutions such as creative or cultural firms or
institutions, whose specific role is to bring creative ideas to the market (Caves, 2000;
Howkins, 2001; Hartley, 2005). On the opposite, the underground is constituted by creative
individuals such as artists or other knowledge workers, who are individuals not immediately
linked to the commercial and industrial world: underground culture lies outside the corporate
logic of standardization (see, for example, Aoyama and Izushi, 2003; Arvidsson, 2007; Aage
and Belussi, 2008). In between the upperground and the underground, we suggest that a
key role is played in the creative city by the middleground, which is the level where the work
of communities is decisive in designing the grammars of use and other common platforms of
knowledge necessary for the knowledge transmission and learning that precedes innovation
in those geographically bounded innovative environments.
The main theoretical implication of this paper is to highlight the crucial role played by the
middleground in the dynamic processes of a creative city. A recent stream of literature has
identified the importance of collective forms in the process of creation (Drazin et al., 1999;
Fleming et al., 2007). Yet, placing these collective entities as the essential source of
formation of creativity in local innovative ecologies of knowledge has been somewhat
neglected. Our main hypothesis is that the middleground is the essence of the creative city
and the cornerstone to understanding how the creative, artistic and cultural industries on
one side and the individuals who work in related occupations on the other side interact in
creative processes.
We have progressively formulated the theoretical ideas of this contribution, working as
researchers, trainers and consultants, and having experienced creativity through the
activities of many creative firms and organizations in Montreal for almost 10 years. Based on
this experience, we propose to substantiate the theoretical proposal with two case studies:
Ubisoft and Cirque du Soleil. Beyond the fact that they are well-known success stories of
creative industries, these two firms capture two extreme forms of interactions between the
upperground, the middleground and the underground. As we will see further, the case of
Cirque du Soleil exemplifies a rather bottom-up construct, while the case of Ubisoft
characterizes a rather top-down approach of the creative process.
In the following, we first discuss, through a critical review of the literature, the context of
the analysis of the creative processes within a creative city, and in particular underline the
The Anatomy of the Creative City 93

need to go beyond the surface of institutions and formal organizations to understand the
local formation of creativity. We then expose the characteristics of our suggested anatomy of
the creative city, by depicting the underground, the middleground and the upperground, and
by explaining the complex interactions between these three layers. In the final section, the
creative city of Montreal is analyzed drawing on the two selected case studies: Ubisoft and
Cirque du Soleil.

Critical Literature Review: The Creative Process within the Creative City
Agglomeration mechanisms have been studied extensively in the economics and
management literature, but have only rarely been applied to the creative industries. Most
authors rely on concepts that are closely related to the invention paradigm, such as industrial
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districts (Marshall, 1961 [1890]; Jacobs, 1969; Panne, 2004), innovation systems (Freeman,
1987; Lundvall, 1992) or geographical clusters (Anderson, 1994; Porter, 2000). All these
territorial concepts typically deal with the relationship between science and industry, and
focus on the interaction between firms and institutions (labs, transfer units, financial
services, etc.). Thinking at the surface of this broad institutional level provides powerful
explanations of the degree and nature of innovativeness of such industrial agglomerations,
but nevertheless entails some limits. In particular, it omits to take into account the power of
creative milieus emerging from the world of arts and culture.
The limits of these traditional approaches are that the very dynamic processes that
bring the creative (scientific) ideas to the market are generally not on the forefront of the
analysis. This trend is explained by the fact that most of the intermediary devices, tools and
mechanisms accompanying the creative ideas are forms of knowledge (publications,
patents, copyrights, brands) that are not certified within the cluster but out of it (peer review
journals, patent offices, etc.). Significant steps of the local creative process are shaped,
validated and interpreted by the external institutions: they are not parts of the story of the
cluster. Thus, the understanding of the dynamics of creative processes within a given cluster
is not the usual point of focus of the traditional economic analysis of innovative
What is acceptable as a broad hypothesis for an industrial cluster strongly differs in
the case of a creative city. The main reason for this is that the forms of knowledge
developed in the creative processes within creative cities are not purely scientific or
industrial ones (Asheim and Gertler, 2005, call these respective forms analytic and
synthetic), they are also symbolic (involving creative meaning, aesthetic qualities, affect,
dependence on local know-who, strong semiotic knowledge content, etc.), and therefore
are highly context-specific and highly variable by location. What matters for these
particular forms of knowledge in the processes of creativity is that the intermediary steps
required to equip a creative idea and make it marketable are made within the local milieu,
and not outside the cluster. A fertile soil for a creative city is thus a soil where the
mechanisms, tools and devices that are needed to reveal, enhance, nurture, interpret
and enact creative ideas are situated within the local milieu. This view suggests that firms
in creative cities are generally not only backed by the organized universe of science,
but also rely on the efforts of an informal world, embedded in a local geographical
milieu, from which a myriad of creative ideas emerge and develop (as depicted by
Currid, 2007). Resources like language, cuisine, leisure activities, clothing, subculture and
94 P. Cohendet et al.

