NICE – The History


In 2012 – barely a year after its foundation – ecce was preoccupied with the setup of sustainable structures to promote change through culture in the Ruhr region. From the very beginning, this included the continuation of the European networks that had been established during the European Capital of Culture RUHR.2010, and the future use of European potentials and forces in order to support structural change in the Ruhr region. These goals adopted by the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Regionalverband Ruhr (Ruhr Regional Association) – and laid down in the RUHR.2010 sustainability agreement – had to be made fit for the future and put into practise. Many questions had to be answered: Which networks are suitable to this end? Which structure does a network require? And which sectors, trends or topics in the Ruhr region are suitable or ready to be supported through European potentials?

During this stage of finding a sustainable European dimension of the Ruhr region, the European Union presented its new perennial programme for the years 2014–2020: the Europe 2020 strategy and the Innovation Union. This was one cornerstone in view of European potentials: if the Ruhr region intended to tap the potentials offered by the European Commission, this had to take place within the scope of the Europe 2020 strategy, at least for the years 2014 to 2020. In retrospect, the simple question "What is innovation?" asked in September 2012 can be seen as a strategic marker. The European Directorate-General answered as follows:

"Pursuing a broad concept of innovation, both research-driven innovation and innovation in business models, design, branding and services that add value for users and where Europe has unique talents. The creativity and diversity of our people and the strength of European creative industries offer huge potential for new growth and jobs through innovation, especially for SMEs."

The Definition - A Challenge

This definition of innovation was surprising since it seemed inherently inconsistent: on the one hand, it drafted a comprehensive concept of innovation but gave a list of examples, which seemed restrictive on the other. The creativity of citizens and the potentials of the creative industries were mentioned in the same breath – did that mean that different worlds were thrown together without any visible underlying concept? Not least since the potential of innovation seemed to be focused on – not to say limited to – growth and employment: Would that mean that innovation potentials in education, social development, urban development and integration are not subject to the Europe 2020 strategy? Should they not be promoted? And what about cultural innovations? How does the European Union intend to promote these as of 2014?

What are cultural innovations?

This question directly related to the European potentials for RUHR.2010. Depending on the European Union’s understanding and definition, this might open – or close – a window of European opportunity for the Ruhr region. The crucial question was whether the top-down definition of the European Union would include the regional and urban institutions, the makers and activists to be producers of innovative culture – projects such as "2-3 streets" by Jochen Gerz, the Games Factory in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Urbanatix in Bochum, or many other examples of innovative impetus given by RUHR.2010 during the year of European Capital of Culture and retained afterwards. The clarification of this question did not become any easier since the European definition of creative industries differed from the German usage: on the one hand, it included public institutions such as museums, theatres and libraries but seemed to be much more geared at the industry on the other. Would this mean that sole proprietors and self-employed artists – who did have commercial intentions yet often only managed to make ends meet – are not considered within the scope of the Europe 2020 strategy? Would this exclude the diversity of small culture and the creative economy, the trademark of the Ruhr region? The Ruhr region, however, was not alone to ask these questions – many former industrial cities and regions that were in transition at the time and still are today were facing the same task as ecce as an institution – to showcase their cultural identity and history as part of the European potentials in the new policies for the years 2014 to 2020: Bilbao, Birmingham, Rotterdam, Graz, Košice, Krakow, Bristol. All these cities are bound by their industrial past and their social and urban transitions – supported through investments into culture and the creative economy.

Sparking the network  

Within the framework of the international cultural conference Forum d’Avignon Ruhr 2012, informal talks among representatives of the aforementioned cities led to the idea of creating an alliance, committed to a truly open notion of innovation in Europe and making a stand against an exclusively commercial concept – where culture, be it privately or publicly initiated, and the creative industry become recognised driving forces. At the time, the renowned urban researcher Charles Landry had published a study on “Culture at the heart of transformation” dealing with innovations in cities that were triggered by culture and creativity – including even the so-called "creative administrations".

