What is a creative economy and what role does it play in a nation’s economic success? Our philanthropic advisory company, elpis, (“hope” in Greek) recently organized a conference in Athens to answer this timely question as it related to Greece. The conference, “The Creative Economy: An Infinite Opportunity,” featured internationally acclaimed professionals in the field who discussed the evolution and significance of creative sector, and how it creates opportunity for new policies and initiatives. But more importantly, it demonstrated that the 21st century will depend more on the generation of knowledge through innovation—the creative industries have become particularly important to the well-being of countries such as Greece that are still recovering from devastating recessions and in need of an economic jump start.

John Howkins first published his ideas on creativity and innovation in 2001 in his book The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas. According to Howkins, the term “creative economy” refers to the socio-economic potential of activities that trade with creativity, knowledge, and information. At the heart of the creative economy are the industries that lie at the crossroads of arts, culture, business, and technology—including advertising, architecture, arts and crafts, design, fashion, film, video, photography, music, performing arts, publishing, research & development, software, computer games, electronic publishing, and TV/radio.

The cultural industries meanwhile focus on cultural tourism and heritage, museums and libraries, hobbies, sports, and outdoor activities. Together, they comprise an adjunct division of the creative industries. Whereas the creative industries provide financial value, cultural industries afford social and emotional value. And while individual industries such as manufacturing and finance might see fluctuation during lean times, as a whole the two sectors are largely immune to the precariousness of the business cycle.

Economists like Felipe Buitrago Restrepo believe that governments, private companies, and nonprofits across the world are increasingly recognizing the importance of the creative industries as a generator of jobs, wealth, and cultural engagement. Restrepo notes that the United States and the United Kingdom are global leaders in the arts, heritage, and media: For example, the Los Angeles-based entertainment business leads the creative industries at $504 billion, and more than 40 million people work in the US creative sector, which has added approximately 400,000 new jobs over the past decade.

With an innovation-driven economy, the United Kingdom supports the European Union’s largest creative sector, primarily in the fields of design, publishing, and broadcasting. Between 2000 and 2009, more than 60 percent of productivity growth came from innovations, accounting for more than 15.5 billion pounds sterling in exports in 2011. In terms of GDP, the British ideas economy is the largest in the world, and the British Council’s Creative Cities report suggests that the United Kingdom is, in absolute terms, the world’s most successful exporter of cultural goods and services.

Creative industries are also important to the economic success of other nations. Restrepo notes, for instance, that creative industries employ approximately 10 million people in Latin American and Caribbean countries, generating approximately $175 billion a year. And the “Creative Economy Report 2010” mentions that regional governments are now actively promoting policies for this sector, including incentivizing tourism, creating new cultural infrastructure, and increasing intellectual property protection. Latin America’s film industry is resurgent, with a dramatic increase in ticket sales last year, and in 2011 Mexico’s television content distribution business topped an estimated $251 billion. As a burgeoning tech start-up hotspot, Chile has also become an important video game incubator. Buenos Aires’s design industry is a global player with double-digit growth that accounts for three percent of Argentina’s total economy. Designated a UNESCO “creative city” in 2012, Columbia’s capital, Bogotá, is now the focus of major government investment in music innovation. Meanwhile, Brazil launched the Rio Criativo program to enhance Rio’s creative economy.

Acclaimed urban studies expert and author Richard Florida says that major cities in the Far East have also recognized the importance of the creative economy—most significantly Bangalore, New Delhi, Shanghai, and Beijing. Korea has gone so far as to establish a Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, and is trying to encourage “the nation to overflow with creative ideas and talents.”

My own country is a textbook example of how the creative and cultural sectors have shown remarkable resilience despite the current debt crisis and recession. Greece may not have a strong manufacturing industry, but it does possess a rich history and culture. The Greek National Opera, for example, has adopted a more accessible profile through street performances and secured alternative financing to state subsidies; and Greek cinema has become a global brand due to an increased presence at international festivals. These successes serve as proof that we must continue to cultivate the industries in which we excel; Greece enjoys a vibrant and growing presence in advertising, architecture, arts, design, publishing, and entertainment.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), revenue from all cultural and creative sectors in Greece totaled nearly 7 million euro in 2003—a number that can help lay the foundation for our nation’s economy. To support continued growth, the European Commission launched the Creative Europe 2014-2020 framework program to contribute to the financing of activities and professionals in the creative and cultural sectors.

What all the creative economy conference participants agreed on was this: It is imperative that all countries take advantage of their creative industries and do their part to strengthen the industries’ greatest assets—people—through offering policy guidance, entrepreneurial training, and marketing programs; sharing best practices of other countries; and financing creative industry start-up companies. This support will help foster an environment that recognizes the economic and social value of the creative and cultural industries to secure a sustainable growth paradigm.