finally intellectual traditions, which are all embedded in a creative milieu, are often
neglected, but, however, form a particular creative background characterizing each
location (Molotch, 2002).
To understand the innovative processes in the creative city entails to go beyond the
surface of firms and formal institutions (in particular, from the creative, artistic and cultural
industries). What needs to be explained is the process of formation of creative ideas in an
urban milieu, and the connections, relationships, and interrelatedness between creative
individuals (from who the creative impulse originates) and firms (whose role is to bring the
creative ideas to the market).
We suggest that, as a key intermediary between individuals and formal institutions,
the role of communities is essential in the creative processes occurring in an urban milieu.
In the dynamics of creativity, communities achieve a process of progressive codification of
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knowledge, starting from a phase where the individuals do not know the characteristics of
the novelty, do not know each other and do not possess the capabilities to communicate,
in order to reach a phase where the novelty is equipped with sufficient shared
understanding and codes to become economically viable (Callon, 1999; Amin and
Cohendet, 2004). The development of creative products and services requires the
progressive building of a common knowledge base that facilitates the understanding of
tests, experiences and contexts of use. The functioning of communities is therefore
critical, in the sense that they precisely provide the creative city with the inner local
mechanisms and devices that are needed to explain, validate and disseminate the
creative ideas.
Once the indispensable cognitive work of the communities has been achieved, firms
and other formal institutions can grasp the creative ideas equipped with codebooks and
grammars of use, and bring them to the market. These formal organizations rely on the
work of informal communities, as it is impossible for them to allocate the sufficient
amount of time necessary for creative material to blossom, and because the cost
constraint is often incompatible with the constant need to nourish new ideas with past
experiences (Von Hippel, 1998, 2005; Dahlander et al., 2008; Di Maria and Finotto,
2008; Potts et al., 2008). Hence, once a codebook is implemented, creativity can be
assimilated to a quasi-public good. The language being perfectly stabilized and the
procedures being easily replicated, market opportunities can become predictable and
the creation can therefore be economically identified. In this context, knowledge is no
longer tacit, but on the contrary is assimilated to information, as a pure public good.
Imitation can then easily take place without any compensation for the producers of the
Each entity forming the anatomy of the creative city has a specific role in the creative
process, and fulfills the task other components cannot achieve. The relative importance of
these different social forms therefore varies in time. If skilled individuals are very active in the
beginning of the creative process, communities are essential in the elaboration of a common
grammar on which creative ideas are developed. As new expressions are progressively
reinforced, firms and other formal institutions replace the two preceding entities and
therefore become essential in bringing the new ideas to the market. This suggests that these
three social forms are complementary and, as a result, can only succeed in promoting
creativity if they all act together.
The Anatomy of the Creative City 95

Theoretical Framework: The Three Layers of the Creative City

The above interpretation of creative processes clearly suggests that the anatomy of the
creative city could be described through three main layers, each involved in bringing
creative ideas to the market, thus allowing new knowledge to transit from the informal
micro-level to the formal macro-level (and vice versa). These layers are: the underground
(the level of individuals), the upperground (the level of formal firms and institutions) and
the middleground (the level of communities). The three layers are detailed in the
following section.

The Upperground
The upperground is the upper layer of the creative city. It is characterized by the presence
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of innovative firms (specialized in different fields), as well as institutions (such as research

labs, universities or cultural and artistic centers). These formal organizations contribute to
the creative process by their capacity to finance and unite the different expressions
together, by their capacity to integrate dispersed types of knowledge and by their capacity
to test new forms of creativity on the market. The firms and institutions of the upperground
are responsible for launching novel products onto the market, and, as it has been
emphasized above, are generally the sole entities that the classical cluster analysis
examines (focusing in particular on the production and use of externalities between them).
A remarkable characteristic of the creative firms is that they generally do not have large
R&D departments, they do not have any worldwide subsidiaries to tap into for external
creative ideas and they have no access to creative knowledge through their participation in
global networks of diverse partners. None of these classical ways to enhance creativity
seems present in the creative firms. Based on our observations, we argue that these firms
find their source of inspiration and creativity in the fertile soil of the creative city itself, as if the
latter plays the role of a shared lab for the creative firms located in this innovative milieu.
More precisely, innovative firms and institutions in creative cities tend to adopt a very
specific mode of organization. They are not based on functional departments, but rather they
concentrate internally on the governance of multi-project activities, which involve different
communities of specialists. For instance, a typical video game company relies on the
functioning of internal communities of specialists, quite parallel to the occupational roles
described by Crosby (2000): script writers and game designers, graphic artists in 2D and 3D,
sound designers, software programmers and testers. In each one of these communities,
members communicate regularly with each other about their practice through informal
cognitive spaces with more or less open boundaries, where people meet and trade
knowledge in a not-so-organized way. These workspaces are not fully monitored through
the formal corporate process and they are not necessarily aligned with corporate goals and
strategy. In addition, they are somewhat disconnected from the daily pressure of producing
an efficient output designed for a specific market purpose.
Members of the communities working in a given creative firm communicate with the
outside world through global virtual platforms with specialists of the same focus of
knowledge, sometimes even with members of competing firms who share the same interest
for a given practice. However, the most important interactions are with the members of the
myriad of other communities in the creative city. Through this constant opening to the
innovative milieu and the permanent search for the best practices from outside the
96 P. Cohendet et al.