During the winter and spring of 2012/2013, ecce drafted a letter of intent relating to the establishment of an alliance for innovation from culture and the creative economy and presented it in Vienna, Bilbao, Rotterdam and Birmingham during a representing tour. The first informal idea was to be given a reliable structure so that it could be heard in Europe as well. The common concern was to be turned into a joint strategy based at first on the following credo: all partners within the network take part out of a genuine, own and local interest – and not because this was a network resulting from a project that was funded by the European Union. This brought about the first innovation for the network itself: a bottom-up network to exist without funding by the European Union. In retrospect, this was and still is a rarity in Europe.

 In March 2013, the alliance of partners was founded. The next step was to develop measures for the network. According to the network’s bottom-up philosophy, all partners wanted to meet to work on an intrinsically innovative measure of promoting cultural and creative innovations. The Forum d’Avignon Ruhr 2013 offered the perfect occasion. The coincidence of dates, however, led to a far-reaching synergy: on the one hand, ecce planned design-thinking workshops during the Forum aimed at developing so-called spillover projects: cultural professionals from the Ruhr region and from Europe came together in a one-day workshop to use a hackathon-like approach to find and produce innovative projects as quickly as possible. On the other hand, the network, which was in its start-up phase, was looking for an unusual method of promoting innovations. At the Forum d’Avignon Ruhr 2013, both approaches were combined in the piloting of the NICE Award – which led to a surprisingly high speed. The network was formally founded in June 2013, and at the same time the first measure, namely the NICE Award, was already piloted. The award ceremony of the NICE Award 2013 was fully in line with the crowdsourcing approach developed during the design-thinking workshop: no jury, but instead a voting of the participants of the Forum d’Avignon Ruhr determined the most innovative cultural project, directly after the workshop groups had presented each project to all conference participants on the Forum’s stage.

"Not just another conference"

Indeed, this slogan was immediately implemented for the Forum, to the surprise of many participants. This interactive and highly experimental format of the Forum d’Avignon Ruhr was followed by a rather classical, yet similarly inspiring award ceremony hosted by Garrelt Duin, Minister of Economic Affairs, Energy and Industry of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Shaking Hans

The project "Shaking Hans" presented by the project group on urban development, which had been coached by the internationally acclaimed urban researcher Charles Landry, won the NICE Award 2013.

The team focussed on the following question: "How can we ensure that creative projects and processes are better perceived and recognised by the general public and by decision-makers?" The group’s challenge was to create an idea, which would be interesting enough to appeal to people so that they would learn to better appreciate the positive impact of innovative projects in urban development and community building. To picture the process and to imagine somebody in a public place, a stereotype was developed. This person was called Hans (though it could have been a woman, too). Hans was rather introverted and prejudiced. He was a bit self-righteous and self-complacent. He was very consumption-oriented and had the feeling – like many others – that he was entitled to expect and demand something from society. He expected, for instance, that others take care of him.

He was not a maker, opinion leader or co-creator of his developing city. Basically, there is a Hans in all of us. The challenge that the group faced was to convince Hans to take a less sceptical stance on participation in urban life, to get more involved in his social surroundings so as to strengthen his confidence in other people for the benefit of all. In addition, the idea was meant to be catalytic, repeatable, quantifiable, flexible and relatively easy to implement.

The First Member Meeting in Dortmund

In autumn 2013, the twelve founding members of NICE met at the Dortmunder U – to evaluate the NICE Award piloting in June 2013 and to take a decision on the final format of the NICE Award in the upcoming years. The key question was still on the table: is an award the right approach anyway? After all, an award ceremony cannot be considered an innovative method to promote innovations; yet can it boost cultural innovation and make it visible?

