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February 2010

"A Whole New Mind"

Some books are ground-breaking. Others read like inflated magazine articles from authors who fill pages with trite observations for the pleasure of charging $15 for the paperback of their musings. "A Whole New Mind" belongs to the second category. (I shudder to think it was once offered in hardcover, for which the publisher charged $25 or more.)

The author's thesis is that the era of left-brain dominance is gone and people now need to develop the right side of their brain. Goodbye lawyers, accountants, software engineers; hello designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers. The author lists the following three factors as having contributed to this situation:

  • Abundance: "The prosperity [L-directed thinking] has unleashed has placed a premium on less rational, more R-Directed sensibilities - beauty, spirituality, emotion."
  • Asia: companies have been more and more knowledge work to Asia.
  • Automation: routine tasks in many jobs are now turned over to computers.

The author, Daniel Pink, advocates the development of the following skills (introduced on p.65):

  1. Design. Today people have to "create a product, a service, an experience... that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging." (To develop this skill, Pink advises, among other things, to read design magazines. Fair enough. But then he includes as an example: "O Magazine - Oprah Winfrey's publication, which bears its creator's design sensibility, is one of my three favorite magazines of any kind. Period." (p.91) That's when the author - a former speechwriter of Al Gore's and straight married male - lost any credibility with me. Sorry, Oprah. My three favorite magazines of any kind are The Economist, Harvard Business Review and Yoga Journal. But hey, they all bear their creator's design sensibilities too.) For more on "design thinking", this article in The Economist is a must-read.
  2. Story. "The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative." (Pink advises to sit in a crowded place such as an airport and make up stories about strangers.)
  3. Symphony, or "seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole." (Learn to draw.)
  4. Empathy. "What will distinguish those who thrive [from those who don't] will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others." (Volunteer. Take an acting class. Measure your empathy quotient.)
  5. Play, or: video games are good for you. The story of the video game America's Army, developed by a West Point professor, is worth reading - it starts on p.189. (Sample of Pink's advice: find a laughter club, play the cartoon captions game.)
  6. Meaning. Find meaning in your life. (Read Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.)

The book had mostly good ideas (except for the part where MFA [Master of Fine Arts] is supposed to be the new MBA and companies allegedly want to hire poets to put in business positions - thankfully, Katherine Bell in this HBR blog post offers some convincing arguments as to why the idea has merits; it would have been nice if Pink had backed up his ideas a little more himself). The arguments, though, were rather shallow and the stories were never explored in any depth. I began to suspect that the author was desperate to fill pages when, in the "Abundance, Asia and Automation" chapter, he shows a picture of a rather ordinary toilet brush he bought at Target (p.34, everyone). He says the toilet brush has been designed by a renowned architecture professor at Princeton. There is no reason whatsoever to print a picture of it, especially since it looks like any other toilet brush you have ever seen and the picture takes half a page.

In the Design chapter, we are treated to the photograph (p.73) of a former student of the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD) in Philadelphia, which takes another half-page although that student is never even mentioned in the text. And I am very happy for the student that, according to the caption, he enrolled at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and I wish him the best, but there is still no reason to print - in the middle of a chapter - the large picture of someone who is not mentioned in the text itself. I would have loved to learn more about CHAD, whose goal is to "use design to teach core academic subjects" to high-school students who, for the most part, "come from some of the roughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia." Before they enrolled in the charter school, "one-third read and did math at a third-grade level." (p.71) Unfortunately, the book does not go in any kind of details into the curriculum or the way students are taught to develop their right brain.

From the "Fast Facts" page on CHAD's website: "CHAD is the first charter high school for architecture and design in the nation. Design is central to the curriculum, and used as the instrument to help students develop: 1) creative problem-solving skills, 2) visual and spatial literacy and competencies, and 3) an appreciation for and understanding of the physical environment and its impact on our quality of life."

From the "Accomplishments" page on CHAD's website: "[Students] are serving as mentors in the Architecture in Education program. Architecture in Education brings architects, landscape architects and other design professionals into classrooms to help young people understand what it takes to make buildings and communities work for the people who live in them. Our students are partnering with graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania program of Architecture and are working with kids at Shaw Middle School and The Henry School. For more information, visit www.aiaphila.org/aie."