organization, communities are unique devices tapping into the fertile soil of the creative city
to bring permanently useful knowledge and creative ideas to the firm.
The creativity of the innovative firms of the upperground results from constant
interactions between the macro-creativity designed by the project leaders of the firm
(the hierarchy) and the micro-creativity that emerges from the daily activities of the
creative communities. A creative project can therefore incorporate new ideas, innovative
suggestions and all these micro-creative inputs that materialize from the day-to-day
activities or that are drawn from the soil of the creative city. It has been argued that,
thanks to the creative role of communities, innovative firms can accumulate a
creative slack, which is one of the main sources of growth for the firm (Cohendet and
Simon, 2007). Thus, it is as if these innovative firms of the upperground, while
concentrating internally on the formation and exploitation of creative slack as their key
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internal core competence, delegate the building of creative capabilities of the communities
to the local milieu of the city. New creative knowledge may therefore emerge and
develop only if the underground and the upperground act together in the same creative
milieu, by sharing the same cognitive platform.

The Underground
The underground brings together the creative, artistic and cultural activities taking place
outside any formal organization or institution based on production, exploitation or diffusion.
In this layer, individuals all share a common deep interest for their art and culture, which
defines their identity and lifestyle. Examples of these underground groups include graffiti
artists, extreme sports aficionados, gamers, etc. Underground culture is considered to be a
main driving force towards new trends, as the different individuals (or gatekeepers) acquire
a leading position in defining the evolutionary trajectories of art and culture. These
individuals, however, are not immediately linked to the commercial and industrial world,
which is why they generally share a set of tacit norms that can only be codified by external
entities. In other words, underground culture lies outside the corporate logic of exploitation,
and is very much focused on exploration, to the extent that it has now become common for
industries related to different artistic and cultural domains to inspire themselves from the
underground experimentations.
Because the underground is by definition invisible, proximity and frequent interaction
among its members are necessary conditions for it to progressively expand and become
viable. This prerequisite suggests a high degree of embeddedness within a particular milieu,
such as a region, a city, a district or simply a street. In music, a good example of this
phenomenon is given by the emergence of bebop jazz, which has always been associated
with the bars and clubs of the 52nd Street in New York. When and where things happen are
crucial elements of the underground, and, in most cases, those individuals that act as trend-
makers almost automatically merge in the same gatherings. The status of the members
within the underground will then depend on the amounts of contacts, social capital and
respect he or she can command.
There are some direct links between the underground and the upperground (as this is
described by Arvidsson, 2007). One important mechanism that may contribute to connect
the creative workers of the underground with the firms and institutions of the upperground
is the reputation effect, which is a significant form of micro-governance within the
The Anatomy of the Creative City 97

underground (Coriat and Dosi, 1998). The creative class of the underground can indeed play
a classical reservoir of highly qualified labor for the firms and institutions of the upperground.
Similarly, the formalized structures of the upperground may also organize awards for
creativity, as well as a more everyday learning by watching others, to detect the main
creative talents, with these creative individuals often considered as expert users. As
Markusen (2006: 1932) underlines, however, raw agglomerations of artists and members of
related occupations do not ensure that synergies develop among them, or that their ranks
will grow over time. Hence, good connections between the upperground and the
underground offer a necessary condition for having a creative city, but they do not guarantee
the existence of a vibrant city forming a fertile ecosystem, where creative ideas emerging
from the street and bars of the city can crystallize and get equipped with validating
processes to reach the market.
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The Middleground
The middleground appears as a critical intermediate structure linking the underground to the
upperground. Because of its brokerage position, the middleground is constantly navigating
between the informal and the formal world, and acts as a means to promote exploration as
well as exploitation mechanisms simultaneously. It presupposes therefore the existence of
intermediary groups and communities that link the informal underground culture with formal
organizations and institutions from the upperground. By progressively codifying new
knowledge, these groups provide the necessary cognitive platform to make creative material
economically marketable and viable. As a consequence, these communities of the
middleground are the main repositories of innovative micro-ideas, which may become
potential foundations for the establishment of economic applications that may then enter the
market. They are indispensable loci where spontaneity is progressively structured and
shaped so as to be interpreted and understood by market forces.
The ways knowledge is built, shaped and validated by the cognitive mechanisms
situated in the middleground follow two main types of processes: exploration and
exploitation, respectively, fulfilled by epistemic communities on the one hand and
communities of practices on the other. We make the analytical distinction between these two
types of processes in the following paragraphs.
The process that allows creative ideas to emerge from the deep underground to the
surface of the upperground is generally accomplished by epistemic communities, whose
members concentrate on deliberate knowledge creation (Cowan et al., 2000). In order to
reach this goal, the latter gradually construct a common structure allowing a shared
understanding. What binds each one of these communities is then the existence of a
procedural authority, that is, a set of rules or codes of conduct defining the objectives of the
community and the means required to reach this objective. This form of coordination
between agents spawns knowledge creation by favoring the synergy of individual varieties.
Individuals accumulate knowledge according to their own experiences, while validation is
made according to the procedural authority. It is important to note here that a given
epistemic community does not work in isolation. The group of agents who succeed in
expressing and formalizing an innovative idea is confronted to the risk of being
misunderstood by others. Without a collective effort to reach a critical mass of common
understanding, the creative process may not be viable (Allen, 1983). As a consequence, the
98 P. Cohendet et al.

