Missing in action: the Creative Economy in Thailand and its progression from ideas to action

Dr Grisana Punpeng


It goes without saying that the Creative Economy is much needed in Thailand. This term has been floating around for over a decade amidst periodic political instability, and there have been many attempts to boost the economy through activities based on creativity and innovation. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) (2010), which has been instrumental in promoting and analysing the Creative Economy all over the world since 2004 through its Creative Economy Programme, described it as ‘an evolving concept based on creative assets potentially generating economic growth and development’ (p. 8). This term or settakij-sangsan (เศรษฐกิจสร้างสรรค์) in Thai has become a catch phrase in recent years, similar to ‘Sufficiency Economy’, or settakij-porpieng (เศรษฐกิจพอเพียง), a philosophy conceived and developed by His Majesty King Bhumibol the Great that gained popularity during the years that followed the 1997 Asian economic crisis, and was employed in the 8th and10th National Economic and Social Development Plans (1997-2001 and 2007-2011).

Since 2009, this concept has been proposed in Thailand as a solution to escape the middle-income trap and strengthen international competitiveness. The implementation, however, has not been effective nor productive (Sermcheep, Srisangnam & Anantasirikiat, 2015, p. 45-46). This paper, which employs a documentary research method, aims to explore the factors contributing to the hindered growth of the Creative Economy in Thailand. The data analysed was collected from reports, policy documents and academic works.


Creative Economy in the world

John Howkins, British author and strategist on the Creative Economy, developed the concept in 2001 and discussed the relationship between creativity and economics in his seminal book The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas. Other scholars have expanded upon this and outlined specific practical paths to implementing the concepts and achieving the associated benefits. Howkins’ contemporaries and their related concepts includes Richard Florida’s notion of the ‘Creative Class’ (Florida, 2002), Charles Landry’s ‘Creative City’ (Landry, 2000) and Allen J. Scott’s ‘Cultural Economy’ (Scott, 1999).

In the past two decades the concept of Creative Economy has had a remarkable impact on social development all over the world. Innovative projects and initiatives have sprung up around the world, particularly in major cities in the US and Europe.

12 super sectors that make up the Creative Economy form OTIS REPORT ON THE CREATIVE ECONOMY (Photo Credit : https://www.artsed411.org/blog/2018/06/otis_report_creative_economy )

In terms of its development, UNCTAD asserts that ‘the Creative Economy is the sum of all the parts of the creative industries’ (2010), which are knowledge-based economic activities comprising four large groups: heritage, arts, media and functional creations. The creative industries encompass both tangible products and intangible intellectual or artistic services, from the creation to the production and distribution (UNCTAD, 2010). According to the UNCTAD Creative Economy Outlook and Country Profiles Report released in 2018, many countries, including developing countries such as Thailand, have seen an increase in creative industries exports throughout the last decade.

The sectors that have been expanding more rapidly than others globally are fashion, film, design and arts & crafts. Over the period 2002 to 2005, the value of the global market for creative goods doubled from US$208 billion to US$509 billion, with China as the biggest force behind the rise, having grown 14% annually during this period. The report shows that the Creative Economy is thriving despite global political and economic challenges. Even during the 2008 financial crisis, the Creative Economy showed more resilience than the other industries.

While this growth seems encouraging, UNCTAD notes that the policies and regulations are still struggling to keep up. Communication technologies, education and vocational training need to be strengthened and adapted to the creative industry trends, so that the industries continue to expand and create more inclusive and collaborative societies (UNCTAD, 2018).


Creative Economy in Thailand

As Thailand’s national planning agency, the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC)[1] has been formulating development policies and strategies in the form of National Economic and Social Development Plan since 1961. Each plan has a 5-year duration, and the government is currently implementing its 12th plan (2017-2021), in which creative and cultural Economy is reinforced along with digital economy and bio-based economy, while also adhering to the Sufficiency Economy philosophy (NESDC, 2016).            

Although the creative industries and innovation have been mentioned since the 9th and 10th National Economic and Social Development Plans (2002-2006 and 2007-2011), it was not until in the 11th Plan (2012-2016), developed when former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was in office, that ‘the Creative Economy’ took centre stage. In 2009, the Thai government initiated the ‘Creative Thailand Policy’, as a new engine of growth that could lead to a sustainable economy. The policy had two aims, to make Thailand the creative industrial hub of ASEAN and to increase the share of creative industries from 12% of gross domestic product (GDP) to 20% by 2012 (Sermcheep, Srisangnam, & Anantasirikiat, 2015; Parivudhiphongs, 2018).

Many campaigns and projects aimed at promoting Creative Economy and creative industries were launched during the years 2008-2012, particularly through government agencies such as the Software Industry Promotion Agency (SIPA)[2], the Office of Knowledge Management and Development (OKMD), and Thailand Creative and Design Center (TCDC). Moreover, the Thailand International Creative Economy Forum (TICEF) was co-organised by Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNCTAD in 2010 and 2012. World-renowned subject experts John Howkins and John Hartley were invited to give advice and raise awareness of the importance of Creative Economy in the events (Parivudhiphongs, 2018).