Also: "Several students, in all grades, are participating in the ACE Mentor Program, founded by prominent structural engineer, Dr. Charles Thornton. The ACE Mentor Program serves high school youth who are exploring careers in Architecture, Construction, or Engineering. The mentors are professionals from leading design and construction firms who volunteer their time and expertise. The program is designed to engage, inform, and challenge youth. This past year, three CHAD seniors were awarded college scholarships at the close of the program. For more information, visit www.ACEmentor.org"

There was a wonderful story waiting to be told about CHAD and it is a pity the author did not take the time to tell it.

Overall, the book would have made a superb magazine article for, say, Harvard Business Review, but there simply isn't enough substance in the author's research to turn this into a full-fledged book without a stretch. (Tom Davenport provides valuable counter-arguments to Pink in this HBR blog post. For instance: "The best statisticians and quantitative analysts are intuitive and creative. What is a hypothesis other than an intuition about what's going on in the data? And if they can't explain their results to decision-makers in metaphorical, easy-to-understand terms, they're not going to be very influential.") That did not prevent "A Whole New Mind" from becoming a New York Times and BusinessWeek best-seller. Pink's new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is out in hardcover now.


Monterey Jazz Festival

Last Saturday I attended a concert of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour at Zoellner Arts Center, with NEA Jazz master Kenny Barron at the piano (after listening to his Cafe Montmartre CD [with Stan Getz] so many times, it was nice to see him in person), violinist Regina Carter, Grammy-winner guitarist Russell Malone, Grammy-winner vocalist Kurt Elling (from the news section of his website: "ninth time is the charm"), bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake.

The Monterey Jazz Festival, held every September in Monterey, CA, is the longest-running jazz festival in the world and prides itself in its strong commitment to jazz education, through:

  • the Next Generation Festival, where top student musicians from across the country are invited to Monterey every Spring for their own festival,
  • the Digital Music Education Project, which features interviews with top jazz artists, including their personal stories and music recommendations,
  • the Traveling Clinicians Program, where "the Monterey Jazz Festival sends top professional musicians and vocalists to work with students in classrooms throughout Monterey County" for one week a month during the school year,
  • and a Latin Jazz Program, a Summer Jazz Camp, an Artist-in-Residence Program, an Instrument Bank and Sheet Music Library ("to provide top quality instruments, charts, books and learning tools, to school music programs") as well as a partnership with the Berklee College of Music regarding the presentation of the Jimmy Lyons full-tuition scholarship.

I had been reading "A Prayer for the City", about the challenges facing local government in Philadelphia in the early to mid 1990s (see previous post), and noticed on the program that both Kenny Barron and Johnathan Blake were born in Philadelphia - "North Philly", Barron announced proudly, before explaining he had moved in 1961 to Brooklyn; by then I had learned enough about Philadelphia's neighborhoods to know North Philly isn't exactly Disney Channel material, although it might not have been as bad in the early 1960s. While Barron was certainly the best known player in the band, Blake - the youngest team member (he is in his early thirties) - was playing the drums like a god and will unquestionably become one of the star drummers of his generation. His mother attended the performance; she must have been proud that his solos (and duos with Kitagawa) stole the show, although all the artists were extremely good.

The East Coast (-ish) part of the tour ends on Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama and will resume on the West Coast in mid-April.


"A Prayer for the City"

This weekend I read "A Prayer for the City" by Buzz Bissinger (who, as H.G. Bissinger, also wrote best-selling "Friday Night Lights", leading to the movie and the TV series). It is an account of Ed Rendell's first term (1992-1995) as mayor of Philadelphia. I first learned about the book when I read a profile about his former Chief of Staff David L. Cohen in Philadelphia Magazine ("David L, explained", November 2009). I am sure the book must be quite well-known around here, but since I was not even in the States - let alone in Pennsylvania - when it was first published in 1997, I managed not to be aware of it for all these years.

I love nonfiction books that make you feel you're sitting in the room with the protagonists and follow their every move second by second, especially when there is an element of public service or greater good involved: "All the president's men" by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, "All too human" by George Stephanopoulos, "Hope in the unseen" by Ron Suskind. "A Prayer for the City" is in the same vein and provides a gripping picture of not only Rendell as mayor but also of the condition of Philadelphia in the early 1990s.