agents from who the creative idea originates often undertake considerable efforts to alert
others and to convince them of the usefulness and potentials of their idea. For this reason,
an essential part of the process of production of knowledge results from the dynamics of
interactions between communities of the middleground, which can be approached through
the principle of translation/enrolment (Callon and Latour, 1991).
The cognitive work at the level of the middleground is not exclusively a bottom-
up process oriented towards the transformation and shaping of creative ideas from the
underground to the upperground. There are also infinite opportunities to exploit creative
ideas from firms and institutions, to enhance them, to progressively reveal the best practice,
and to confront them with practices and methods from other domains. Thus, an active
middleground is also a layer where ideas from the upperground are continuously
interpreted, enriched and confronted to different contexts. This role is generally assumed by
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communities of practice, which represent groups of people engaged in the same exercise,
communicating regularly between themselves on their activities (Brown and Duguid, 1991;
Lave and Wenger, 1991; Amin and Roberts, 2008). The members of these communities
primarily seek to develop their competences in the considered practice, while spreading and
comparing incessantly the best practices tested by the members. These communities can
therefore be seen as a means to develop individual competences through the continuous
improvement of the common practice. This aim is reached through the construction, the
exchange and the sharing of a common repertory of resourcesthis repertory not being
necessarily formally clarified. As in the case of epistemic communities, what matters is the
fact that a fertile middleground provides continuous opportunities for different communities
to interact and confront their cognitive processes.
Epistemic communities and communities of practice constantly overlap, as the
members of a given type of community often belong and actively participate in other
types of communities. In other words, the middleground is not linearly divided into a
research section on one side, where all the epistemic communities are concentrated, and
an applied section on the other side, where the communities of practices gather
up. Instead, these communities are intertwined platforms of knowledge that require specific
places, spaces and events, which open both to exploration and exploitation processes, thus
making experimentation a more viable and worthy venture. What matters, and what the
middleground offers, is rich interactions between a large variety of epistemic communities
and communities of practice. It provides various lanes through which each one of these
communities establishes permanent informal interactions with the others in order to confront
ideas and to tap creative practices from other domains of knowledge. This reveals a complex
maze of creativity (or forum), home of myriads of knowing communities, which promote
creativity in very diverse activities and modes.
Again, for this phenomenon to happen, the middleground often is entrenched in a
specific territory, which is in itself a great source of inspiration. Communities benefit from
their local environment, and yet still integrate individuals from different backgrounds, in such
a way that they can be portrayed as having an important absorptive capacity (Cohen and
Levinthal, 1989). On the one hand, this system allows members to avoid lock-in, by ensuring
a close connection to diverse styles and traditions. On the other hand, by supporting the
creation of a common identity, individuals limit the risks related to novelty and hence secure
the foundations on which each one of them expresses his creativity. The different
The Anatomy of the Creative City 99

communities therefore benefit from the external creativity whenever norms are not fixed,
and benefit from the internal creativity whenever such codes and rules need reinforcement.
The importance of the middleground in generating the indispensable intermediary
cognitive tools and devices for the process of creation to provide situated peer reviews and
validating mechanisms, and to offer continuous opportunities to knit communities
together, has been underlined in recent literature. For example, Pratt (2006) insists on peer
regard as an essential mechanism in generating reputation effects and establishing industry
standards. This process works most effectively in fuzzy, fast-moving environments that are
about quality not quantity: industries driven by fashion and consumption changes are a
good case. Peer regard is particularly active in situations that are characterized by buzz
(Bathelt et al., 2004; Storper and Venables, 2004). It is a process of checking, scanning and
evaluating others against a perceived ideal or aspiration, translated by the need to
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constantly ensure and update the output of others, as well as the career progress of peers
or superiors.
Figure 1 synthesizes the theoretical elements, which have been detailed above,
emphasizing the central role played by the middleground in the creative city.
In the following, we illustrate what we have coined the anatomy of the creative city, by
focusing on the case of Montreal. We analyze more specifically the case of two major
organizations, Ubisoft in the video game industry and Cirque du Soleil in the performing arts
industry, in order to put forth how the middleground may bridge the underground and the
upperground, throughout a top-down process as shown in the first case, or throughout a
bottom-up process as exemplified in the second case.

Empirical Analysis: Creativity in Montreal

Data and Methodology

In this study, we have chosen to rely on a qualitative analysis of situated creativity in the
particular case of Montreal, by focusing on two success stories among creative industries.
We have chosen to concentrate on firms, as this gives access to in-progress or finalized
products integrating multiple creative inputs and therefore opens the discussion to the
origins and pathways of those inputs.
In the case of Ubisoft, one of the authors was literally embedded in the firm during a
fixed period of time (from 1999 to 2001) in line with traditional approaches of organizational
ethnography (Van Maanen, 1979; Schwartzman, 1993). The 14 months of field presence
have led to more than 200 pages of ethnography, which are at the basis of this particular
study (Simon, 2002). The researcher followed up on this work, conducted regular action
research projects with the firm from 2003 to 2009, mostly focusing on production and
creativity issues, and subsequently developed an ongoing training program on the manage-
ment of creativity for the firms executives. In the case of Cirque du Soleil, one of the authors
took part as a supervisor in the ethnographic study of the development of a creative project
in Montreal, from 2003 to 2004. The fieldwork was achieved in nine months and led to
several reports, which were used for this study (Mahy, 2005a, b).
Consistent with the definition of organizational ethnography proposed by Rosen (1991),
these pieces of work revealed the importance of connections between the firms and external
social groups and organizations. Drawing on the emergence of this topic (Glaser and
Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 1978, 1992), specific attention was given to the stories that came out
100 P. Cohendet et al.
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Figure 1. The anatomy of the creative city

