Richard Florida is the author of the 2002 bestseller
The Rise of the Creative Class, named by Harvard Business Review as one of the top breakthrough ideas of 2004. He recently released his newest book,
The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent.
Florida is the founding principal of an innovative communications organization called the Creativity Group, as well as Catalytix, a strategy consulting firm that works with cities, regions, and corporations around the world.
Currently the Hirst Professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Florida was previously the Heinz Professor of Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University and a visiting professor at M.I.T. and Harvard.
tompeters.com asks …
So Richard, what is “the creative class”?
RF: The creative class as I defined it in Rise of the Creative Class is really the growth force in our economy, similar to the way the industrial working class was the growth force a couple of hundred years ago. I define the economy in terms of three major sectors—the manufacturing sector, the service sector and the creative sector.
Those who work in the creative sector are scientists, engineers, technology folks, innovators, those who work in research and development, and then artists, writers, musicians. I call the designers, architects, and culturally creative people the “super-creative core.”
I also include what Peter Drucker and others have always called the classical knowledge-based professionals—healthcare, finance, the legal field and educators. All told, that rounds up to about 30 percent of the U.S. work force, about 40 million workers. This group is responsible for about half the work and, as reported in the new book, earns about half of all wages and salaries paid in the United States.
But The Rise of the Creative Class made another point, which stirred a debate, so Flight of the Creative Class drives the point home even harder. What our society needs to do is not think of the creative class as just 30 percent of the work force. We have to realize that the key to improving our productivity, our innovation, and our living standards lies in realizing that every single human being is creative. That’s a very important point. While 30 percent are core members now, we have to remember that every single human being is creative.
Toyota learned a long time ago that it could be a productive company and generate great wealth by tapping the knowledge and intelligence of its shop floor employees. So the real challenge for society today is not just to try to attract and harness the energy of that 30 percent, but to increasingly organize ourselves to tap and harness the creative energy of many, many more people, and allow them to participate in this burgeoning creative economy.
That brings to mind a concern of Tom’s and a group of our friends as well—the educational underpinnings of this situation. In kindergarten, every kid is an artist, right? And then by sixth grade, maybe 10 kids are artists. By the time they’re seniors in high school, maybe there are two Goth-looking kids in the back of the room that will admit to being artists. There’s something in our educational system that seems to work against this.
RF: I think we have an education system, as Tom has said and as Bill Gates has said, that was set up for an industrial economy and no longer serves either people or the creative economy well. Flight of the Creative Class talks in general about what we need to do, but clearly, we have an education system that is pretty much devoted to squelching creative energy. That’s certainly the education system I went through. I took refuge from about sixth grade through high school in my rock and roll band, and then reengaged in the learning process when I went to college. Unfortunately, by that time, I had the artist nearly completely squelched out of me.
So I think here’s what’s happened in the United States. Because our system is so awful, we saved ourselves by importing all the talent we need from abroad. Clearly we’ve imported talent in the science and technology fields, but also in entrepreneurship generally. A lot of our artistic and cultural innovation comes from either importing sounds and styles, or importing the people directly.
It’s interesting that with increased global mobility and creative people being the key factor of production, the United States is missing a lot of opportunities in what is probably the greatest economic transformation in 500 years. The U.S. is so preoccupied with homeland security that it’s completely distracted as a country.
While we’re distracted, other countries have a great opportunity to either retain their own really smart and creative people, or to do what the United States has done in the past and attract them from other places. So the U.S. is going to come face-to-face with its own inadequacies very quickly because what’s saved us all of these years is that we got the cream of the crop of the world’s talent and creative people. We had a system that was incredibly inefficient at producing—and capitalizing on—the creative and artistic talents of people.
Also, it’s not just importing the creatives, but it’s that whole melting pot that America has been.
RF: Right. And I think the other thing that the U.S. was great at, and probably still is very good at, is harnessing creative energy at the frontiers of new industry development.
