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From East London to the East End of Glasgow: We Should Look to Lagos

20/08/2015 15:33 BST | Updated 20/08/2016 10:59 BST

Last month an article in the Economist contended that, despite being "crowded, noisy and violent", Lagos is a positive model for the rest of Nigeria - maybe for the whole of Africa and that's the reason why the British Council has a long-standing relationship with this nation. Recent reform and upgrades to the city's infrastructure can "kick start" bigger, country-wide development. At the centre of this change are the young entrepreneurs of Lagos and the creative industries which last year substantially added to Nigeria's GDP. They play a major contributory factor to it now being the largest economy in the region and they have a vital part to play if Nigeria is to live up to the "Africa Rising" tag. The potential for growth in areas such as music, the visual arts, digital technology, fashion and film is huge.

To capitalise on our work in Nigeria across education, the arts and society - from work around stability and reconciliation in the North to exams in Abuja, Kano, Lagos and Port Harcourt - the British Council is launching UK/Nigeria 2015-16, our biggest ever programme of work in the country. It is a concerted effort to build new audiences for the arts, to create new collaborations and to strengthen relationships. We will provide opportunities for British artists and institutions to engage with the burgeoning Nigerian creative scene and for new Nigerian work in the UK. The first two months alone will see the award winning Candoco Dance Company perform in Lagos with a cast of disabled and non-disabled dancers; a new project linking the Roundhouse in London with the Musical Society of Nigeria and a collaborative residency by British Artist Laura Aldridge in Abuja and Lagos. It is not just Lagos that has a desire to grow its creative economy. Calabar to the South has an ambition to become a centre for tourism and conferences. The Abuja Literary Society sees crowds of up to 300 people attend its 'Night of the Spoken Word' events; publishing press Cassava Republic, based in the same city, is launching in the UK early next year.

Leading the way for Nigeria is Lagos, a city of opposites - a place where the Soviet-grotesque National Theatre - designed in the 1970s by Bulgarian architects to resemble a General's cap for the disputed FESTAC celebrations - can sit little more than a block away from CCA, an exemplary contemporary art gallery. At the nearby Cc Hub, a social innovation centre, app producers, public agencies, and other entrepreneurs test the usability of their new products in a room full of the latest mobile phone models. It encourages start-up industries to work together in shared space on everything from new products to refuse collection and digital publishing.

On Lagos Island, the area around Broad Street also plays out these contrasts: the imposing early-twentieth-century Roman Catholic Cathedral, Lagos Hospital (including the maternity services) and the public mortuary are within 30 seconds of each other. Enterprising coffin makers have set up shop on one corner, banging nails into caskets and hawking their wares; it feels like the whole cycle of life, brutish and short, is playing out before your eyes. But through a pair of unobtrusive iron gates, opposite the cathedral, stands Freedom Park an oasis of green and creativity. Originally a colonial prison, the park has been re-landscaped; a stage sits where the gallows once stood, boxed sculptures remind visitors of the dimensions of the cells. It is here that young and upwardly mobile Lagosians and increasing numbers of expatriates come to enjoy live music, theatre festivals and outdoor art exhibitions. Wole Soyinka, that sage of African letters, is the grand patron. Very near Broad Street, amidst a host of empty buildings, stands another building from a similar era, the Federal Printing Press. The Goethe Institut has an ambition to turn this into a modern cultural centre where young creatives can meet and work on their ideas together.

At the heart of UK/Nigeria 2015-16 and the work of Cc Hub is a desire to make the dream of a truly global African creative economy a reality. Because as much as you can wax lyrical about Nigerian creativity, there are still major obstacles. The ambition is there, but often young creative businesses are working in silos, eager to be the first but not willing to participate in the kind of collaborative working that would really change things. The theatre producers need to talk to the graphic designers; the app makers to the city planners; the fashion designers to the visual artists.

In June I wrote about the establishment by Britain of a new cultural heritage fund and how culture is a key driver of sustainable development. The UK must play a global role in ensuring that cultural treasures and ancient buildings are not lost for ever but also in making sure that Britain and Africa are working together to harness this new creativity, a different kind of cultural protection if you like. The appetite is there on both sides and if we are serious about the creative industries driving prosperity both home and abroad we must collaborate. The UK - from East London to the East End of Glasgow - has something to learn from the creativity, entrepreneurship and vitality of Nigeria.

For more information about UK/Nigeria 2015-16 visit: www.britishcouncil.org.ng/uk-nigeria-2015-16

For a guide to culture in Lagos visit: http://www.britishcouncil.org/blog/best-cultural-things-do-lagos