of our interactions with the informants. These narratives regularly stressed the role of social
groups and organizations external to the firms, feeding the internal creative processes.
For each case study, the researchers clearly remained outside observers (Watson, 1999).
A constant concern therefore was to faithfully render the observations and to allow the
informants to fully express their understandings of their own activities, without introducing
the researchers personal opinions or biases (Geertz, 1973, 1983).
In order to be precise and triangulate the ethnographic pieces of work, the authors
conducted empirical work on communities and events in the video game industry in Montreal
(such as the International Game Developers Association, the Kokoromi collective, the
International Game Summit or the Arcadia festival), and on the Circus arts city. They also
supervised research work on the Tohu creative center, with an historical focus on the origins
and deployment of the project in connection with the Cirque du Soleil. The fine-grained sets
of primary data were completed with further direct observations, sets of secondary data on
existing communities, organizations, places and events mentioned by the informants
The Anatomy of the Creative City 101

(public and corporate sources), as well as interviews with employees, managers and
external partners of the two firms. The data and information were finally gathered and
compiled in two synthetic case studies (as suggested by Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin, 1994).
The sets of data were analyzed through an induction/abduction process aiming at
reconstructing knowledge flows and transformations between firms and intermediary
communities based on the narratives of the informants and secondary sources, on the one
hand, and classifying those groups and organizations based on the literature on knowledge
groups and situated creativity, on the other hand. In turn, some expected entities like diverse
forms of knowing communities, including associative professional groups, and also less
known elements like creative collectives were identified.
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Montreal and its Environment

Over the years, Montreal has progressively strengthened its position as one of the most
creative cities in the world, attracting an increasing population of workers from the creative
class. According to several studies, the city offers an ideal environment for the production,
distribution and consumption of creative goods and services in multiple markets, on a local
as well as on a global scale (Stolarick et al., 2005; Stolarick and Florida, 2006).
Throughout the early 1990s, Montreal gradually became a main center for the
multimedia industry, with the rapid expansion of many start-ups, such as Softimage or
Discreet Logic. This trend was accompanied by the citys experience in the combination of
art and technology, in fields such as theatre and dance, electro-acoustic and electronic
music and pioneering multimedia arts. The citys diversified culture has provided an ideal
background to experiment new products locally, before being exported to the rest of the
world, as shown in the case of Cirque du Soleil. This phenomenon has resulted in the
establishment of a wide variety of clusters throughout the city.

The Case of Ubisoft

Ubisoft is a French-owned video game developer and editor. It is now one of the worlds
leading companies in the video game industry, ranking third in the USA with a 7.2 per cent
market share in 2008, and second in Europe with a 9.5 per cent market share that same
Ubisoft established its studio in Montreal in 1997, prompted by the substantial grants
and fiscal credits the government allocated for the creation of each new position
(Simon, 2002). Since then, Ubisoft has acted as an anchor firm in the city (in the sense of
Feldman, 2003), by fostering the creation of several service organizations and video game
start-ups, which have all contributed to increase the capacity of the historical cluster
(formed by several small and medium-sized firms, such as DTI, and several pioneers, such
as Softimage and Discreet Logic). Throughout the years, Ubisofts success has also
contributed to attract in Montreal other major international competitors in the video game
industry, such as Electronic Arts or Eidos. This reinforcement of the local cluster has led to
the implementation in Montreal of an international summit on video games, as well as an
international festival (Arcadia) held annually. The cluster is also supported by a professional
association (patronized by the government), namely, the Alliance Numerique, and by the
International Game Developers Association (IGDA). With more than 400 members
102 P. Cohendet et al.

in Montreal, IGDA plays an active role as a knowledge-sharing platform between employees