Here’s a great story. I was in Australia doing a two-week speaking tour with my colleague Rod Frantz. At the end of the tour, we went to this amazing, ecologically sensitive complex outside of Byron Bay with beautiful houses in a natural setting. We got to see a hip-hop dance performance by a troupe of young Australian men and women. Afterward, we were talking to the lead dancer, probably about 22, who said, “You know, this hip-hop stuff we do, guys, this was invented in The Bronx,” as if The Bronx was some far-off country that we had never heard of. I immediately thought that the United States had for years been very good at harnessing the creative energy of kids creating new forms of dance and new forms of poetry and new forms of music.
On another occasion, I was meeting with Tony Blair’s cabinet ministers and asked them, “Who are the richest people in England?” The answer is Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Mick Jagger. “Well, why don’t you think about your system for capitalizing on the popular music creativity that your society had given rise to?” They had never thought of that. The point is that there is all this artistic and creative capability, and our systems are incredibly inefficient at capitalizing on it.
Well what do you mean by “inefficient”?
RF: I would love to talk to somebody like Tom about this, given his history in management work. But it reminds me of what we used to do in the factory pre-Frederick Taylor, when people realized, “All these workers are doing things, but we’re not sure how to organize them. If we move a few things around, maybe it’ll be more productive.”
And then Frederick Taylor came along and said, “You can scientifically manage that.” Then Henry Ford came along and said, “You can add the assembly line.” And then Mr. Toyota and Mr. Ono came along and said, “Oh! Really the key here is explicitly recognizing and leveraging the knowledge and intelligence of these factory workers.”
We’re in the dawn of the creative age. We have an economy powered by creativity, but we don’t understand that this is a social process that requires all kinds of human interaction. It is far more complicated than the Frederick Taylor/Henry Ford assembly line. There have to be systems to create it and to manage it, but we still haven’t produced the Frederick Taylor, let alone the Henry Ford, or the Toyota/Ono, of the creative age.
There might be a slight connection here. I ran into Dan Gillmor of Grassroots Media when I was out at South by Southwest.
RF: I read about that on your blog. I love South by Southwest.
I had a great time just being there with the energy and the people. But anyway, back to what Dan is talking about. Basically everyone now has the capability of producing their own content. So everybody’s making movies. Everybody’s making their own radio show. And in fact, Dan says blogs are going to just be a small part of it. We’re pretty involved in blogging right now with our blog site, but there is something more really bubbling up at the moment.
RF: My computer’s on your blog and my radio is on XM Radio. So you’re absolutely right. I think there’s a gargantuan fight going on right now. I sat on this panel for the Consumer Electronics Association with Mark Cuban and Hank Barry, an amazing venture capitalist.
The idea motivating that panel was that, in an era where creativity and intellect and human talent have become the means of production, it should not surprise anyone that established interests want to own and control that property. So what’s happening, of course, is the established entertainment companies are just going absolutely nuts to write new kinds of more restrictive property relations around this content. Now they want to disable peer-to-peer technology providers.
We’re moving into an era where human creativity, enabled by technology, is creating more and newer forms of music, forms of entertainment. Rod has pointed out that the garage-based film studio is to our children’s generation what the garage band was to our generation.
So what Hank Barry, Mark Cuban, and I all said was that instead of trying to dial up control of intellectual property, we have to turn the dial back. The analogy I used was, what if scientists now said, “Every discovery I make and every paper I write is my personal property, and you have to license it.”
The point is that we should be unleashing the process of creativity. Just as science builds on its contributions, so do other forms of artistic and cultural creativity. We can’t bottle that stuff up.
In fact, the technology is producing more “socialized” or collective, community-based creative work as opposed to more independent work. The producers are becoming much more far-flung. The users want access to it, and the consuming public benefits from it. And in the middle is this giant battle between those who want to control the content and those who are creating the enabling technology.