The leading NICE founding partners had gathered in Dortmund for a one-day workshop – including creative wirtschaft austria, Birmingham City University, Dutch Design Desk Europe from Maastricht and the cities of Essen, Gelsenkirchen and Dortmund. The workshop was hosted by one of the leading experts in innovation in Europe – Dr Gertraud Leimüller (Founder and Chief Executive of Winnovation Consulting GmbH/Chairwoman of ARGE creativ wirtschaft austria) – after Pia Areblad of TILLT had opened the workshop with an introductory statement on artistic innovations. TILLT has so far connected 1,000 artistic projects with businesses – the NICE founders wanted to learn from this pool of innovations. From this day at the media centre of the Dortmunder U emerged the concept of the NICE Award as it has been pursued and further developed until the present day – with the following components:

A topic-related call

  1. Three target groups: Stakeholders from: Culture and the creative economy, Politics and administration, Research and universities
  2. Two-stage jury procedure with a shortlist
  3. Selection of winner through personal interviews with the nominees
  4. Award ceremony
  5. Exhibition that tours Europe, if possible
  6. Mobile exhibition design

The NICE founders agreed right from the start that the award should not just be another award, but an occasion and purpose to convince cultural and economic politics of the significance of cultural innovations and thus their eligibility for funding. As a consequence of this social dimension, the NICE initiators agreed on calls related to topics of social relevance for the years 2014 and 2015.

In 2014, the European Union’s new funding policy for spillover effects of culture and the creative economy gave the impetus for the NICE Award.

The NICE Call in 2014 received 108 applications from 22 countries – the shortlist of ten nominees was met with such interest that the NICE Exhibition from Essen (June 2014) toured to Mannheim (December 2014) and Graz (March 2015). More than 1,500 visitors saw the ten most innovative projects from culture and the creative industries in Europe.

First NICE Exhibition in Graz 

When the NICE initiators met in Graz in spring 2015 for the opening of the NICE Exhibition, which took place within the scope of Designmonat Graz, they agreed on further establishing the social relevance of the NICE Award. A working group composed of Charles Landry, Arantxa Mendiharat and Bernd Fesel worked on the call for 2015 for weeks. Based on their international experience, this call finally emerged: "Solving the World’s Major Challenges".

The involved topic alone, namely that arts and culture can help address and solve the key problems of our time, attracted attention – at a time when due to tight public budgets, the spending on culture was about to be significantly cut in the Netherlands, UK, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France. The response to the NICE Call 2015 was overwhelming with 213 submissions from 29 countries: this was the breakthrough in international awareness but also proof of recognition given the high quality of submissions.

The shortlist was extended to 15 nominees, which also enlarged the exhibition, for which several cooperation requests were submitted during the Forum d’Avignon Ruhr already: Donostia/San Sebastián, North East England, Krakow and Mannheim expressed an interest in presenting the exhibition.

The next years will pose new challenges to NICE and thus the NICE Award as well. Has the NICE Award already reached the limits of its model? How can it grow even further? How can it become more influential? Once again, NICE is called upon: it has to find and invent innovative structures once again and carry its measures forward.

NICE @ European Culture Forum 

NICE was invited to the European Culture Forum of the European Commission in 2016. It thus entered Brussels’ key platform for cultural politics only three years after its foundation. This is where NICE presented its definition of innovation – not only theoretically but by presenting two dozens of successful projects from the NICE Exhibitions of 2014 und 2015. What would the European Commission possibly say today if it was asked "What is innovation?" At least today, leading cities, researchers and stakeholders of culture and the creative industries in Europe who are organised in NICE can give a joint answer: "Innovation is about creating new or better value for society, companies or individuals. Innovations are new solutions that resolve from needs or demands in everyday life or the surrounding society.

The value arises from making use of or adapt an idea. Value can be created in many forms: economic, social or environmental values. Innovation can happen in small steps (incremental innovation) or in big leaps (radical innovation). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) divides innovation in levels of newness: it can be new for the organisation, new for the market (or used in another area) or new for the entire world. Values for society are created when new ideas are adopted and spread. The word innovation covers both the process to develop new solutions as well as the results of the process; the solutions itself."

To include this open notion of cultural and creative innovation in daily debates in art and culture, in politics and administration as well as in teaching and research, NICE established a Twitter channel reporting on cultural innovation on a daily basis: @nice_network.


News and information about current activities of the NICE Network is available here