Heritage Spaces as Opportunities for Creative Collaboration: A Conversation with the CEO of Scottish Canals

By Simon Boiteau, Partnering and Communications - Parks Canada

Interview with Steve Dunlop, CEO of Scottish Canals, by Simon Boiteau, Partnering and Communications ­- Parks Canada, partner of C2 Montréal.

Regeneration specialist Steve Dunlop is the CEO of the Scottish Canals Corporation. He was central to a number of projects transforming disused components of the industrial landscape, particularly to produce innovation hubs, helping make Glasgow Britain’s capital of creativity and culture.

At the head of several joint venture property companies, Steve has been a unifying creative force catalyzing collaboration between visionaries from all backgrounds.

Steve will be at C2 Montréal to attend the Connecting heritage, commerce and creativity workshop where we will explore the future of Lachine Canal, an iconic Montreal heritage site. In an interview (that went by too quickly!), Steve shared his passion for challenging the status quo and offered some tips for promoting the right conditions for creative collaboration.

How can we combine “heritage” with “commerce” and “creativity” while preserving the essence of these special places?

I think it is very easy to do this and we have been doing it at scale and pace in a city called Glasgow, which I think is a testament to how easy this is. It is something that public bodies and the private sector and sub-sector can only do together – if they trust each other. If they believe in each other, then this is actually very easy to do.

How can we rethink the way we view and manage our heritage spaces in order to create this climate for business opportunities, particularly in urban areas? Can you provide us with an example from Scottish Canals?

I firmly believe that for these heritage buildings to be productive and to be seen as valuable, we need to be as concerned about their productivity as about their heritage. Too often, we are too protective of our heritage and as a result, we sanitize it. Our heritage, old heritage along with new heritage, should be funky, exciting, sexy places where people choose to go, above and beyond their normal corporate activity. If managed well, heritage buildings are a natural destination for business, particularly creative businesses.

The Whiskey Bond_Glasgow_©Whiskey Bond

The Whiskey Bond, Glasgow ©Whiskey Bond – Kimberley Grant

Do you have any examples from your experiences in Scotland of things that you have done?

“Small things are growing into big things, and fast!”

We have converted a former whiskey bond, a dilapidated building which was 110,000 square feet and effectively a sign of degeneration, and for 4,000,000 pounds, we have made it a symbol of regeneration. It is fully occupied, without spending one penny on marketing, by a creative community that spans from artists through to innovators who are supplying the space program. These people choose to occupy that space because they share it with creative, like-minded people. They are not interested in the rent or the technology, they are interested in being in a shared space with people who think like them, and it is fantastic! That in itself is a stimulus to create a creative community in a whole district of a major city. It is animating Glasgow as the capital of culture and creativity in the UK. Small things are growing into big things, and fast!

What did you do to get the community and the various stakeholders and entrepreneurs interested in that project?

“We took a very creative, consumer-focused approach to place making.”

We did crazy things. We converted “no-go” areas in the public space into “go” areas and beautiful spaces. We created and transformed underpasses, public spaces, into remarkable beautiful outstanding things that really shocked people and got their attention. And then we protected heritage and we repurposed low value buildings so that we can make them accessible, affordable, and what customers wanted. We took a very creative, consumer-focused approach to place making.

Phoenix Flowers_Glasgow©Scottish Canals

Phoenix Flowers, Glasgow ©Scottish Canals

If I were to ask what is your vision for urban heritage sites in 2035, what would you say?

“You cannot contain it, you cannot manage it [creativity], you cannot control it. What you have to do is feed it and allow it to flourish.”

I am less interested in what they look like as opposed to what they feel like. I am interested in how our urban spaces are bustling, thriving, energetic places where creativity is just busting out. You cannot contain it, you cannot manage it, you cannot control it. What you have to do is feed it and allow it to flourish. I am interesting in creating the conditions where creativity can prosper and I am less interested in managing it. We ought not to manage it. The public bodies and the people who own these buildings need to create the enabling conditions where creativity can thrive. That means, in many ways, getting out of the way.


Cover photo : Steve Dunlop – CEO of Scottish Canals ©Scottish Canals