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What I learned about creativity from two weeks in Thailand (amid the chaos)


It’s been 10 days since I returned from two weeks in Thailand, just in time, it seems, to avoid the most recent round of violent clashes between the ‘Red Shirts’ (formally called the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship) and the Thai military.

Like many Australians, I travel to Thailand frequently. As a passionate advocate for commercial innovation, I never cease to be impressed by Thai fashion, design, architecture and the strong sense of self awareness (and sometimes self parody) that seems to surround all of Thailand’s creative industries.

In my not-so-humble opinion, there is no place in South Asia quite like it. It is a country already taking advantage of its own ‘creative economy’ and playing to its strengths in the global economy.

Of course, all this makes the latest round of Thai political unrest particularly sad.

As a ‘business’ commentator, I won’t pretend to know the ins-and-outs of the ‘political’ history or reasons for the conflict (that’s background you can find elsewhere). But I would like to make some observations about business in Thailand and what we, as Australians, can learn from our neighbours to the not-so-distant North.

Thai creativity is about more than risqué t-shirts

Firstly, let me say that if you harbour any feelings of Australian commercial ‘superiority’ over the Kingdom of Thailand, drop those prejudices now.

There is far more to Thai fashion than the t-shirts you might see on Khao San Road. There is greater sophistication to Thai architecture than you may have observed bracketing Bangkok (even if this type of ad hoc construction is often inspiring and excitingly creative). Respect toward foreign owned intellectual property in Thailand might leave much to be desired (and is still an inhibitor of innovation) but it is not the be all and end all of Thai commercial creativity.

Most Australian views about business in Thailand are limited to those shared by holiday makers, which are understandably narrow.

What is rarely observed or commented on is the rise of Thailand’s ‘creative class’.

According to the UNCTAD Creative Economy Report 2008, the value of world exports of creative goods and services reached US$ 400 billion in 2005, representing nearly 4 per cent of total world trade. And Thailand is among the top 20 exporters of creative goods.

Top 20 exporters of creative goods worldwide, 1996 - 2005

After having a quick glance at this list, you might already have asked yourself, “Where’s Australia?” Yes, where is Australia?

Who has more ‘creative economy’ cred?

If you are a frequent reader of Anthill, you will already have heard me voice my concern about Australia’s over-reliance on primary industries, namely our dependence on minerals.

It’s not a new concern. Smarter and more influential people than me have been bemoaning our role as Asia’s ‘farm’ and ‘mine’ for decades. We are indeed a ‘lucky country’ (and I say this steeped in the irony that the author of this phrase originally intended).

Compare Australia’s circumstances to those of Thailand.

It is a country not endowed with many natural resources. Yet, it has the world’s 21st largest population (wedged between France and the United Kingdom). On the other hand, we are mineral rich and population poor.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. We often apply the phrase to our own circumstances, as a ‘remote’ nation. And the expression is largely true. However, it’s also well known that invention without a culture or environment that supports invention is likely to fail.

In the not to distant future, I plan to write a separate post, largely inspired by Jarod Diamond‘s short history of humankind, Guns, Germs and Steel,  on why some innovations die on the vine or disappear for decades (or, indeed, thousands of years) before achieving mainstream adoption.

But, in short, innovation is not driven by a small few Einsteins, Edisons or Da Vincis.

It requires a culture that is accepting of innovation and environmental support (often in the form of government policy).

The current Thai Government (despite its perhaps precarious position) has a stated goal of making the Thai creative economy account for 20 percent of GDP by 2012. If you can read Thai, you’ll definitely enjoy this clip. If you don’t, you’ll get the picture.

While researching this post, I have, so far, been unable to find an Australian goal of any equivalence. (Or even an Australian video promoting the values outlined above.)

What about intellectual property protection?

In almost every analysis of Australia’s innovation capacity, we rank well.

This is largely because ‘Innovation Indexes’ place a high value on innovation ‘inputs’.

Inputs are factors that are influenced by the political environment, access to technology, education and government policy. Our strength in this area is not a particularly impressive claim, as most advanced, stable, western democracies perform strongly according to this metric.

But, how do you imagine that Australia might perform against our counterparts, if we were simply measured by the ‘outputs’ of our creative industries?

That’s an unknown that I might endeavour to answer another day.

However, what is known is that the Thai Department of Intellectual Property (DIP) has in recent years sponsored well-publicised public education initiatives designed to educate its population that trade in pirate and counterfeit goods damages Thailand’s ability to compete in an international marketplace.

The good news is that infringing activity is, increasingly, no longer seen by growing numbers of Thai industry as an ‘innocent’ vice conducted by small-time traders. There is a building recognition that mass production of goods in violation of others’ IP sponsors trade in drugs, weapons, and human smuggling.

But of greater influence are the number of Thai designers and professionals who have based their livelihood on commercial creativity and have come to rely on intellectual property laws for their own protection.

Commerce will find a way

While I was in Thailand, I was fortunate enough to visit the headquarters of a boutique fashion and accessory company created by three Thai sisters and recognised worldwide, from Paris to New York to Japan (passing Australia on the way), for its ingenuity and ‘frontier fashion’.

Sretsis, which means sisters spelt backwards, was founded in 2002 by Pim Sukhahuta and her two siblings Kly and Matina. Pim is head designer (recognised for her girlish yet quirky designs), Kly worked in magazines, before turning to fashion marketing, and Matina has her own independent jewellery line (Matina Amanita) that complements the Sretsis brand.

To following clip was filmed for the Rosemount Australian Fashion Week in 2008.

I spoke to Kly at the Sretsis head office in Nonthaburi about 40 minutes taxi-ride from Bangkok’s centre.

It had already been several weeks since the Red Shirt occupation of Ratchaprasong had disrupted much of Bangkok’s premiere shopping districts and this had prevented Sretsis from launching its new collection to Thai customers. The Stretsis shop staff had largely been co-opted to perform various duties at the head office.

Like many Thai businesses with outlets in the Ratchaprasong area, Sretsis had on the weekend before my arrival exercised typical Thai creativity and organised an ‘open-office’ day to welcome in the fashion collection.

The predominant sentiment of people I met during my travels can be summed up by a cover-line of Bangkok’s most popular English street-press magazine, BK Magazine: “Can we now get back to work?”

A goal to be creative is better than no goal at all

While travelling as far South West at Hua Hin and as far East as Trat, my travels were constantly and pleasantly interrupted by examples of Thai ingenuity.

The following is an image of a networking wall at the entrance to the Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC), positioned on the top floor of Emporium, a popular shopping complex in the centre of Bangkok.

One end of this wall is dedicated to helping creative professionals promote the services. The other end was developed as a place for investors, commercial advisers and consultants to offer their capital and wisdom. Behind this wall is an exhibition area and library, also designed to foster a culture of commercial creativity.

This one installation embodies the three-part community that makes commercial creativity possible (Indeed, it’s the community that Anthill has aspired to create since its inauspicious launch in September 2003). Of course, I’m talking about the assembly of ‘ideas’, ‘money’ and ‘skills’ – the three ingredients essential to innovation.

There is no easy way to end a post on this topic, except perhaps to wish the people of Thailand good luck, a speedy resolution and a deservingly prosperous future.

Image by Binder.donedat.

The value of world exports of creative goods and services reached US$ 400 billion in 2005, representing nearly 4 per cent of total world trade. Thailand is among the top 20 exporters of creative goods worldwide*.