I think there were two great American Presidents—Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who solved the problem of an emerging economy in an emerging age, and overcame the fight between entrenched interests and said, “What we need to do is build a market economy and then an industrial economy that benefits many people instead of just a few.”
I think we’re in this huge battle now, and I fear that the forces of reaction, at least at the moment, appear to be winning that battle.
RF: Well, I think this country gave rise to the creative economy, gave rise, for instance, to modern music by fusing African, Hispanic, blues, and other sounds to modern popular music. Then we created this incredible engine of technology capitalism by creating an outlet for all these people who wanted out of the old corporations that were squelching their creativity.
There was an incredible burst of entrepreneurial innovation and creativity throughout the 80s and continuing in the 90s. Then all of a sudden—squelch. I think the benefits of that creative economy became so concentrated and we began to see ourselves as artists and creative people, and we began live differently. Our lifestyles changed and we saw the rise of wonderfully cosmopolitan urban centers with large numbers of immigrants, artists, and culturally creative people, bohemian populations, large numbers of single or remarried people or freer thinking people, and large numbers of gay people. And those cultural shifts with the concentrated benefits of the creative economy produced a counter-reaction, which we’ll call “Bush World.”
I don’t blame George Bush and Karl Rove for capitalizing on it. I think they were absolutely right. But their reaction was, “Oh my god! We’re being left behind by this new America, this creative economy America.” The enemy of this group is, of course, a documentary filmmaker named Michael Moore, and as the critics of my work say, “Florida is pointing to an economy led by ‘sophistos,’ ‘trendoids,’ yuppies, and gays.” And bam! There’s not really a blue state/red state split. It’s a class divide, a fundamental class divide between those of us in the creative economy and those of us being left behind by the creative economy.
In the book, I make a plea for progressive forces in this society. Instead of continuing to say we want to build a Silicon Valley/Hollywood economy, and being portrayed in the media as being too French or too liberal or too closely tied to Hollywood, I say someone has to build a creative economy that is much more inclusive. One that says to the people in rural Massachusetts, southwestern Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Alabama, etc., that they, too, can be part of this creative economy.
Then I think all the squabbles over family values or moral and religious issues will fall by the boards. That’s why I think Lincoln and Roosevelt are the leaders we need to point to. Lincoln said, “We’re not going to destroy our country in a civil war because you guys want to maintain a plantation economy. We’re going to let all of you participate in this growing market economy.”
Then Roosevelt said, “We’re not going to pull down American capitalism in this tremendous death struggle between capital and organized labor. We’re going to grow this industrial economy, but business is going to have to give a little. It can’t capture all the rewards for itself. It has to give regular working people higher wages and better benefits and occupational safety.” And that social cost is miniscule relative to what would happen if the industrial economy breaks down.
But right now, no one is willing to articulate that case, so the book expresses my frustration, particularly having moved to D.C. You see, in Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore—all across the country, you can have a conversation about building a thriving regional creative economy. And the one place you can’t have that conversation is in Washington, D.C., because our political leadership is just from another planet.
I’m 50 now, and as a kid, I never imagined that we would still be listening to rock and roll as adults. Right? I always thought we would end up shifting over to Lawrence Welk, that we’d end up listening to what our parents listened to.
But there was always something scary about rock and roll. It’s Rebel Without a Cause and it’s Marlon Brando. But this creativity—whether that word is in quotes or not is—still seems to frighten people a little bit.
RF: It terrified the people in rural or suburban America who saw the generational shift in the 50s and 60s, which was very much the birth of the creative age. This was really all about the failure of the mass production society that everyone wrote about. This was about its inability to harness its own assets—just like a big corporation. The society was squelching people to such a degree that they said, “To hell with this. We’re going to express our creativity,” and they created new industries and new ways of living and new cultural movements.
