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Rise of the Creative Class


The Rise of the Creative Class
By Richard Florida
Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

When Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, was published in 2002, it touched a receptive nerve, and became an instant bestseller. Now, two years later, we can sit back and reassess it more critically.

Florida’s chain of argument goes as follows: "The truly big changes of our time are social, not technological." The social changes revolve around an increasingly important group of people, called "the creative class." This includes occupations that encompass science and engineering, computers and their programs, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment. In short, it embraces anyone who works creatively, and is paid to create, rather than to perform a task. It is this category of people who are driving our current economic growth. Within this group is a "super-creative" core of people who are the inventors, the thinkers, the scientists, the entrepreneurs, who create exciting new ideas, new products, and new industries. The creative class as a whole earns more than the other classes, and they tend to be more heteroclitic in dress, behavior and lifestyle.

Furthermore, creative people are often quite fastidious. They prefer to live in places that tolerate diversity in lifestyles, where troublemakers, weirdos, eccentrics, and deviants feel perfectly at home. Florida has evidence to show that cities preferred by the creative class, are coincidentally the same cities that harbor a higher proportion of Bohemians, and have a higher rate of gay marriages.

Whereas in the past, workers move to places where jobs are located, in the age of information technology, jobs move to places where requisite employees can be found. Florida cites Lycos, an internet company, that started in Pittsburgh, but moved to Boston when it discovered that they could more readily recruit programmers and other creative people there. In other words, the job mountain moves to Mohammed.

Based on these observations, Florida posits that in order to attract the creative industries, cities have to try to attract creative people. What the latter want is a more tolerant society, low entry barriers, with friendly, easily accessible outdoor activities such as cycling, jogging, and night cafes and eateries.

Florida’s asserts that cities which are more liberal tend to have more creative industries and people. This has led him to postulate a causal relationship between the two. Cool, trendy places attract creative types. Therefore, he recommends that governments or local authorities should not "waste" money on expensive prestige projects like sports stadiums or huge concert halls, because they do not attract young creative people. Instead, authorities may find it more beneficial to "throw" money at projects that will attract the creative class. This includes supporting community arts, building jogging and cycling tracks, creating places like cafes, where casual nightlife can occur.

Florida’s thesis is very bold and seductive. It challenges our current orthodoxy. In classical thinking, all things being equal, people migrate primarily to places where they can find jobs, rather than to a liberal city with only a blind faith that they will find employment. Jobs exist because highly creative people built them. It is this elite group that are the strongest magnets pulling other creative people to them, rather than to the city per se. Workers are drawn to companies started by creative giants, like Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and so on. If the companies they started were situated in an inhospitable place, people would nonetheless still throng to them, probably.

However, Florida challenges all this. Wouldn’t it be nice that if you can transform a hitherto stuffy conservative place into a kinky liberal enclave, attract a whole bunch of creative people who will create new products, new industries, and voila you have a thriving city.

Is it really so simple? Doesn’t it sound too good to be true? Does it work for all cities in the world?

Before I express my qualms about Florida's theories, let me disclose that fundamentally I’m sold by his thesis. I consider myself part of the creative class, and his prescriptions are tantalizingly alluring. I accept at face value his idea of a creative class, which he claims amounts to 30% of our population. The numbers are staggering. Nevertheless, this is quite an innovative way of classifying people involved in the creative and thinking industries. I see no point quibbling about whether or not it is a legitimate class, who belongs to it, and how many people there are. Florida is an academic, and he has a solid body of evidence to back up his claims.

His second assertion is that creative industries are driving our modern economy. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that innovation is a major driving force in our new economy. We watch new shows, we wear new fashions, we upgrade our computers or handphones, we buy new gadgets, we benefit from advances in medical and other technologies. The list of new ideas and products is almost infinite. You may even have noted that innovators tend to cluster in certain cities or centers. University towns like Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, and geographic locations like Silicon Valley and Hollywood, or large companies like Apple, Sony, or Ikea are places that regularly produce exciting new ideas and products. It has almost become a truism that the more innovative a company, institution or country, the greater its competitive advantage.

My reservations in accepting his theory wholesale arise from a few personal observations. Unfortunately I do not have the research data to back up my rather anecdotal evidence. Still, I have this gut feeling that Florida’s thesis may need further refinement.

The first observation concerns two thriving creative industries, sited in two cities that are quite different from San Francisco or Austin, Texas, examples used by Florida as liberal cities that attract gays and Bohemians. The two cities are Helsinki and Seoul. Nokia is one of the largest and profitable companies in Finland, churning out a stream of innovative cellular phones. I am told that some foreign workers who have transferred to the Nokia headquarters, complain that Helsinki is an inhospitable city with relatively little arts and culture, and the favorite night life seems to be drinking in the pubs. The same applies to Seoul, which is perhaps only marginally more diverse than Helsinki. Seoul is certainly not known for its gay, Bohemian, or liberal lifestyle. Once again, foreigners living there find it a difficult city to like. Yet companies like Samsung manage to attract a very creative workforce. Its electronics products are challenging well-established firms like Sony.

It did occur to me whether there was a subculture within Nokia or Samsung that provided an enclave for socializing and letting one’s hair down. But I am informed that the answer is "no." Therefore these remarks made me wonder if Florida’s hypotheses were applicable globally. I’m the first to admit that the evidence I provide is both anecdotal and totally subjective. But on the other hand, it does not necessarily invalidate it. [Helsinki is ranked 16, and Seoul ranked 61, as best cities in the world for expatriates to live in for 2002.]

The next observation comes from Singapore. The government is aggressively trying to convert this country into a powerhouse in biotechnology, information and communications. It is spending billions of dollars building a new center which will be a city within a city, with up-to-the-minute technologically advanced laboratories, transportation, shops, theaters, and housing. It is headhunting the world’s top researchers in these areas, luring them to Singapore. Despite the fact that Singapore is an illiberal conservative city, largely intolerant of deviant behavior, with an extremely small Bohemian population, it seems to be succeeding in creating active research centers. Does Singapore defy Florida’s postulates? The answer may be the same as that for the next city.

Las Vegas, a city known for its casinos and service industry, is rapidly growing both its economy and population. It has been cited as an exception to Florida’s rule. However, I think that gambling puts a whole new spin into the equation. As shown in Singapore, one can spend one’s way into generating economic growth. Las Vegas is transforming into a family holiday resort and entertainment center, largely because of the revenues generated by the casinos.

This leads me to the final and perhaps most fundamental question. Which came first? The liberal cities tolerating a diverse lifestyle, or the creative persons, who then catalyze the city into a more liberal and diverse environment? Is the thriving city a chicken giving birth to the creative class, or is it the egg born out of the creative class? This question cannot be dismissed out of hand, because there is an unspoken assumption in Florida’s recommendations that the cause and effect is unidirectional, namely liberal cities have a gravitational pull for creative types.

Judging by my observations of Helsinki and Seoul, it appears that the city may not be that important in a creative worker's choice, although this can be debated. Creative people will go wherever the jobs are. From the experience of Las Vegas and Singapore, it seems that creative people will go to where the money is.

In the final analysis, while I think Florida may still basically correct when applied to places like Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Austin, Texas. However, I think his theories, as they now stand, are not universal, and do not apply across the board or across international borders. There are exceptions to his thesis, and more research needs to be undertaken to determine what additional factors repel or attract the creative class.

Florida's book is extremely well written, his theories are tightly argued, and backed up with a wealth of research data. It is mandatory reading for those interested in creativity, and in city development.

9 December 2004