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  • 10.20.05

Creative-Class Struggle

A Web-exclusive Q & A with Richard Florida, author of The Flight of the Creative Class

Intuitive ideas need to be quantified before they can be transmuted into policy and action. And Richard Florida, who’s turned his theory of the Creative Class into a mini-industry, gets it. His foundation thesis — that the Creative Class is a distinct segment that drives innovation, creates urban success, and is critical to American competitiveness — isn’t just nifty rhetoric. He’s documented it with extensive demographic and economic research around the world, detailed in his book, The Flight of the Creative Class (HarperBusiness, 2005). Cities desperate to attract the Creative Class come knocking on his door, hoping for the magic magnet. In this WEB-EXCLUSIVE exchange, marketing guru Adam Hanft, founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, asks Florida to elaborate on some of his ideas, and challenges him on some others. Currently, Florida is a nervous guy, worried about American competitiveness as we’re losing perhaps the most important global struggle of all: the one for the Creative Class.

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Hanft: Does the importance of the Creative Class in driving innovation fly in face of the notion that technology makes geography insignificant? Are we becoming a world where free-agents work entrepreneurially, as “nowhereians” with a global soul, in Pico Iyer’s term — or a world where geography becomes even more important than it has been?

Florida: Both phenomena are at work, but in the end geography will remain as important as it’s ever been. I wrote an article on this very subject in the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly, taking on Tom Friedman’s assertions that “The World is Flat” and “you don’t have to emigrate to innovate.” In fact, the world is “spikier” than it’s ever been, with economic growth and especially cutting-edge science and innovation concentrating in its major urbanized regions. Between these regions are the valleys of this Spiky World, struggling to keep pace in the global economy.

Now, obviously free-agents are free to hop from peak to peak in this world, but it’s a dangerous misconception that just because the world is “flat” for the privileged few (admittedly, an increasing number), it’s flat for everyone.

Hanft: Is what you’re talking about really new? Wasn’t Florence during the renaissance a Creative Class city? Vienna at the turn-of-the-century? Paris between the wars?

Florida: Of course it’s not new. It’s been happening since the dawn of human civilization, people realizing amazing productivity and creativity gains when they agglomerate. What my work tries to do is link this phenomenon to specific demographic indicators and economic trends.

Hanft: Any kind of two-tier sociological stratification makes us a bit nervous. For everyone in the Creative Class there must be someone in, well, the Creative Underclass. Isn’t that a recipe for a dysfunctional society?

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Florida: Absolutely. It’s something I talk about often, from my book, The Flight of the Creative Class, to the Atlantic Monthly article I referred to before. It’s a deeply, deeply disturbing phenomenon, this socioeconomic division our world — and especially frighteningly, our country — faces in the 21st century global creative economy.

Hanft: Can a city or region really impose a top-down solution to attracting the Creative Class? It feels like a 21st century version of the urban planning and urban renewal disasters of the sixties and seventies. Doesn’t an environment that attracts and nurtures the Creative Class have to come from the bottom up? Isn’t there a risk of Disney-fying the Creative Class?

Florida: Yes. Creativity is organic. You can’t plan for it. You can only allow it room and freedom to grow — something that many leaders fail to do in their pursuit of maintaining the status quo. I’m not asking people to force creativity on their companies, cities, and communities; I’m just asking them to allow it to flourish. There’s a big difference.

Hanft: Your new book warns America about the flight of the Creative Class, and you support the ominous picture by quoting statistics that show the Creative Class represents a larger percentage of the workforce in Ireland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. But isn’t that misleading, given that those are tiny countries that have always had a significant percentage of people who work with concepts and ideas? Isn’t the real question how America is doing against populous nations like China, India, Japan?

Florida: The point is that the U.S. doesn’t have just one competitor — either the Netherlands or China. Faced with only one of these, the U.S. would win hands-down, whether against Ireland or Japan. But that’s not how the global economy works. We are competing against all of these countries simultaneously, and the cumulative effect of an Ireland plus a Sweden plus an Australia plus an India is something very real to worry about.

Hanft: Do you believe that there is any likelihood of building a Creative Class in heavily Muslim cities or regions? One would like to hope that this is a way to modernize their society, but isn’t the Creative Class generally — and we know this is a stereotype — far less religious, and certainly less fundamentalist, than other demographic groups?

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Florida: I don’t feel particularly qualified to talk about this, other than to say that creativity exists everywhere, and in all different kinds of human beings. That area has certainly seen many of the most creative movements and cities in world history, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it does again someday. Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Hanft: Do you think today’s Creative Class is flourishing because of the educational system here in America, or in spite of it?

Florida: It cuts both ways. I think our education system brings people together who might not otherwise interact, and in that more social sense it can be an extremely useful incubator. But our K-12 system, and even our universities now to some extent, are still stuck in an industrial-age mindset. Churning out factory workers for assembly lines served us very well 50 years ago; in the creative economy, it’s a recipe for stagnation, not success.

Hanft: How important are major universities in creating Creative Class ecosystems? Isn’t there an entire Creative Class subculture that has grown up in Palo Alto because of Stanford? Which other universities are doing a good job? Which are failing?

Florida: Absolutely. The university is perhaps the single most important institution of the creative age. It’s certainly what gave the U.S. its huge edge in the 20th century, by virtue of attracting the best and the brightest from all around the world. Unfortunately, it’s also the most mismanaged institution in many cases. Without naming names, let’s just say that the single biggest problem with all universities these days is their apparent inability — and in some cases blatant disinterest — in educating our population broadly across all social, economic, and ethnic demographics.

Hanft: If David Ricardo was writing his Law of Comparative Advantage today, would he include a large Creative Class as a geographic advantage, equal to or more important than labor costs, weather, a great harbor?

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Florida: Yes, the huge difference being that talent is a FLOW, not a stock. The places that win this global competition of talent will be the ones that realize that talent moves. Like any instability, that presents people with both a huge advantage and a huge disadvantage.

Hanft: Name a Creative Class TV show, book (other than yours), car, vacation and dessert.

Florida: Let’s leave this on a creatively cryptic note: check out KaosPilots in Denmark, which I read about in Ode magazine. Now there’s a creativity incubator…

About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies.

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