Canaries of the Creative Economy


In his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, economist Richard Florida described the emergence of a social group whose economic contribution was one of ideas. This “Creative Class” was populated not just by scientists, engineers, architects, and educators, but also designers, artists, musicians, and entertainers. Furthermore, this group has developed in cities (or metropolitan areas) the best of which have become cauldrons of technological innovation, attracting even more creative talent and creative enterprise to these places. Examples: San Jose (Silicon Valley); New York; Washington, DC; Seattle; Austin; Boston/Cambridge.

So far so good. But then Florida went on to assert that the metros that are most effective at attracting creative types are the ones most tolerant, inclusive, and open to diversity—which includes an acceptance of immigrants, “bohemians” (artists, writers, actors, musicians, dancers, etc.) and gays. He showed studies that correlated high bohemian and gay populations with strong high-tech industry concentrations, meaning that the former was a leading indicator of the latter. (In other words, a place open to bohemians and gays accepts all kinds of people—which is an attractor for the Creative Class, including the technologically creative.)

But reaction to Forida’s thesis—which was developed and expanded in his later books—has been near hysteria in some quarters.

The author has since been accused of (as he describes it) “attacking traditional family values, of promoting a gay agenda, and undermining the foundations of Judeo-Christian civilization.” Whoda' thunk? (And this is a fellow who describes himself as “politically independent,” “fiscally conservative,” “married,” and “straight.”) But, to be fair, his research has been questioned by some economists.

In The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited (2012) Florida returns to his theories of a decade earlier and cites statistical survey after survey in defense of his provocative theories. I’ll leave it to others to evaluate that defense. But here are some of my favorite passages:

Capitalism has expanded its reach to capture the talents of heretofore excluded groups of eccentrics and nonconformists. In so doing, it has pulled off yet another astonishing mutation: taking people who would once have been viewed as bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe and placing them at the very heart of the process of innovation and economic growth…The creative individual is no longer viewed as an iconoclast. He—or she—is the new mainstream.

What set Silicon Valley apart was not just Stanford University or the warm climate. It was open to and supportive of the creative, the different, and the downright weird…The same basic pattern can be found in almost every other high-growth technology region. Before these regions where a high-tech hotspots, they were places where creativity and eccentricity were accepted and celebrated. Boston has always had Cambridge. Seattle was the home of Jimi Hendrix and later Nirvana and Pearl Jam as well as Microsoft and Amazon...Before Silicon Valley erupted, New York had Christopher Street, SoHo, and the East Village. All these places were open, diverse, and culturally creative first. Then they became technologically creative, birthing high-tech firms and industries.

Music is a key part of what makes a place authentic. The phrase “audio identity" refers to the identifiable musical genre or sound associated with local bands, clubs, and so on that give a city a unique soundtrack…Music, in fact, plays a central role in the creation of identity in the formation of real communities…It is hard to think of a major high-tech region that doesn't have a distinct audio identity…It is for this reason that I like to tell city leaders the finding ways to help support a local music scene can be just as important as investing in high-tech business and far more effective than building a downtown mall.

No argument from here.

To read more about the role of cities in innovation, check here.

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    1. Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine. Florida has quoted his colleague, Gary Gates, an urban researcher, as saying that gays are the "canaries of the Creative Age." The thinking goes: If gays aren't welcome in your community it's a decent indicator that a lot of young, free-thinking creatives aren't drawn to it either. That would not be a promising sign for future technological success there.

      To quote Florida, "The varied forms of creativity that we typically regard as different from one another—technological creativity (or invention), economic creativity (entrepreneurship), and artistic and cultural creativity, among others—are in fact deeply interrelated. Not only do they share a common thought process, they reinforce each other through cross-fertilization and mutual stimulation.

  1. These "hi-tech hotspots" were all college towns to begin with, yes? It appears that metros with top educational institutions have the best chance of becoming innovative tech regions, bohemian invasions notwithstanding.

    And I don't remember any rock revolution bubbling up from Silicon Valley.

  2. Quoting from Florida: "A university cannot do it alone – it is a necessary but insufficient condition for generating high-tech firms and growth. Although many places generate new knowledge, relatively few of them can absorb and apply it. The surrounding community must also have the capacity to exploit the innovation and technologies that the university generates, and the will to put in place the broader lifestyle amenities and qualities of place the Creative Class seeks." (My italics.) There are good university towns - even with great technical schools (as Pittsburgh has) - that aren't among the leaders in high tech growth.

    Most urbanists think of Silicon Valley as part of the larger SF metro region.

  3. Cambridge: Pink Floyd; UK hi fi industry + high tech.
    Oxford: Radiohead; quite a lot of UK car making.
    Birmingham: Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Duran Duran; cradle of UK industry. Hmmm.... we were doing fine up to this point. It's a great theory, though.

    1. What about Manchester? Lots of good bands from there—and some promising signs that it's moving into a 21st century economy. Liverpool's headed in the right direction too, right? Haven't been there in over 10 years tho.

  4. Whether it is because the communities are welcoming, or because the canaries welcome themselves and it becomes a self-fulfilling perception, it fits my observations and makes sense to me.

  5. As a contrarian, I'm always interested in looking at the situation from the opposite side. Can we include Asia in this discussion? Is it because of a lack of "freedoms" that a dearth of creativity exists in areas such as China? Or is it a lack universities? Or gays? Perhaps South Korea is a jewel in the rough, as evidenced by our good fried Psy.

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