Jan/Feb issue of Harvard Business Review
Double Standards for Nonprofits?

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.

Comments

I do think that it isn't so much that he's an academic, as that he made so much money from the consulting/lecturing/etc... and then did an abrupt about-face. It just seems like he's sort of violating those towns. First by charging exorbitant speaking fees (holy sh!t at those numbers), and then saying "nope, you're junk". It sort of feels like he's another one of those self-help gurus interested only in the money and not actually wanting to help those cities out at all, and taking those who are down on their luck for a ride, and anyone attacking him for that has every right to do so.

Hi Ilya,
I'm not sure he did an abrupt about-face. When I read his lengthy article in the Atlantic Monthly, I got the impression that he was mostly referring to Detroit when he was saying some places are beyond help. I think he was opposing the manufacturing bailout. It is true that a lot of auto workers are stuck in the area because of their houses - homeownership has impeded their move to thriving parts of the country where there would be more jobs for them. Then some people in the media quoted the sentences out of context as if he was referring to every struggling town in America. The amount of money he made from speaking and consulting fees probably played a role in journalists' decision to spin the story against him.

Also, if you're young, educated and mobile, your odds of success and happiness will indeed be a lot better if you move closer to a creative center rather than hope that one will materialize where you live.

Also, here is my earlier post on "Hollowing Out the Middle" http://engineered.typepad.com/thoughts_on_business_engi/2009/11/hollowing-out-the-middle.html

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