(Photo Credit : policy making of creative industries in thailand by Alongkorn (AL) Parivudhiphongs)

In the 10th National Economic and Social Development Plan (2007-2011), which was heavily focused on the Sufficiency Economy philosophy, the word ‘creative’ was mentioned ten times, usually followed by the word ‘thinking’. However, in the 11th National Economic and Social Development Plan (2012-2016), the word ‘creative’ appeared 46 times, and ‘Creative Economy’ was highlighted as one of the key elements in the social and economic development (Parivudhiphongs, 2008). In the 11th Plan, NESDC, following UNCTAD’s classification, identified 4 major groups and 15 subgroups within the economy as follows:

  1. Cultural heritage: Thai crafts, Thai food, traditional medicine and cultural tourism
  2. Arts: visual and performing arts
  3. Media: films and video, publishing, broadcasting and music
  4. Functional creation: design, fashion, architecture (general architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, interior design and fine art), advertising and software

(Howkins, 2010; Sermcheep, Srisangnam, & Anantasirikiat, 2015; Parivudhiphongs, 2018)

Based on the data from 2008, the three creative industries in Thailand with the highest contribution to GDP were crafts (3.5%), design (3.4%), and fashion (2.3%). The growth rates of these three sectors at the time, however, were considered low.

In order to boost the growth of the creative industries, the Thai government made 12 commitments that are grouped into four areas: 1) creative infrastructure, 2) creative education and human resources, 3) creative society and inspiration, and 4) creative business development and investment. The commitments are laid out in great detail in the Strong Thailand Stimulus Plan (Howkins, 2010). For example, one of the commitments was to ‘establish a Creative Economy Fund and support other funding societies to enable new entry and value creation by business operators’ (Sermcheep, Srisangnam & Anantasirikiat, 2015, p. 53).  

The Creative Economy policy was implemented when the Thailand Creative Economy Agency (TCEA) was established in 2011. It was estimated that one billion Thai baht was allocated to projects related to Creative Economy between 2010 and 2011 through the newly created Creative Economy Fund. However, the government efforts resulted in the Creative Economy contributing only 8.55% of GDP in 2012, which was much lower than projected (Sermcheep, Srisangnam & Anantasirikiat, 2015, p. 55).

The International Institute for Trade and Development (ITD) evaluated Thailand’s Creative Economy and found that while the creative industries grew at the same rate as the overall Thai economy, investments in the creative industries were still low compared to other countries, due to lack of financial support and skilled labour, as well as lobbyism in the political arena (Sermcheep, Srisangnam & Anantasirikiat, 2015, p. 56).

ITD also pointed out the lack of communication and direction towards a Creative Economy. They commented that the labour force in the creative industries needed better a education system that could encourage workers to take initiative and exercise more creativity in their work. The Thai public should also be more informed about the connections between individuals and communities and the nation’s Creative Economy objectives (Sermcheep, Srisangnam & Anantasirikiat, 2015, p. 57).

The Creative Economy continued to take shape even when Yingluck Shinawatra took over the government from Abhisit Vejjajiva in July 2011. Nonetheless, her government still failed to turn the policy into action during the two and a half years in office. This is mainly because the policy regarding Creative Economy and creative industries was used merely as an addition to other policies and to justify the needs for various government projects.

The link between the creative industries policy and the overall government’s agenda, therefore, seemed weak. For example, an effort to connect the creative industries policy to projects such as the high-speed train system and SME development, while rejecting development of creativity in education and training clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Creative Economy concept (Parivudhiphongs, 2018).

(Photo Credit : cadsondemak.com)

When the military coup led by General Prayuth Chan-O-Cha took place in May 2014, all projects related to the Creative Economy were subsequently suspended. The focus of the military government since then has been on the promotion of a digital economy, which could be seen as a way for the new government to distinguish itself from the policies created by previous governments. TCEA, along with funding related to the Creative Economy policy, was terminated in 2016, while the Office of SME Promotion took over all of the surviving projects (Parivudhiphongs, 2018).

After being cast aside for a few years, the Creative Economy Agency (Public Organisation) was reestablished by the Office of the Prime Minister in August 2018 to drive the Creative Economy policy forward through collaborations with public and private sectors. The first CEA Forum was held one year later to serve as a platform for ‘knowledge and experience exchange to advocate the growth of the Creative Economy’ (Creative Economy Agency, n.d.).


Travelling discourse lost in translation

In the UK, ‘creative industries’ are ‘those industries, which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property’ (Department of Culture, Media and Sport, 2001, p. 4 in Kong, 2014, p. 275). Simple as it may seem, the concepts of Creative Economy and creative industries cannot be instantly applied anywhere in the world. Referred to as a ‘traveling discourse’ by cultural critic Jing Wang, these concepts became popular around the world in the early 21st century that several countries have appropriated them in a ‘cookie cutter’ approach (Wang, 2004). Wang asserts that the success of creative industries in developed countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia is not a guarantee. The same model and philosophy cannot be directly applied to other countries, especially those who are still slowly in transition to capitalism (Wang, 2004).