I loved the book, but as someone who lives close enough from Philadelphia, I will say the book left me with a very, very bleak picture of the city. I understand the facts described took place fifteen years ago; besides, New York City used to be a very unsafe place to live in in the early 1990s and has much improved, so one can't really judge Philadelphia today by how it was during the first half of the Rendell administration. But the book is very depressing. The Amazon.com review states: "It doesn't end with the eradication of the city's many social ills, but it does end with a second term, and with hope." Sure, Bissinger tells us toward the end of the book that Rendell has improved Philadelphia, although he is short on details, but what he shows over and over again is a city faced with terrible and senseless violence.

What I will remember most from the book is the litany of tragic deaths Bissinger mentions (some having taken place before Rendell became mayor), such as the murders of Sean Daily, son of a then Philadelphia police officer, who was tortured and beaten to death at age 17 for no reason by a gang of angry teenagers in May 1989, and of Robert Janke, a pre-med student who had just arrived to the city in August 1991 and called a friend from a pay phone in the wee hours of the morning after locking himself out (he was robbed of $5 by three teenagers roaming around looking for trouble and then shot in the head, execution-style). Oh, and the city employee who wanted to live in Philadelphia so badly but is forced to move because of safety concerns and ends up in Chestnut Hill, supposedly one of the nice neighborhoods in the city, is mugged in broad daylight as she is waiting for the train on the platform one morning shortly after rush hour. (Apparently, you don't want to be waiting on the platform, even during your morning commute. You want to wait in the waiting room with all the other people.)

And the Philadelphia Housing Authority! "By 1992, the vacancy rate at the housing authority, the fourth largest in the country, had climbed to 20 percent while the waiting list had grown to at least thirteen thousand applicants." (p.188) In fact, it took about four years and a half to reoccupy a vacant unit. Besides, "in a random inspection of eighty-seven units, eighty-six had failed HUD's standards for safe and sanitary housing. Each unit inspected averaged eleven violations." The story of the one-year-old who was permanently scarred by radiators that "raged with such heat 365 days a year that [the tenant] could put a pot of water on top of them and literally boil eggs" (p.189) was heart-breaking.

And the unions! It took three people to change a lightbulb at Philadelphia International Airport: "a building mechanic to remove the cover of the light panel, an electrician to actually replace the fluorescent-light fixture, and a custodian to clean up any dust or debris that might fall to the floor during the light-changing ritual." (p.113, paperback edition) What about cleaning city walls? (p.113-4) You also want to read the story of the leaked memo and of the "programmer for the Revenue Department who was dismissed by the city after his six-month probationary period because he repeatedly left work to play pinball and video games at local arcades" whose union fought the city in court on the grounds that his "preference for arcade games was a gambling addiction and therefore should be treated as a handicap": after the city won (following about three years of hearings), "the employee went to work for the city's Board of Pensions and Retirement." (p.113) Of course.

I thought the book was very positive about Rendell up until the last quarter, when the journalist shows Rendell becoming, shall we say, quite cranky when he's got too many things scheduled. On p.295, Bissinger quotes an excerpt of a letter the Philadelphia Inquirer's city editor, David Tucker, wrote to Rendell: "Thank you for apologizing to Amy Rosenberg today for having grabbed her neck yesterday afternoon in reaction to questions she was asking you in City Hall. [...] We regard it as absolutely inappropriate to grab an individual's neck, whatever the provocation."

And the 6-year-old Michelle Cutner who was killed in the crossfire of a gun battle! And the scandal of the 911 operators who didn't dispatch a police car for 40 minutes after the first call of panicked witnesses, leaving a 16-year-old boy dead, beaten to death by an angry mob "bent on revenge for what turned out to be a bogus claim of rape" (p.323-324)! And all the dreadful statistics about the middle class leaving Philadelphia for the suburbs! And the subpar public schools! And the city wages tax!

Bissinger mentioned here and there that Rendell was sometimes viewed as "Center City's mayor", being more preoccupied in making the historic part of Philadelphia attractive for well-heeled residents and tourists alike, for instance with the Avenue of the Arts (created in 1993 to "coordinate, oversee and encourage the development of Philadelphia's rich art district", according to its website), but there is no space in the book spent describing Rendell at work on those projects. 

All in all, I didn't feel the book conveyed much hope for the city, although Rendell was portrayed in a mostly positive light and certainly did his best to resurrect Philadelphia. But "A Prayer for the City" remains an excellent book, which tells a sobering story of local politics and urban America.


