The Florida Pitch


Richard Florida strides across the stage in a sharply tailored suit, his voice rising and falling with the cadence of a preacher or a motivational speaker. “Every little boy and girl, every one of your sons and daughters, every one of your grandkids, each and every human being has a deep reservoir of creativity,” he proclaims, waving his arm towards a rapt audience. “It’s our font of economic growth, and in contrast to oil or iron or coal, it’s inexhaustible, because it comes from all of us.”

It’s Business of Design Week (BODW) and Florida is speaking to a full house at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Several hundred designers, business people and students are in attendance, along with a handful of Hong Kong government officials. Florida’s power of attraction has been well cultivated. After publishing The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002, the American academic transformed himself into one of the world’s most influential urban thinkers. When he isn’t running the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, he travels the world to spread his message that creativity is the fuel of the new economy, and the new economy is driven by a so-called “creative class,” which consists of everyone from artists to designers to scientists and lawyers — anyone whose work is based primarily on knowledge.

“Creativity is our core economic resource,” says Florida. “It’s what each and every one of us has. The key to our future is not that we can build an economy based on a creative elite, it’s to stoke that creative furnace that lies deep within every single individual.”

Much of Florida’s empirical work is centred around a series of indices that evaluate each city’s potential to attract creative workers. Most important are what Florida calls the “three Ts”: talent, technology and tolerance. Creative cities possess a highly-skilled or educated workforce, the technological infrastructure to support innovation and a tolerant culture that encourages diversity. (One of Florida’s most famous measures for tolerance is the “gay index,” which examines the size of a city’s gay population as a proxy for social acceptance.) If cities build the kind of diverse, densely-populated and varied urban environment that creative types enjoy — Lower Manhattan is one of Florida’s favourite examples — they can propel themselves to the fore of the new creative economy.

It’s a message that has served Florida well. His academic work is supplemented by speaking engagements, for which he reportedly charges more than US$35,000; he also runs a consultancy with his wife, Rana, that is said to charge hefty fees for customized reports on individual cities. (Rana Florida says the $35,000 fee is “incorrect,” but did not provide any additional details. “We are a private organization and our financials are not publicly available,” she wrote me by email.) After The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida published three more books on the topic, enough for American journalist Charlie Rose to ask, “Don’t you think we’ve milked this for about as much as we can, Richard?” (Florida’s answer: “I hope not, Charlie.”)

Florida’s appearance in Hong Kong — his first trip to the city — was met with unbridled enthusiasm. “I think his model will work here,” says local architect Patrick Bruce, who moderated Florida’s session at BODW and gave him an effusive introduction. Hong Kong Design Centre chairman Edmund Lee says, “His core message is important — it’s about 360-degree openness to all.”

Other Asian cities have reacted with similar zeal; Singapore in particular has been a keen subscriber to Florida’s ideas. But in North America and Europe, Florida is often met with scorn from the very creative types upon whom his theory rests. In Florida’s home base of Toronto, local wags spoof Florida in a Twitter account called The Dick Florida. (Sample tweet: “I’m pretty psyched to grandfather a whole new era of pop urbanist claptrap for Generation Z.”)

Florida’s theories have not held up to academic scrutiny, either. One study published in Urban Affairs Review in 2009 bluntly concluded that “the creative class is not related to growth.” Jamie Peck, a professor of geography at the University of British Columbia and the Canada Research Chair in Urban and Regional Political Economy, has reached similar conclusions in his own research. “It’s not effective as a theory at all — as an explanation of urban growth and development it doesn’t have any credibility,” he says.

Peck says Florida’s message is rebranding of neoliberalism, the individualistic, winner-take-all theory of economics that has exacerbated social and economic inequality over the past 30 years. “It freshens up stale positions,” he says. “The emperor is pretty naked. Yet at the same time, what the emperor is saying chimes with what the people in charge want to pursue.”