So that was the birth of the creative economy. I say this in Rise of the Creative Class—the lasting effect of the 60s’ cultural movement is the creation of Silicon Valley. I say this every time I speak, and people look at me like I’m crazy. Where is Silicon Valley? It’s in California. Where is it in California? It’s 20 miles south of San Francisco. What went on in that exact place? That was the birthplace of the hippie movement, Monterey Pop, just a little bit to its south. That whole area was infested with this counterculture ethos, which allowed hippie entrepreneurs, like Wozniak and Jobs, to flourish. Wozniak went on to form the US Festival as his passion.
That whole legacy of the counterculture movement, and the free-flowing exchange of ideas, the links to poetry and art, it all helped to create the social space for the birthplace of this new model of capitalism.
Leonard Steinhorn has written a book called The Greater Generation, [not yet published] about the role of the baby boom in opening the social space for the creativity of younger generations. He discusses the change in our society from our parent’s generation to our generation, and then to the next, as we developed much more unified values, much more consistent positions on gay rights, women’s rights, civil rights, human development, and popular culture.
But the point is that a backlash has been engaged, so that now you have people in this society using the fear of cultural movements, the fear of women in the work force, the fear of young people getting ahead, the fear of immigrants, all crystallized around the fear of gays.
What I think is that the backlash against gays is really the reaction of those who are less fortunate to those who are being included in the creative economy. To a person who’s not included, the creative economy looks like an economy of metrosexuals, gays, urbanites, immigrants, and women. And it’s precisely what men, and particularly the young men, are so fearful of, and precisely what Rove and others pick up on.
It’s so odd to hear about gay backlash because I’m so out of touch with that, I guess because I’m in one of these centers of Boston where it seems that half the people are gay.
RF: It’s like where I live.
Or just look at all of the gay characters on TV.
RF: That’s right. And what’s so amazing about this is that in an era where all of this is happening and we’re developing a creative economy, people can claim an election was won because of the fear of gay rights. I think this is the great irony.
RF: It’s shocking that the Democrats are saying, “We have to backpedal on gay rights. We have to backpedal on women’s rights. Because that’s what cost us the NASCAR dad, suburban voter.” I guess the main point I’m trying to make is not that the political dynamics are key, but that what we see as cultural changes in our society are very much linked to the rise of the creative economy. And we are now living through a backlash that we have to overcome.
I believe the only way out of that backlash is to include many more people in the creative economy. The proposition for the future of the U. S., and in fact the world, has to be a new deal, if you will. It’s a bad metaphor, but it’s a new deal for the creative economy that extends its benefits and participation to all of these people who are so terrified.
That’s where I keep having this flash of people out there in the middle of nowhere putting up very elaborate websites and in effect engaging with the world at some level. We may not care for the politics of some of these places, but the fact is that these are people who are learning a not-simple technology to get stuff posted, and putting up videos and pictures and their lives.
RF: The creative economy is everywhere. I travel to these towns and I meet these people. They’re all over this country.
Well, get back to your red state/blue state thing. The way I look at it is that the difference between a red state and a blue state is that only between ten and a hundred thousand people would have thrown the vote the other way. So that’s why I’d prefer to get rid of that distinction altogether.
RF: Oh yeah. The book ruminates on why the red state/blue state distinction is so bad, and why you have to look at more geographically concentrated patterns. The point I’m trying to make here is that a lot of the blame for this breakdown lies in the arrogance and the elitism of the creative economy itself.
In a way, the book is a plea to say to those of us who are privileged to be in the creative economy, “This can no longer be a selfish, ‘me first’ game. We can no longer depend on Silicon Valley and the Bay Area and Boston to power our economic growth.” Because we have to get more people involved in the creative economy in a meaningful way so that they see, just like my dad, as an industrial worker saw, “Oh my god! This industrial capitalist economy not only benefits Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan, it benefits me because my wages go up and I can put my boys in a better high school and send them off to college.”
It’s that connection which has broken down and allowed this backlash to occur. The book is asking, “Please let someone emerge who can extend the benefits of this creative age to many, many more people.” And since each and every one of us is creative, each and every one of us is an artist or entrepreneur, an innovator, that should be much easier to do.