Digital books in libraries

The New York Times had a very interesting article on new library practices, back in October (Libraries and Readers Wade Into Digital Lending). Some libraries now give their customers the option to download electronic books to their laptops; the New York Public Library has almost 20,000 e-book titles already, although that doesn't compare to its print collection, which is about fifty times larger. (Click here for more information on the e-books and audiobooks available.)

Interestingly, "[m]ost digital books in libraries are treated like printed ones: only one borrower can check out an e-book at a time. [...] After two to three weeks, the e-book automatically expires from a reader’s account." That would solve the problem of late fees and misplaced books in one brilliant stroke. Publishers, unsurprisingly, fret about the impact on their sales of print editions. (Did they not notice the industry is in trouble, and not because of libraries lending e-books? In January, I realized that Barnes&Noble had begun to discount paperbacks 20%. This was unprecedented. For those of you not familiar with B&N's price structure, the 20% discount has always been reserved for hardcovers, with popular paperbacks being discounted by only 10%. Putting the discount for paperbacks at 20% is a big sign books aren't selling right now.)

MacMillan, which made headlines two weeks ago because of its row with Amazon.com (see "Publisher Wins Fight With Amazon Over E-Books," New York Times, January 2010 - "After a weekend of brinksmanship, Amazon.com on Sunday surrendered to a publisher and agreed to raise prices on some electronic books"), is said in the earlier October article "[not to] allow its e-books to be offered in public libraries", and has now wrestled from Amazon a price increase of its e-books to a $13-$15 range, up from $10 - or rather, $9.99. (It is worth noting that quite a few e-books are priced higher than $9.99 on Amazon. Here's an old post of mine on Kindle customers' willingness to pay.)

I found interesting that libraries are charged $29.99 for an e-book available for purchase at $9.99 by individuals, in this case Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol", although it makes sense to charge the library more since its e-book will be read by several customers. I feel that the $30 price is a bit high given the currently low adoption rates of e-books by library customers - for instance, according to the article, "eight people were waiting for three digital copies of “The Lost Symbol,” [at the Brooklyn Public Library...] while 715 people were waiting for 526 print copies" - but it is rather low compared to the immense potential of e-books. Ideally, libraries in needs of savings should be able to return e-books they no longer want and use the money to buy more popular digital titles instead. This would require a new business model based on licensing fees rather than straight purchases, which the article briefly touches upon.

I do believe publishers should be worried, but not because of libraries' forays into technology. Although I like buying books (euphemism), I have become reluctant to purchase hardcovers, unless I am really passionate about a topic or I have doubts the book will be issued in paperback any time soon (academic books in particular tend to be published only in hardcover in the US, with outrageous prices to match). $30 plus tax for a generic nonfiction book just doesn't make sense if I have read few glowing reviews; I have so many things to do that waiting a year until the paperback comes out is not much of an impediment. I have also noticed more and more books coming out straight in paperback. But if B&N's recent discount practices is any indication, even paperbacks are falling out of fashion with readers.


On Social Media

For me, Olivier Blanchard is a MIT faculty member and the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. But there is another Olivier Blanchard, who has been writing extensively on social media at his blog The Brand Builder, and practices what he preaches at his company Brand Builder Marketing, where he helps "companies develop, build, integrate, manage and measure Social Media Programs."

I thoroughly enjoyed his latest post, "Back by Popular Demand: Is Your Social Media Director Qualified?" I can't do his excellent analysis any justice by summarizing it here, but one of his points is that using social media effectively in a business context requires qualifications that go beyond being a Facebook or Twitter personal user.

I sometimes read in the media sentences about engineering or technology that don't make sense, but at least no one denies becoming an engineer requires training. The journalist's words might show he did not understand what he wrote, but he is not going to walk around telling real engineers what to do. What is more dangerous about social media is that people without adequate training or experience can become social media directors, simply because the older generations, who tend not to use Twitter or Facebook as much (euphemism!), do not understand what requirements the position should entail.

Since younger people all know how to log into Facebook, they are expected to magically translate their knowledge of how to poke their friends and upload pictures into a workable social media strategy for a company. Good luck with that, Blanchard says. (I paraphrase.) The social media directors who are not qualified for the job also make statements they do not understand - which Blanchard enjoys debunking at his blog, especially on social media ROI - but they also try to implement their pseudo-strategy at their unsuspecting company, possibly hurting their employer's prospects.