of the major video game firms in Montreal, without any control from those firms. Overall, this
rich ecosystem has widely added to the clusters dynamism, and to the emergence of an
increasing interest for video game development inside the underground. In many ways,
Ubisoft has benefited from the growing experience of this local creative workforce, well
trained in computer science, cinema, fine arts, literature, theatre, management and
marketing (Cohendet and Simon, 2007).
The studio hires mainly employees from Montreal (around 80 per cent), most of which
have been trained in the Montreal arts and computer schools. Ubisoft Montreal now
represents over 1,800 people, all disseminated in the 250,000 square feet of open space
offered by the red-brick building situated in the heart of the Mile-End neighborhood. This
location was not chosen randomly. Indeed, considered as one of the hippest urban areas in
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the city, the Mile-End neighborhood has greatly contributed to stimulate and inspire the
employees, by giving them the opportunity to actively take part in the local creative
communities of the middleground, and frequently meet together in the different concert halls,
bars, clubs, art galleries and trendy stores. Throughout the years, the home environment
has offered a fertile ground for individuals to build informal contacts, but also has provided
the formal institutional settings supporting the development of cultural life, therefore creating
a link between the upperground and the underground.
In the case of Ubisoft, several instances exemplify the relationships between the firm
and the middleground. In 2005, the team in charge of the development of one of Ubisofts
flagship games was looking for new ideas to enhance the attractiveness of the third part of a
trilogy of this successful game. Some team members suggested hiring as the soundtrack
composer an experimental electronic music artist who had just joined the local branch of a
British record label, completely unknown to the hierarchy. The team members, as electronic
music connoisseurs, attended local concerts, kept up with emerging trends and identified
the work of this artist as a potential interesting creative contribution to the game. They
convinced the game producer, through an efficient enrolment process, sharing CDs and
inviting him to one of the artists concerts at a close-by venue. Through the local community
of electronic music aficionados, they connected the artist to the game producer who finally
made the recording deal.
Fully aware of the importance and dynamism of the local creative communities, the firm
also actively deploys consistent efforts to connect its employees to the local creative milieu.
In 2007, for example, Ubisoft organized a street festival to celebrate its 10th Anniversary in
Montreal and give tribute to the local inhabitants. This event, which was open to the public,
was destined to promote the multiple talents (amateurs or professionals) active in the Mile-
End underground. Overall, more than 10,000 visitors attended this festival, experimenting
with local artists and creators. In this case, the top-down approach literally mixed almost all
the employees with the local creative scene and the public, allowing for discovery,
inspiration and ultimately absorption of new creative inputs (as suggested by Paiola, 2008).
Ubisoft has also initiated other specific creative projects in the Mile-End neighborhood.
For example, an open day workshop is organized annually in collaboration with the
Clark center for the arts (which describes itself as a flexible and multifunctional space,
dedicated to the production and diffusion of novel artistic expressions). This not-for-profit
organization, grouping 27 artists and creators working especially in the visual arts industry,
has been sponsored by Ubisoft since 2008. Together, they convinced 100 artists from the
The Anatomy of the Creative City 103

neighborhood to open their workshops to the public and to Ubisoft employees for one day.
With this event, coined the Mile-End Open Doors Workshops, Ubisoft aims at promoting the
local artists from the underground, by facilitating the exchange of ideas and concepts, with
the public, but also, and probably most importantly, with its employees, therefore relying on
the implementation of creative communities from the middleground.
Over the years, Ubisoft has also become the main sponsor of the Fantasia Festival,
which focuses on fantastic, horror, experimental and manga-inspired movies from Asia.1
All employees are encouraged to attend, and therefore receive free tickets, with the hope
that they can get renewed inspirations from watching those movies. Another illustration of
how the firm fosters creativity is given by the direct and indirect role that Ubisoft plays in the
organization of independent video game competitions. These competitions literally bring to
the light the creative activities of the underground, to the extent that some of them (such as
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Toomuchimagination.ca) were specifically designed as recruiting tools.

In this ecology, Kokoromi perfectly embodies the middleground and its go-between
activities (Simon, 2009). This group of four former employees of the video game industry
(with two of them from Ubisoft) define themselves as an experimental game collective
formed by a rare union of Montreal gamemakers and curators to promote games as an art
form and expressive medium worldwide.2 The Kokoromi collective produces experimental
game events, develops games and hosts a blog. In fact, beyond independent video game
festivals, Kokoromis members are active on many official forums and public events,
embracing the video game industry in Montreal. In addition, as former employees of Ubisoft,
they also entered in an active dialogue with the firm. As a result, Kokoromi not only acts as a
link between the underground and the upperground, by connecting creators with firms, by
giving them visibility, and by setting up contexts and events that build reputation, it also
develops a specific codebook about video games themselves, promoting simplicity in design
and art-based game-play through a fun-and-cartoon-inspired aesthetic. In doing so,
Kokoromi challenges Ubisoft in rethinking its own creative orientations and routines.
As a large community of creative individuals embedded in a creative milieu, the Ubisoft
employees are not just simple workers, they are also major consumers of the different goods
and services offered to them by their local environment. They commonly attend concerts
and events from the local scene, and are encouraged to take part in various cultural
activities. They also act as producers of the local culture as many of them are involved in
local creative projects in music, graphic arts, performing arts and short movies for instance.
In other words, the individuals benefit from their entrenchment in the city to foster the
emergence of their creative ideas, and conversely, the city nourishes itself from the activity
of these individuals to develop and expand its supply of creative goods and services.
The Ubisoft case illustrates quite well how a firm from the upperground, by relying on the
promotion of a creative middleground, has successfully embedded itself in a local milieu to
generate a wealthy creative environment, and has thus been able to interact and take
advantage of the creative atmosphere and resources provided by the underground. Figure 2
synthetically presents Ubisoft Montreal and its creative cluster.