The Flight of the Creative Class, as I understood it, in large part boils down to 9/11, and our immigration policies and how they’ve changed radically since then.
So we’ve become unfriendly to people coming in. And in the same breath, we’ve become unfriendly to people already here. You mentioned a number of stories about how kids now consider moving anywhere in the world that they see as the best and freest, and most creative kind of environment. It’s not necessarily the United States anymore.
RF: Right. It’s a global competition for talent. The city system itself has become globalized, just like our industries became globalized when Toyota, Honda, Sony, Samsung, and others entered the mix.
It’s no longer Boston against Pittsburgh, Detroit against San Francisco. It’s a world system where cities are competing for talent worldwide. And so in that mix the book makes three arguments.
One, the United States is facing increased competition from other countries for the global pool of talent it so long took for granted. Two, it’s restricting immigration and entry, and poisoning its ecosystem. We used to be an open, free, and creative place. People would come here and move to our cities, Boston for academic light, San Francisco for technology light or pop culture, New York for artistic and culture light. They would move to these cities and become captivated by America’s openness to them and to ideas.
Thirdly, and critically, we’re failing now. We’re actually damaging the ecosystem that allowed us to generate creative people ourselves, and allowed creative people to have things like affordable places to live.
The Washington, D.C., that you guys lived in 25 years ago allowed young creative people and artistic types to come in and get an apartment. Good luck. D.C. now is inhabited by yuppies.
The creative economy is so geographically concentrated, and housing costs and costs of living have become so high in those locations that it’s hard for the creative energy to get a foothold. And of course now we see migrations of the music scene to places like Montreal because housing is more accessible and there are more clubs and more venues. I don’t know how you can operate a club in this environment. It’s just too expensive and too much of a hassle.
So it’s a threefold argument—other countries are getting up to the task, we’re becoming more restrictive, and thirdly, we are cannibalizing our own creative ecosystems.
Yes. I try to look at it in some historical perspective, although I guess there isn’t a lot of history because what you’re talking about grew up post-World War II. It’s the abstract expressionists in New York City starting to move into loft spaces. And then it goes from there and it turns into the wildest real estate hunt of the 80s.
RF: Yes. The same thing happened in Palo Alto, which grew from a little backwater town, where technology people could get cheap places to live and build their businesses, to the equally great real estate hunt.
The book also says that what’s happening is that instead of a world economy dominated by any one power, we’re going to see a world economy that is much more multi-polar because the talent is fairly randomly distributed and the talent is mobile.
So you’re going to see these much quicker shifts and flows. Don’t get me wrong, London, New York, Toronto, and similar cities are going to make great places for a long time. But within the world economy, you’re going to see much faster shifts of these hot spots. There’s no reason why the United States’ position is either dominant or ensured. In fact, I think we’re in one of those critical inflection points where position and relative advantage can change very quickly.
It wouldn’t surprise me in the next 10 or 20 years to see a lot of the creative energy that used to be centered in the United States migrate, either back home to Bangalore or Shanghai, or to these new emerging global talent centers, whether they be London, Dublin, Sydney, Melbourne, Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver.
As the book says, I don’t think China or India will become the next great power, but if each one of these places takes 2 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent of the draw away from the U.S., this country has a big problem on its hands. And we’re not managing that transition effectively as a country. That’s what has me kind of worried as an American. In the eyes of the world, we’re no longer the place that creative people necessarily see as their first and only choice.
Do you think this is governmental policy or is there some grassroots campaign? How do we change it?
RF: I think it’s not a set of government policies. I actually think it’s a social movement and that social movements ebb and flow like a pendulum. The creative economy has emerged and had a great cultural movement associated with it. And the backlash is also taking the form of a social movement.