Fortunately, there are also many qualified social media directors, and Blanchard offers valuable tips to identify them (see "Tip #4: the only social media requisition primer you'll ever need").

Other posts by Blanchard that I have enjoyed reading include:

  • "Calling foul on bogus social media experts. Again." (September 24, 2009.) I loved how Blanchard dissected the pseudo-equation of the social media expert. "As much as I would love to be an F-18 pilot, I don’t know how to fly an F-18 (or any aircraft, for that matter). As a result, you don’t see me walking around in a flight suit  pretending that I am an F-18 pilot. More to the point, you don’t see me advertising my services as an F-18 flight instructor."
  • "How to NOT calculate social media ROI" (May 29, 2009) Blanchard tears apart a ROI calculator posted on the web. "Note that this calculator was developed by two pretty smart and well respected people in the New Media world, and I am sure they meant well, but this is the kind of thing that companies really need to watch out for: Well-packaged nonsense that just doesn’t work."
  • "Embracing Obstacles: A Leadership and Project Management Manifesto" (July 24, 2009) "When I was in the French Fusiliers Marins, the unspoken motto, the underlying mission imperative was always “make it work.”"
  • "What won't you compromise (and compromise on?)" (August 12, 2009) From vision to credibility, from fresh sushi to good running shoes, "[s]ome things are too important. Some things deserve champions, not compromises. Some things deserve to be seen through all the way, no matter how hard, no matter what the obstacles."

Double Standards for Nonprofits?

Dan Pallotta has a thought-provoking post on "Executive compensation, charities and the curse of proximity" on his Harvard Business Review blog. He points out, among many other fascinating statistics, that "[t]he music director of the nonprofit New York Philharmonic had a $2.2 million compensation package for the 2006-2007 season" and "[i]n 2009, the nonprofit University of Southern California paid the head football coach $4.4 million".

He contrasts these numbers with scandals at the Charlotte, NC chapter of United Way, Food & Friends ("a Washington-based nonprofit that brings meals to people with HIV/AIDS and cancer") and the James Irvine Foundation in San Francisco (James Irvine being the agricultural pioneer who provided the initial land grant for the U.C. Irvine campus - his foundation is dedicated to "expanding opportunity for the people of California"). These scandals erupted because CEOs' compensation was deemed excessive, although it remained far below that of the music director of the NY Philharmonic or the head football coach at USC.

Pallotta writes: "What all this reveals is a curse of proximity... Indeed, there's a direct correlation between leaders' nearness to suffering and public outrage over their compensation. If you're conducting Mahler's 5th, no worries. But if you're trying to end poverty in Malawi, watch out. The situation is seen as a zero-sum game, in which any money going to the professional is money being taken away from those suffering." He adds: "In the name of charity, we place the leadership needs of the needy second to those of football teams, symphonies, and the entire world of commerce." His argument, it seems, is that high salaries will attract top executives, who will be able to raise more money for their institution.

The post generated an interesting discussion in the comments section, for instance about the fact that the NY Philharmonic and the like generating revenue through ticket sales and United Way or Food & Friends do not. A commenter writes: "I had to fight with a donor to give me $100 a month, the same donor who gave $1million to our local symphony. We provide basic health care for free, and the donor is also a board member!!!" I also found the comment by "Jared" (January 14, 2010 at 12:12pm) about the different donor populations - upper middle class for universities and symphonies, lower middle class for the United Way - very interesting.

Here are other posts by Pallotta that I have enjoyed reading:

  • Why charities should ask for intellect, not just funds: about comments the CEO of Charity Navigator made regarding what should be an appropriate compensation for the CEO of a nonprofit, and why the idea of tying compensation to a percentage of total expenses does not make sense.
  • Compensation should be aspirational: about the fact that "the test [by the IRS and the states' attorneys general] for whether an organization is paying someone too much is to look at other organizations of similar budget size and see if the compensation levels match up", which prevents nonprofits that want to grow from hiring executives positioned to help them (because those executives are likely to be already working in more successful, bigger nonprofits and thus paid a lot more than what the regulations would let them receive at the smaller organization.)
  • Letting non-profits act like businesses: one foundation's brave act of leadership: about the Boston Foundation shifting its emphasis to "unrestricted operating support", which means that the money will go toward "strengthening the capacity of good organizations" in addition to helping the people the nonprofits have set out to assist. Traditionally, foundations have wanted their money to go straight to people helped by nonprofits. Make sure you read the nonprofit analogy to the "teach a man how to fish" proverb (it is in the paragraph starting with "First, it is an important voice")
  • The "psychic benefits" of nonprofit work are overrated: when I saw the headline, I thought Pallotta's argument would be that the joy of making a difference doesn't pay the bills, but it turned out to be much better than that: (1) "Do these people really believe that no one makes a difference in the for-profit sector, and that there is no psychic benefit associated with careers there?" and (2) "Many people in the nonprofit sector never get to visit a village in Africa or treat a sick child. They work behind the scenes in cubicles, they file files, they beg donors for money, they sit in interminable departmental meetings — just like employees everywhere." The article also touches upon the issue of CEO compensation. In particular, the paragraph starting with "Instead, consider the enormous psychic benefits..." is a must-read.
  • The nonprofit sector's pilgrims - and heretics: about the president of Duke University's Center for Effective Philanthropy taking issue with the use of "tools of capitalism" advocated by Pallotta in nonprofit management, and "nonprofit" meaning "nonprogress", since "profit" apparently comes from the Latin profit: to make progress. (Wikipedia agrees, with the disclaimer "not to be confused with Prophet", which, in this age of New Age gurus building wealthy empires for themselves, I found highly amusing. But I digress.)
  • Charity Navigator fixes its compass: about the watchdog agency issuing a statement to the effect that "overhead ratios and executive salaries are useless for evaluating a nonprofit's impact." (This is a follow-up on the article I link to in the first bullet point.)
It should come as no surprise that Dan Pallotta is also the author of a book entitled Uncharitable: how restraints on nonprofits undermine their potential. I am looking forward to reading more blog posts of his.

The mirage of the creative class?

Richard Florida, who rose to super-stardom in 2002 with his book The Rise of The Creative Class (where he argues that the rise of a new social class, representing over 30 percent of the US workforce, is profoundly affecting work and lifestyle issues throughout Northern America) has a new book out in April, and the news aren't good. That is mainly because Florida did not just write a book: he also developed a very lucrative business model where he gives - or gave? - advice to struggling cities eager to reinvent themselves at a very hefty fee.

I loved The Rise of The Creative Class when I read it years ago, and I don't remember being as prescriptive as people have made it to be. In particular, I don't recall him spending much of the book explaining what cities should do to attract the creative class, except for one chapter toward the end; instead, Florida described at length the commonalities between cities that have attracted creative workers. As every statistician knows, though, correlation does not imply causation.

(Translation for non-statisticians: the fact that cities attracting creative workers exhibit attributes A, B and C doesn't mean that those attributes are the reason the cities attract creative workers. Instead, attributes A, B and C could be consequences of the cities keeping creative workers once they have attracted them. It is hard to imagine anyone moving to a city if there is no job within a reasonable driving distance, no matter what amenities that city has to offer.)

Florida himself writes, in a 2002 article in the Washington Monthly: "Creative centers also tend to be places with thick labor markets that can fulfill the employment needs of members of the creative class, who, by and large, are not looking just for "a job" but for places that offer many employment opportunities." He adds: "Cities and regions that attract lots of creative talent are also those with greater diversity and higher levels of quality of place." The fact that creative cities exhibit both "thick labor markets" and "higher levels of quality of place" does not mean that creating a higher quality of life for creative people will generate a thicker labor market. Florida simply discusses, in the article and most of the book, features that creative cities share.

At some point, however, he turned into a consultant and began to give cities advice for renewal. Now, and after racking up sizable consulting fees, he is rumored to have changed his mind on those cities' prospects. In all fairness, I have not read his latest book, which will arrive in bookstores at the end of April - I have only read articles in the media (with many thanks to the reader who sent me the links). Reactions in the blogosphere have not been kind to Florida and his new stance, which he presented at length in a March 2009 article in the Atlantic Monthly. Here is a much-quoted excerpt that has aroused the public's wrath: "We need to be clear that ultimately, we can't stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try. ... Different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody. ... We need to... begin building a new economy, based on a new geography."

