What would you think of a public-policy brainiac who, out of nowhere, declared that all cities need to do to be economically successful is attract a critical mass of gay people: Lure the gays and lesbians in and just sit back and let the good times roll.
You'd think the guy was off his nut.
That's what some of Richard Florida's critics think. But Florida, a professor of economic development at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, counters that the naysayers haven't been paying close enough attention. He says they've missed the point.
Florida's 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life , has created quite a stir among economic development wonks and municipal officials across the country. It argues, in a nutshell, that traditional methods of stimulating regional economic growth, such as offering companies tax incentives and building large-scale amenities like sports stadiums, are outmoded. Don't do it, he tells anyone who'll listen—investment in human creativity is the path to greener pastures.
Florida, hipper than your average economic development professor, with his stylish short haircut, his pullover sweater and sandals, will be in San Diego to present his ideas in a July 10 lecture. He'll tell his audience that a vibrant music scene, a diverse ethnic population and, yes, a thriving gay community are excellent indicators of a vital regional economy that will flourish in the Information Age.
“Essentially,” he writes in his book, “my theory says that regional economic growth is driven by the location choices of creative people—the holders of creative capital—who prefer places that are diverse, tolerant and open to new ideas.”
He didn't just come up with this stuff as he sipped láttes at a Steel City café. He stumbled upon his revelations while tracking the location patterns of high-technology firms. After running into colleague Gary Gates, who was busily monitoring the migration behavior of gay people, he knew he was on to something. Florida and Gates found that their lists were remarkably similar.
Florida worked up a series of indices that ranked U.S. cities in the areas of diversity (using gays as an indicator), innovation (number of patents), high technology (high-tech economic output) and creativity (jobs that require creativity) and then coined his “creativity index”—the sum of those parts—and ranked cities in large, medium and small categories. The cities at the top of the list “get it,” while those at the bottom must be stuck in old thinking.
San Francisco ranks No. 1 among large cities, followed by Austin, Texas. San Diego is tied for third with Boston. Seattle is No. 5, followed by Raleigh-Durham, Houston, Washington D.C.-Baltimore, New York and Dallas. These cities are home to a pulsating creative class of people, who, Florida says, are now attracting well-paying companies, not, as conventional thought would have it, the other way around.
Florida has gobs of anecdotal evidence to support his ideas. One of his favorite pieces is the case of Lycos, a Pittsburgh-headquartered, Internet-browser company. Despite being tied to a major research university, Lycos up and moved to Boston. Florida investigated the reason for the company's departure and found that the advantage Boston had over Pittsburgh, from Lycos' view, was its large population of young, educated, creative-minded people.
And he loves the one about the tattooed, multiple-pierced hipster whom he found in Pittsburgh being recruited for a high-paying job with a tech firm in Austin. The nightlife in Texas' capitol was calling; he just didn't “fit” in Pittsburgh.
That young man is a member of Florida's creative class, one of an estimated 38 million nationwide. The creative class, as he defines it, is one-third of the total workforce and collects about half the country's total wages. “The creative sector is where, I believe, most of the wealth is created,” Florida told CityBeat this week.
To nurture and harness that human creativity, cities need to get the hang of what he calls the “three Ts”—technology, talent and tolerance, he says. Technology means having universities with healthy research and development budgets and an infrastructure in place for a community of tech companies. Talent means a large population of educated people. Tolerance means welcoming foreign immigrants, gays and bohemians—writers, poets, musicians and artists.
“People typically just look at technology: ‘We're going to be a technology center,'” Florida said. “In order to be a thriving center, you need to do all three Ts, and what gays and bohemians are, are really leading indictors or signals. They're not determinative of a creative ecosystem, and that's where so many of my critics just go berserk-ranting and raving about it-these are leading indicators of a kind of ecosystem, or environment, habitat or milieu, that will harness creative energy and attract creative people.
“The size of the gay pride event probably is a reasonably good indicator of what kind of potential you have,” he said. “If you take the size of the gay pride event and the R&D budget of your major universities, you've probably got very good indicators of how you're going to do.”
The U.S. economy is at a crossroads, Florida says. What has happened in the 1990s and first decade of the new millennium is similar to where we found ourselves in the 1920s and 1930s. “What happened in the 1920s is that we began to invest in new industries, and in the 1930s... when the industrial economy collapsed—because it was so productive; we didn't have the institutions to channel that energy—we went about, in the New Deal, building a supportive industrial society.” That included access to unions, government—guaranteed mortgages, a highway system, improved access to higher education and funding for research and development.
Nowadays, after the bursting of the Internet bubble, “we put our head in the sand, and we say we have to bring back industry [and] we have to invest in factories,” he says. “It's like our entire society had a giant, collective stroke, and is unwilling to confront the real sources of our economic-wealth generation. In the United States, the underlying things that gave us economic advantage were our tremendous society-wide investments in higher education, research and development and artistic and cultural creativity, which dwarfed those of other societies, but I think more than that, the fact that we have always been an open country.”
Some of the most prosperous companies in the Silicon Valley were started by foreign immigrants, he notes. But our response to terrorist threats is to “clamp down on immigration,” Florida says. “In effect, we're undermining the conditions of our own advantage, an I think we're on very shaky ground.”
As for the class of creative people Florida says is increasingly going to shape the American way of life, “it's not sun and fun they want, only. What they really want is a place that allows them to validate their identity and be who they are.”
It appears San Diego is one of those places.
“San Diego partly gets it,” Florida says. “Obviously, San Diego has several things in its favor. It's obvious that it has an infrastructure of technological advantage. It's the kind of place that's warm enough and sunny enough and high enough quality of place that it's attractive to people. And thirdly, and very importantly, [it's] been fairly open and tolerant....
“That said,” he continues, “San Diego, like many places, still has a bunch of people who want to impose old categories on it and would like to pursue a more conservative strategy and see San Diego and what's happening as kind of out of control and too many immigrants and too many gays. That's a delicate balance that you have there now. San Diego has done very well, but your advantages are by no means assured. You're going to have lots of competition.”