(Photo Credit : thecreativeindustries.co.uk)

More developed Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore have seen success in integrating creative industry policies in their economic development strategies by reinterpreting and applying the concept with regards to each country’s visions and limitations (Parivudhiphongs, 2018).

In the case of Thailand however, there seems to be much confusion around the terms ‘cultural’ and ‘creative’, so much so that both terms have often been used casually and sometimes interchangeably in national strategies, and an effort to localise the concepts of Creative Economy and creative industries appears weak.

For example, it is unclear why Thai food and traditional medicine are considered creative industries, and the connection between the two differing economic practices, Sufficiency Economy and Creative Economy seems forced and impractical.

Going back to the start of the movement in Europe, the concept of creative industries has evolved from the convergence of ‘the creative arts (individual talent) with cultural industries (mass scale)’ (Hartley, 2005, p. 5). Essentially, this movement ‘brings the arts…into direct contact with large-scale industries such as media entertainment’ (Hartley, 2005, p. 6). However, if we look at the subgroups of Thailand’s creative industries borrowed from UNCTAD mentioned above, those products of cultural heritage and traditional arts, compared to other groups without the word ‘cultural’ attached, are much less likely to see innovation and come into ‘direct contact’ with any large-scale enterprise anytime soon. This is in part due to the Thais’ strong belief in preserving (and freezing) the cultural heritage.

When John Howkins was hired to analyse Thailand’s potential for developing a Creative Economy, he pointed out this confusion. Some of his comments were:

(Photo Credit : fanheblog.wordpress)

Cultural tourism: It is difficult to be precise about the difference between cultural tourism and other forms of tourism. It is also problematic to extrapolate the creative element from the package of climate, landscape, heritage, design, food, spas, low costs and Thai tolerance that attracts tourists.

Traditional medicine: It is not clear why traditional medicine is more creative than modern all opathic medicine.

Food: The production, processing and consumption of food is not primarily a creative activity. Most Thai food is produced and sold as a staple. Creativity and innovation are found in only a few small sectors

• The subsuming of fine art under architecture conflates two sectors that are distinct in their aesthetics, practitioners, markets, business models and value added.

• There are likely to be overlaps between tourism, food and craft markets and there may be a danger of double-counting.

• Some Thai institutions include biodiversity as a creative industry, but it is better treated as a systemic variable than as an economic sector (Howkins, 2010, p. 21)

Howkins’s feedback has not resulted in any change to the classification, as it is still in used today.

Moreover, Parivudhiphongs (2018) also argues that the creative industries policy was developed as an economy policy ‘add-on’, not as a new policy domain. It appears that the government has been merely looking for ways to make the economy policy more ‘creative’, rather than seeking to commercialise cultural products through innovation.


Moving beyond dictation

The concepts of Creative Economy and creative industries have been examined repeatedly by opposing governments in the past ten years, but associated policies have not yet translated from policy documents to concrete actions. Parivudhiphongs (2018) believes this is due to 1) discontinuity of the implementation by key political actors 2) the deeply rooted bureaucracy that is resistant to innovation, and 3) the top-down approach initiated by a small group of senior politicians and bureaucrats with a lack of knowledge and engagement with other actors.

In order to bring the Creative Economy and creative industries beyond dictation and see real development, substantial change is necessary; beginning with the team of policy makers, who need to understand the concepts of creativity, creative industry and Creative Economy within the Thai context. Interactions between political actors and private actors (corporate and individual) must be encouraged. The creative industries have to be reconfigured realistically, while the distinction between ‘cultural’, ‘traditional’ and ‘creative’ within the subgroups has to be made clear.

CEA FORUM 2019 ( Photo Credit : https://www.cea.or.th/news/news-cea-forum-2019 )

In addition, methods of monitoring and evaluation must be developed to support the development. An example where this is lacking is in craft production, which is the driving force of Creative Economy in Thailand. In a paper presented at the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, Simon Ellis (2014) asserts that significant improvement in the measurement and monitoring systems of craft production in Thailand is much needed. This is because the creativity of local artisans is often overlooked in models derived from Europe and other fully-developed economies. Moreover, due to the nature of craft production, national statistics offices have been struggling to capture data that fully reflects the reality of the craft sector. This has huge potential to significantly impact Thailand’s Creative Economy, though it may not correlate with the modern, technology-driven image of the creative industries that the government is striving for.

This year at the Creative Economy Agency Forum that took place on the 15th-20th August 2019, various public and private stakeholders were invited to exchange knowledge in policy formulation, creative district development for business and community, as well as initiate collaboration in order to drive forward the Creative Economy policy and bring Thai products and services to the international market. While it may feel like déjà vu because of its resemblance to the 1st and 2nd Thailand International Creative Economy Forum (TICEF) in 2010 and 2012, it is better to be hopeful that in the near future, Thailand will finally see a Creative Economy in action.

[1] Previously the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB)

[2] Changed to Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA) in 2017


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