A January 2010 article in The American Prospect, titled "The Ruse of the Creative Class", states in its subtitle: "Cities that shelled out big bucks to learn Richard Florida's prescription for vibrant urbanism are now learning they might be beyond help." Here are a few facts the Prospect article gives about Florida:

  • Florida's "speaking fee soared to $35,000 not long after his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class made him a star on the lecture circuit."
  • Florida apparently wrote in a blog post: "We can best help those who are hardest-hit by the crisis, by ... when necessary helping them become mobile and move to where the opportunities are."
  • "[I]n a telephone interview, [Florida] disputes that ill will could exist in cities that paid handsomely for his insights, only to find themselves declared beyond repair a few years later."
  • Florida "partner[ed] with the consulting firm Catalytix, which charges up to $250,000 for its reports, though they differ little from city to city in their "focused impact areas," "success factors," and "tactics and action plan.""
  • He was "lured [to Toronto] in 2007 from George Mason University with a $346,000 salary and his own think tank."

It is worth noting that the Atlantic Monthly article, which stretches over six pages on the magazine's website, contains many insightful but non-controversial statements, for instance on the impact of the financial crisis on New York City, the challenges facing Detroit and the role of home ownership in preventing mobility. It does also contain a few sentences - out of hundreds if not thousands - that have raised eyebrows when quoted out of context. Overall, I found the article slightly bland, somewhat boring, and not worthy of unleashing a media storm. But one does have to read the whole article to reach that conclusion, and many people seem to prefer reading short quotes selected by others to make their point. It doesn't help that Florida has opened himself to criticism by relentlessly commercializing his operations, from his consultancy firm to his other books. (Who's your city came across as a volume hastily put together with the sole purpose of milking the "creative class" cash cow. The flight of the creative class has attracted very lukewarm reviews.)

The American Prospect article goes over weaknesses in Florida's positions at length and provides an interesting counterpoint. For instance, an affiliate of the Brookings Institution comments: "Most of the places that really need economic development are cities that must grow skills and talent from within." In other words: importing creating workers isn't as important as making the current population more employable. (This point is echoed in Hollowing Out the Middle by Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas.) Also: "Florida's regional determinism overlooks the role that specific decisions and investments have played in making some places thrive. It's no accident, for one thing, that many of his most "creative" cities are home to public universities. Why assume that new investments might not prop up other places as well?" The journalist is particularly critical of Florida himself, whom he portrays as a flip-flopper (see the paragraph starting with "In our interview, Florida shies away from..." and the paragraph immediately after that).

Florida does adopt a nuanced stance in his conversation with the Prospect journalist, : "He is an advocate of building high-speed rail to link cities like Detroit, Buffalo, and Milwaukee to Chicago and Toronto. What he really opposes, he says, is propping up industries like auto manufacturing." This echoes what he told a journalist of the Atlantic Monthly in an interview that accompanied the publication of his article in the magazine:

  • "I am worried, and I think many people are worried, that we would waste public investment on bailing out the industries of the past—on things like automotive bailouts, which promise to simply prop up and breathe life back into industries that certainly show their share of problems in international competition."
  • "It’s important to spend money on the right kinds of projects and the right kinds of infrastructure."
  • "I also think this emphasis on home ownership that we have in the United States today is counterproductive. One of the drivers of our growth has been our cities, but so has our incredible mobility of labor."
  • "If we take as a first principle that we really have to invest in the creativity of each and every individual—and give people the right to express their creative talents in ways that they find interesting and relevant—then I think we will end up with a better future than we otherwise would have had."

Here is one of Florida's most controversial statements, quoted in context:

"But different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody. Band-Aids and bailouts cannot change that. Neither auto-company rescue packages nor policies designed to artificially prop up housing prices will position the country for renewed growth, at least not of the sustainable variety. We need to let demand for the key products and lifestyles of the old order fall, and begin building a new economy, based on a new geography."

It seems that Florida had a specific situation in mind - here, the bailout of the auto manufacturers - as he was writing his piece, and his detractors jumped on the occasion to suggest he was criticizing all the struggling cities he had ever advised. I hope many readers will take the time to read the whole Atlantic article that unleashed the media backlash. While I am uncomfortable with the amount of money Florida has made from speaking fees (I imagine that the struggling cities he appeared in could have put the money to other uses), I believe he makes many valid points that, uttered by a lesser-profile academic, would not have raised any eyebrow.