Among those “people in charge” are members of what sociologist Harvey Molotch called the “growth machine”: property developers and other interests who benefit from perpetual economic growth. In a study of Amsterdam published last year in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Peck determined that creative class policies inspired by Florida were used to promote development in fast-gentrifying areas around the city’s canals, while more marginal areas were neglected. “It’s an extremely narcissistic vision that justifies allocating funds towards those who are already successful,” he says. “Most of his advice is extraordinarily elitist. It’s a version of the trickle-down argument — you invest in the top and hope that it will reach those below.”

Perhaps most troubling is the lack of creative class success stories. Florida is apt at identifying cities with booming creative economies, like New York and San Francisco, but his prescriptions for encouraging that kind of creative growth have so far fallen short. In his talk at BODW, Florida mentioned with approval the dynamic music scene and burgeoning downtown revival of Detroit, a city that has previously hired him as a consultant. In 2003, the state of Michigan launched the Cool Cities Initiative based on Florida’s recommendations, investing in arts groups and neighbourhood redevelopment with the hope of attracting economic growth. But Detroit’s government is now bankrupt and its regional economy is struggling.

Florida blames the state and city governments for misconstruing his advice. “I caution and have cautioned against these simple solutions, whether you call it the creative district or the cool city, I think they kind of miss the point,” he says. “It’s not about mega-projects, it’s not about big initiatives, it’s not about building stadiums or symphony halls, it’s about doing the small things that motivate and mobilize the creative class [like] building great parks, creating thriving music scenes, building better cities, better roads, better bike paths.”

Last January, however, Florida admitted that economic changes are creating “more losers than winners,” though his talk in Hong Kong offered little concrete advice on how cities can avoid becoming “losers,” suggesting only that they provide spaces for “rubbing shoulders, interacting, feeding off one another, where designer meets artists meets economist meets entrepreneur meets innovators.”

There’s also the question of whether the winners are actually winners at all. Many of the top creative cities that Florida has identified — San Francisco and New York, for instance — are fast becoming fortresses of the elite, where income inequality is soaring and public services are being undermined by exclusive private alternatives. The creative city seems to be remarkably short of the diversity and civic mindedness that Florida likes to talk about. “Florida recognized from an early stage that creative cities tend to be more unequal than non-creative ones, but there’s nothing in his own advice that will actually tackle inequality,” says Peck. For a city like Hong Kong, which is already grappling with a massive wealth gap and lack of social mobility, this is cause for alarm.

Two days after Florida’s talk, BODW offered another, slightly different vision of creative cities from Charles Landry, who coined the term “creative city” in the 1990s. Landry is less of an economic determinist than Florida, focusing instead on how cities can become more accessible, transparent and equitable for their citizens, not necessarily to grow the economy, but simply to make a better place. “I think the main difference between [Richard Florida’s] work and mine is that he initially talked about a creative class,” he says. “I’m interested in the totality of the city as an ecosystem.”

Landry categorizes cities into three stages of creative development, starting with “City 1.0” — a so-called “hard” city treated by its leaders as a machine, with linear thinking and engineer-driven management. The next step is 2.0, which introduces a more lateral solutions to urban problems, with flexibility built into public spaces and systems of governance. The final stage is City 3.0, where “people making their own culture,” as with Helsinki’s Restaurant Day, when hundreds of citizens open informal restaurants in their living rooms, front gardens and public parks.

“We all have some sense of right to the city but also some responsibility for it,” he says. “Somehow, the ‘me’ and ‘us’ of the city need to come together again” — and that includes all citizens, not just members of the creative class. To achieve that in Hong Kong, Landry says the government must become more transparent and more design-oriented, with interdisciplinary collaboration between different departments. “Creative cities are essentially about empowerment and co-creation,” he says.

Landry says Hong Kong is on the right track in raising questions about its future as a city. “It realizes that the creative economy, in broad terms, is its competitive advantage.” But its urban development leaves a lot to be desired. He points to the Convention Centre as an example, with its dank tunnels and lack of interaction with the waterfront. “There’s nowhere to sit and get a coffee on the water,” he says. “The question is, can Hong Kong blend human scale into these quite imposing buildings that it builds?”

But questions are easy to ask and answers even easier to give, which Landry readily acknowledges. “It’s all very well to have ideas,” he says. “But the real question is, are they being implemented?”

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday January 21 2014at 01:01 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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