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My latest reading: Richard Florida’s “The Flight of the Creative Class” May 8, 2006

Posted by Tom in Economic Development, Opinion, Workforce.
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(Quick aside: It's been a LONG time since I wrote a "book report". So please bear with me…)

For those who aren't familiar with Carnegie Mellon's Richard Florida and are interested in issues surrounding workforce and economic development, check out the "Creative Class.org" link at the right. Florida is one of a handful of experts who are trying to divine the reasons why some cities (or metro areas) prosper and others flounder.

Florida's premise is that, in today's environment, three leading indicators can give us a general understanding of success potential: Talent, technology and tolerance. Talent means that the community has a hub of core knowledge workers – the people (often young professionals, but not exclusively so) whose skills will enable a community to succeed in the global economy. This often involves the presence of a higher education institution but can be expanded much more broadly. Technology plays right into the global economy discussion – communities need to have the digital infrastructure to be attractive to both workers and businesses. Lastly, tolerance is a general concept of acceptance of a broad variety of opinions and ideas – something appealing to knowledge workers.

Which gets to the core of the "Creative Class" discussion. Florida explains that the workers that companies and communities are looking for are knowledge workers – loosely put, workers with expert knowledge and/or complex communications skills (to borrow a theme from a few posts back). And these knowledge workers appear to cluster in communities that offer the three indicators listed above. Which makes some sense intuitively, as communities like Boston, Austin, Chicago and San Francisco (all high on Florida's creative rankings) are recognized as being economic engines with a strong base of knowlege workers, a base of technology-oriented companies and a diverse cultural scene.

Advances in technology make "place" a much more malleable consideration for knowledge workers; they are choosing more and more to locate where they want…and then the businesses are following their migration patterns. Past development patterns had people following companies/industries, so this represents a significant paradigm shift.

What I've done is preview Florida's first Creative Class book, "The Rise of the Creative Class." His latest, "The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent," serves both as a recap to the reaction of the first book and a look at the global pressures impacting the Creative Class.

On the reaction front, it's clear that Florida touched a nerve. He has been criticized by both the American right and left wings – the side effect of having a widely publicized, somewhat controversial sociological theory hit the streets in a Presidential election year. The right appears to be upset that the majority of top-scoring creative cities are political "blue" cities – and that one of the differentiating factors involves the level of tolerance that a community has for the homosexual population. The left doesn't like the endorsement of a stratified society lacking a middle class – one where the creatives have the wealth and the rest of the people really don't. Florida spends a lot of time beating back those objections.

The latter portion of the book is more in line with it's title. Historically, the United States has used its higher education infrastructure to its advantage in recruiting foreign talent. The basic premise figures that foreign students come to the United States to study, fall in love with the financial, social or political offerings that we have, and hire into domestic companies. This has allowed the USA to deal with a chronic shortage of native-born engineers, medical professionals and other occupation areas.

The phrase "9/11 changed everything" is much overused and often not true, but it's perfectly apt in this case. One of the major reforms in the wake of the 9/11/2001 attacks on the United States was for the US government to significantly tighten its border controls. In doing so, they have been much tighter in giving out student visas and H-1B visas to foreign nationals. While the wisdom and ethical rationale of this change in policy is another topic for another blog, the practical effect is that we have fewer foreign students on our campuses and fewer foreign workers in our companies. These students and workers (and their successors) then become oriented to look to other shores (India? China? Europe?) to achieve their educational and career goals – leaving a long-term effect of weakening our nation's competitiveness.

The flattening of the world also plays into how American "creatives" look at themselves and their desires. More students are studying overseas, looking to satisfy wanderlust and broaden cultural horizons while completing their studies. And American workers are also working overseas in greater numbers.

The capacities of the Internet allow one to live in any city – London as well as Cleveland – while working for a business located in another city. As more and more countries arm themselves with world-class internet capacities, the spectrum of choices for the world's bet and brightest grows. Always wanted to live in Prague? No problem – you can still program for Microsoft.

Florida's take on the matter is that the United States, by creating these restrictive barriers to immigration and promoting a less tolerant mindset (much of the current governmental social agenda isn't being widely embraced worldwide), is pushing people away. And countries like Sweden, Japan, Finland and Canada are aggressively positioning themselves to capitalize on this shift.

I'll confess, I'm a Florida fan. I had a chance to see him in person and have read his two creative class books. I find his statistically-driven approach to this nebulous issue to be among the strongest that I've seen thus far. Cities and countries that ignore his findings do so at their own peril.


After wrapping up Florida's book, I switched gears and delved into local history through a walking tour guide suggested by our local historical society. A simple guide, indeed, but an interesting read for a non-native who wants to learn more about why the community is what it is today. And I learned a great deal – I strongly suggest that everyone take the time to better understand their local/regional history as a tool to determine how to best orient and implement workforce and economic development solutions.I just started Jon Teaford's "Cities of the Heartland: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Midwest" yesterday and am finding this to be an excellent read – much more academic than Florida's more casual style, but no less substantial than Florida. It was recommended to me by IPFW's John Stafford, a former lobbyist/city planner/economic developer who now runs the University's Community Research Institute. I'll post my thoughts on this when I'm finished (most likely will be a while…).

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