Somehow we have to find ways to reignite a forward-looking social movement, but one that’s very much inclusive. Until a social movement comes across that says, “One, we’re going to harness the energy of the creative economy, and two, we’re going to make it more inclusive,” this thing is going to be stalled.
We’re almost in an age where the creative economy is stillborn. It reminds me of the period between the 1870s and 1930, where there was a great industrial economy emerging, emerging, emerging. Its benefits were so highly concentrated within an elite that it took the 1930s and two world wars for people to figure out, “No, no, no. You have to make this industrial economy and industrial society, and enable many, many more people to participate in it.”
My fear is that we’re stuck in a period like 1870, 1880, 1890. And actually Rove thinks it’s the 1890s. We need a way to accelerate the pace of the change so that we can build a creative and more humane society.
We’re always in that situation where the technology is moving ahead much more quickly than people’s ability to adapt behind it.
RF: And what’s happening is that the fear factor is being stoked so high that people are saying, “Put the brakes on. Stop it.”
I mean, conceivably, if you’re right in all of this, this could actually be Osama Bin Laden’s greatest victory, if this all boils down from the attack on The World Trade Center, and we end up losing all this creative talent and become sort of a second-tier country. Or maybe all of the creative energy moves to other countries and we become the armed forces of the world. That’s my science-fiction scenario of the future.
RF: I think that’s what may be on the minds of some of our more neoconservative realist security planners, that we control the world’s oil and the world’s military. And we get leverage that way. It’s a terrifying scenario.
The real progress of human history is the constant unleashing of human creative power, and our ability to make and remake a world, build cities, build communities.
I think the adaptive capacity, the ability of people to create cities and community, our ability as families, all of that has been shattered as the large corporation has gone away and unions have become less of a social support. Now we see, as Ethan Waters talks about, these urban-based communities of single people supporting one another and creating wonderfully liberating lives.
Where Robert Putnam bemoans the end of the family-oriented civic sector society, I see a lot of repression towards women, young people, and gay people.
He’s the author of Bowling Alone, right?
RF: Correct. I’m not going to say all of these urban communities are great, but the ability of people to find new ways of collectively supporting one another is unbelievable. I think that’s where the real hope lies.
The real battle of our times is between the flourishing of these new forms of developing creativity, these new forms of technology that spread this creativity and enable this creative energy to be mobilized on a much bigger scale, and those who want to control it and squelch it.
For the moment, it looks like the squelchers have the upper hand. But I think the squelchers are going to fall by the boards.
Yes, exactly. I know a lot of people who are counting on that anyway.
RF: I just want to live to see it. The great fear is that what we experienced in the late 50s and 60s, that great outpouring of human energy and the emergence of the creative economy, will take another 50 years to play out.
I hope to live long enough to see this thing flourish for our kids and grandkids so that they’re living in a world that doesn’t have borders.
When I grew up, I knew kids in my little block of North Arlington, New Jersey. When I went to Rutgers, I met kids from southern New Jersey. When I went to Columbia, I moved to New York City, five miles away from where I grew up, and I met some international people. Now I teach a classroom of students from around the world who have friends all over the world.
These kids go all over the world hanging out, meeting their friends, having fabulous experiences, making films, joining bands. We need a global creative society, not a society in any one nation. That’s what the great promise of this time is.
Maybe what you’re seeing, the flight of the creative class, is in effect the beginning of that truly global society. If you’ve got people spreading out, maybe this actually is the beginning of a good thing.
RF: I often think that the way to look at this is the way we used to look at the system of science. The United States was a critical node in a truly global system of science. I think the same thing will happen in the creative economy; no one country’s going to monopolize it. What you’re going to have is a series of nodes. Instead of looking at ourselves as the world’s policemen and the world’s enforcer, and the spreader of democracy, we should see ourselves as a strongly functioning node in a global system.
Then that’s just the dream come true of the network. Maybe that’s where we’ve been headed the whole time, into a truly networked world.
RF: We hope, right?
Let’s wrap up on this fairly upbeat point. Thank you.