NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Stoner has discovered the economic value of the creative industries. He’s convened a creative industries taskforce to “develop comprehensive strategies to drive growth, innovation and productivity in the NSW creative industries sector”.

“NSW is Australia’s creative industries capital, with around 170,000 people in the state directly employed in the sector,” Stoner announced. “Whilst the cultural and social contribution of the creative industries has long been recognised, the NSW government understands the sector also makes an important contribution to our economy. In fact, the creative industries will be a key driver of growth, exports, productivity, innovation, and competitiveness for the NSW economy over the next decade.”

There is no doubt the creative industries are an important aspect of  the economy. Stoner reckons the 170,000 people directly employed in the sector accounts for roughly 5% of the state’s workforce and $1.5 billion in annual exports. The sector has also been growing strongly in recent years — Stoner says in the 10 years to 2009 the sector grew by a healthy 28%, compared to an anaemic 13.5% for NSW industry as a whole.

So what are the creative industries, and can they be a key driver of growth, exports, productivity, innovation and competitiveness for the NSW economy over the next decade? Crikey asked several the members of the taskforce. What emerges is a shared belief in the value of these industries, but little in the way of concrete policy agendas — yet.

ARIA’s Dan Rosen chairs the taskforce. “The mandate we’ve been given is to come up with some recommendations for some short-term wins, some medium-term and some long-term wins,” he told Crikey. “For us the key is to have a process in place to have the government deliver on those recommendations and for them to report back to us on their progress.

“We had the think tank at Vivid on Wednesday, there were over 80 people there from across the industry to generates as many thoughts as we can, so we can come up with the industry action plan. There are some issues that the NSW government can impact directly, and there are others where they can provide influence and pressure on the national stage.

“Other things might be about what can we do as industry collectively, just as an industry that we can do through better co-ordination. Sometimes we’re looking at export opportunities, and also a creative industries brand that we can look to leverage across all the industries.”

Rosen nominates “the digital space” as a key trend affecting all the creative industries, and an opportunity for industries to learn from each other. “The music industry was the first content industry to be challenged by the new digital paradigm,” he points out, “so I think that the music industry is well placed to gauge where other industries are headed coming out the other side.”

Suzanne Boccalatte is a Surry Hills graphic designer who works regularly to provide the visual identity for organisations in Sydney’s cultural sector like Sydney Design and the Sydney Film Festival. She told Crikey she’s “optimistic” and “excited” about the policy potential for the taskforce.

“It’s difficult to be creative in Sydney, so it would be good to start partnering with corporates and businesses so if there are vacant levels in the MLC Centre, to open up those spaces, to encourage art and creativity in the city,” she said.

Rejecting the notion that the taskforce will just be a talking shop, Boccalatte argues that “you have to be talking about these things first for it to have meaning”. Echoing some of the thoughts of Andrew Ashton when Crikey spoke to him in April, Boccalatte says that there is still a perception gap in the community when it comes to explaining creative careers. “I still have to explain to my mother what I do,” she quipped.

“The general public gets Vivid, you get your crowds of people coming into the city, and that’s part of creativity and people think of creativity like that — but there’s more to it, and if we develop a creative state we can develop as humans, really. I’m a huge advocate for creativity and I think everyone is capable of creativity.”

Another member of the taskforce is Sydney Theatre Company general manager Patrick McIntyre. “As a theatre company we are really invested in the idea of a visible creative profile for Sydney and NSW, as part of building awareness of creativity and therefore more pathways towards participation in the arts,” he told us.

“Sydney has long relied on being the biggest, and other centres are getting more competitive. Sydney has always had the largest concentration of creative industry  in Australia, but it’s never been talked up, it’s never been used as a tool to enhance the brand or to talk about the value that visible creative outcomes can make to tourism.”

McIntyre argues the successful efforts by the NSW contemporary music sector to deregulate liquor licensing laws for small bars and music venues shows that there is plenty of “low-hanging fruit” that can be plucked at the level of micro-economic reform.

“The brainstorm at Vivid was interesting, because I think a lot of the people there were surprised to be in the same room with each other,” McIntyre said. “There were a lot of rapid fire ideas coming out of that.”

Stuart Cunningham, a professor of creative industries at the Queensland University of Technology and Australia’s most influential cultural policy academic, is also on the taskforce. He points out that creative industries policies are traditionally embraced at a state level, rather than federally, and that this initiative reflects that.

“There’s no question that there’ll be policy-relevant recommendations, thats what an industry action plan is meant to do, it’s meant to be industry-led and government-supported,” Cunningham said. “No one on the taskforce can guarantee that government will support everything, but the government has initiated it, they’ve called the meetings, they’ve framed the membership.”

Cunningham said one of the things the taskforce should examine is the relationship between cultural tourism and the creative industries: “There are strong plans to double visitor numbers into the state, and an interesting focus on live events as a driver of cultural tourism. People want to be more participatory when they travel; that’s where NSW could play to its strengths.

“Obviously NSW has to think of itself in relation to the two-speed economy. It’s not a big mining state, it’s got to look at what else is creating value and these industry areas are areas that need focus.”

Cunningham pointed to the growth in mobile phone content as a potential driver of growth: “Sydney has a concentration of apps developers, and just to take the example of games, the games industry has changed very markedly in Australia from being a work-for-hire set of companies working for large publishers. Most of the ones that have survived the big shake-up have moved into mobile and games apps, and these are very different business modes.

“The apps development sector is not even called a sector at the moment, but it’s growing very rapidly, and it illustrates that feature that I want to emphasise, which is the contributions that creative people make to the wider economy. It’s not just the creative sector, because apps development is for everything, apps are being used across the economy.”

A spokeswoman from Stoner’s office told Crikey that “we have been overwhelmed by the interest from the industry in the think tank” held at Vivid on Wednesday.

But will that enthusiasm translate to concrete policy reform? For many in the sector, any form of interest from the government is a win it itself. As STC’s McIntyre points out, the O’Farrell government is going to be in power for some time.

“Given the government is still relatively new, it’s actually really encouraging that creative industries are being recognised by this government as a major contributor to the economy,” he said.