104 P. Cohendet et al.
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Figure 2. Ubisoft Montreal and its creative cluster

The Case of Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil is no ordinary circus. There is no ring, and no animals. Each show is a
storytelling pageant, mixing color, rhythms and sounds, with the purpose of conveying a
wide audience into a dreamlike journey. Cirque du Soleil, which relied intensively on private
and government funding until 1992, is now a colossal organization, recognized
internationally for its competencies in the fields of artistic creation, production and
performance, and which develops everything internally, from audiovisual, recording,
publishing and merchandising activities to the actual construction of theatres and performing
arts complexes. Over the years, Cirque du Soleil has simply reinvented circus arts, to the
extent that it is now recognized as a major leader in its domain, with an increasing influence
on the entire city of Montreal (Babinski, 2004).
Founded in 1984 by Guy Laliberte and Daniel Gauthier, Cirque du Soleil started out as a
small troupe of street artists from the underground (or public entertainers, as they like to call
themselves), brought together in the Quebec Province, and more specifically in the Baie-
Saint-Paul, to form an itinerant show, destined to enliven the festivities accompanying the
450th Anniversary of Canadas discovery by Jacques Cartier. From that point onwards, the
company, which originally grouped 73 employees, hasnt stopped expanding, bringing
together a wide range of talents and expertise. Cirque du Soleil now represents a staff
The Anatomy of the Creative City 105

of 4,000 individuals, including more than 1,000 artists from over 40 different nationalities,
that all contribute to create the specific atmosphere (or codebook) characterizing the
various touring and resident shows presented in the 100 cities around the world.
Permanent residency shows have played a special role in legitimizing and
institutionalizing the art of modern circus, thanks in part to entrepreneur Steve Wynn.
The latter has had a considerable influence on both the commercial success of Cirque du
Soleil as an organization and the artistic success of modern circus, agreeing, in 1993, to host
Cirques first permanent show Mystere in his new Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in the
emblematic city of Las Vegas (Rothman, 2002). Five years later, in 1998, Cirque set up its
second permanent show O at the Bellagio Hotel, a project for which Steve Wynn helped
finance a 100 million dollar theater. These two shows, along with the Cirques third
permanent show La Nouba at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, were all very
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popular and definitely contributed to fix a high standard of excellence for the numerous
shows to be produced in the following years.
Cirque du Soleil established its headquarters in Montreal in 1985, after having spent
one year in Quebec City. At the beginning, the firms facilities were dispersed throughout the
city. It is only in 1997 that Cirque du Soleil officially grouped its activities in the Saint-Michel
neighborhood, thus transforming one of the poorest areas in Montreal into a highly creative
district, similarly to what has been observed in other cities (Ley, 2003; Lloyd, 2005). In the
case of Cirque du Soleil, the decision to move to Saint-Michel came with the implementation
of an urban development program, destined to rehabilitate the entire neighborhood, and
based on the creation of an innovative environmental complex, in which the circus arts
represent the main cultural attraction.
Cirque du Soleil has done more than just establish its headquarters in Montreal. It has
provided the city with a distinctive competence in the field of modern circus, attracting a
growing population of artistic communities of the middleground in the Saint-Michel
neighborhood, which now groups together the Tohu (a wide complex devoted to the circus
arts), several associations (grouping professionals, firms and institutions working to promote
the circus arts in Quebec), as well as the National Circus School (a school dedicated to the
training of artists located nearby). If these different entities benefit from the close presence
of the Cirque du Soleil, they also provide a pool of resources, which undeniably contributes
to enrich the creative potential embedded in the Saint-Michel area.
The Tohu, which was founded in 1999 thanks to the initiative of the En-Piste association
and the National Circus School of Montreal, plays an essential role in bridging the
underground and the upperground, and therefore ideally incarnates the middleground. This
not-for-profit organization was created in order to give an institutional recognition to the
circus arts and help Montreal become the circus capital of the world. As a performance hall,
a training infrastructure as well as a research center, the Tohu has offered an ideal
environment for new emerging circuses, as well as for young artists graduating from the
nearby school, to prepare, to develop and to present their creations. Accordingly, the Tohu
has attracted several underground artists towards the communities of the middleground,
and has extensively nourished the upperground incarnated by Cirque du Soleil. After having
hosted for the first time the Worldwide Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow in 2009 (which has
been organized in Paris for the last 30 years), the Tohu has launched a project to create an
annual International Circus Festival, which, in addition to the multiple shows and
performances, will include several conferences and workshops. This endeavor will most
106 P. Cohendet et al.
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Figure 3. Cirque du Soleil and its creative cluster

likely contribute to support the circus arts in Montreal as well as to reinforce the linkages
between the underground, the middleground and the upperground.
Throughout the years, the communities of the middleground have also given several
other modern circuses, such as the Cirque Eloize or the 7 Fingers, the possibility to come
forward and reach a worldwide market. The 7 Fingers circus, for example, which has
been created by former members of Cirque du Soleil, has gradually established itself as a
well-known troupe, with its distinctive shows based on everyday life. The troupe has
regularly performed at the Tohu, and is hosted there as a resident troupe since 2009 to
develop its new shows. As such, the upperground, represented by Cirque du Soleil, has
nourished the middleground, and given the opportunity for renewed creative ideas and
conceptions to emerge.
What is most interesting about Cirque du Soleil is how, with its unique style, it has
gradually been able to establish itself as the world leader of what is now considered to be
modern circus. Indeed, what initially was an underground project is now heavily anchored
in the upperground. This could not have been achieved without the middleground, which
has played an active part in codifying the different rules associated to modern circus. In fact,
the close presence of the Tohu has been critical, by acting as a platform of experimentation
for a new generation of circus, thus offering Cirque du Soleil a possibility to find new ideas
and discover new talents. In this sense, the formation of the Montreal cluster dedicated to
the circus arts has been decisive, by progressively bringing different creative resources
together in a common milieu, with individuals from the artistic world, but also from the world
of science. Cirque du Soleil and its creative cluster are presented in Figure 3.
The Anatomy of the Creative City 107

Summary and Discussion

In this paper, we have attempted to highlight the key role played by the middleground as
an essential element in the dynamics of a creative city. Seminal works in the literature
have emphasized that the creative potential of cities strongly depends on the attraction of
a creative class or on the presence of creative firms or institutions. Our aim was to
suggest, in complement to these approaches, that the creative dynamism of cities also
depends on the existence of a rich middleground. The communities and collectives of the
middleground appear as critical intermediate structures linking the underground on one
side to the upperground on the other, therefore constantly navigating between the informal
and the formal world, as well as between the talented individuals and the creative firms
and institutions.
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Both cases we have studied show the co-evolutive relationships between the
upperground and the underground: how the underground, situated in the city, materializes
through the promotion of creative opportunities, and how the upperground fertilizes and
feeds the underground through the reinforcement of communities. More importantly, these
cases reveal the fundamental activity undertaken by the middleground in the subtle creative
ecosystem of the city. Kokoromi, for example, sets up actions aiming at developing new
codebooks for video game creation. In doing so, it connects the underground to the
upperground by allowing signaling activities and reputation building. Similarly, the Tohu
allows for the expression of new forms associated to the circus arts, literally acting as a
source of inspiration and renewal for more institutionalized approaches. Mixing the activities
of epistemic communities and communities of practice, the middleground therefore is
essential in balancing and intermediating situated exploration with potentially global
exploitation. There still is, however, a great need for empirical work in this area in order to
appreciate the real power of these creative communities.
This anatomy of the creative city may in particular lead to a better appreciation of the
relevant policies to stimulate and favor the quality of the creative forces in this specific milieu.
Of course, classical policy measures, such as attracting leading companies to play the role
of anchor firms (reinforcing the upperground) or attracting talent of the creative class
(reinforcing the underground), are positive ways to increase the creative potential of the city.
For instance, in our two selected cases, the role of public support has played a fundamental
role in anchoring these two flagship creative companies in Montreal. The direct public
financing of the Cirque du Soleil from its foundation to 1992, as well as the allocation of fiscal
credits to Ubisoft to convince this French company to settle in Montreal in 1997, have
generated considerable impacts to boost the creativity of the city.
However, the analysis of the anatomy of the creative city has also revealed the key
importance of nurturing, reinforcing and facilitating the development of the intermediate
level, the middleground, which articulates the individuals of the underground to the creative
firms or institutions of the upperground. The main difficulty with this approach is that the
development of a rich middleground is not reducible to some significant investments in local
amenities such as schools, operas, theaters, etc. In fact, if such investments are necessary,
they are not always sufficient. As a critical layer of the creative city where codebooks,
standards, norms, new rules of the games, potential for creating unexpected connections
and other quasi-public platforms of knowledge indispensable for the dynamics of creativity
are elaborated, the middleground calls for a specific attention from policymakers.
108 P. Cohendet et al.

Drawing on our observations, what the middleground seems to require are places
(Amin, 2002) where people can meet, wander, confront ideas, build daring assumptions
and validate new creative forms (as underlined by Grabher, 2001; or Bathelt, 2005,
among others). These places (which could be cafes, restaurants, squares, public areas,
old warehouses, etc.) are recipients, combiners and transmitters of traveling or circulating
knowledge (Zukin, 1995; Mommas, 2004). Accordingly, these playgrounds for creativity
(Cohendet and Simon, 2007) give an opportunity for individuals to meet and gather
around a common creative platform from which unexpected projects can arise. They
activate the existence of relationships where people are able to internalize shared
understanding or are able to translate particular performances on the basis of their own
tacit and codified knowledge. In addition, they favor not only the diversity of creative
communities, but also provide continuous and ever-renewed opportunities to intertwine
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communities, transfer knowledge across and within communities, and accelerate the
translation of ideas and practices.
In spite of this, the middleground cannot only be viewed as a platform activating
local and parochial forms of knowledge. An active middleground translates, transforms
and confronts local ideas with knowledge and practices issued from different parts of
the world. It is a node of multiple connections of varying intensity and spatial distance.
This is the reason why events (such as festivals, conferences, business fairs, Olympic
games, etc.) are also necessary to nurture the middleground, to activate the cognitive role
of local places (Rychen and Zimmermann, 2008), to widen the local buzz to other
communities, to strengthen the global pipelines (Maskell et al., 2006) and to help bring the
local underground to the surface.
In this perspective, which opens large avenues of new research, the creative city can
be seen as a delicate, subtle and fragile local ecology of knowledge, where creative
processes nourish themselves from the repeated exchanges among a variety of
heterogeneous entities that all contribute, in their own way, to foster the development of
new ideas that continuously emerge, circulate, expand and try to find their routes to the
market, through the constant interactions between the underground, the upperground and
the middleground.

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