Richard Florida’s Creative Classism

In the Community Economic Development MBA program at CBU, our Economic Geography professor tested our reading comprehension by having us summarize one of the assigned readings. I chose Richard Florida’s “Cities and the Creative Class”.

The City as an object of academic study has been marginalized in the last several decades by scholars whose myopic view of regional development has led them to see only companies, firms, and industries as engines of innovation and economic growth. Richard Florida has corrected this egregious error, rescuing the city from undeserved obscurity, and effectively filling in a giant blind spot in economic geography as a discipline that has existed ever since Jane Jacobs stopped writing about the city and started writing about the planet.

If it weren’t for Florida’s heroic effort to return the city from oblivion to its rightful place at the centre of regional development theories of economic growth, policy makers would spend another wasted generation misplacing their energies (by attempting to influence and attract firms with incentives); and lesser scholars would misplace their energies by studying non-economic functions of places. Policy makers and scholars alike should instead look to the city as the new way of organizing geographies. And here’s why.

Not only is geography not “dead”, but in fact the people responsible for economic growth in (mainly) the US are concentrating in a handful of places. The question then is whether favourable economic conditions (jobs, etc) bring those people to those places, or whether those people actually bring the economy with them. Indeed, Florida argues that firms cluster in places, spurring the huge economic growth and spawning the advancements in innovation that characterize booming economies, precisely because those people are there, all at once, together. The best and the brightest, they are. Look at ’em! They’re almost glowing. They’re called… The Creative Class.

There are several important things to know about this important group of important people. First, they don’t care for bowling, church, politics, group sports in general, trusting people, caring about strangers, knowing people outside of their class and specialty, or having meaningful connections to humans that might in any way inhibit the economic growth of the economy.

What they do like is “networking” with people who share their interests, which allows them to socialize while simultaneously pursuing their own interests.

In this way, not only are they highly motivated technological innovators, but indeed social innovators. They spontaneously create the very lifestyle conditions required to reproduce themselves: a diverse, open society where anyone is welcome so long as you don’t try to get to know others too well (i.e., invasive-ness is taboo) or do anything else to inhibit the production of novelty leading to economic growth (like, say, promote stability or obligations).

While Florida places cities at the centre of regional development theory, he places these people, the Creative Class, at the centre of the City. No longer are cities important because of their centrality in a distribution network nor their proximity to natural resources. The new economy is still structured around resource extraction, but of a radically different resource, what Florida calls “human capital”.

Being human is not enough to endow a human with human capital worth extracting: a human must first be enriched with high-grade education, and pressurized to a level of productivity not found outside the lab, in nature. The resulting human product is called “talented”, and as specimens accumulate in a place, yet remain unattached so as to easily reconfigure in novel combinations, we see economic growth.

As noted, only some humans possess human capital. And only some humans with human capital possess the kind of human capital, “creative capital”, necessary to drive economic growth. And still fewer of these creative humans possess highly enough concentrated levels to be considered super-creative. These include scientists, artists, designers, and Richard Florida.

In order for someone’s output to be considered super-creative, it must meet the following dual criteria, both of which are necessary and neither of which is sufficient on its own: it must be highly original, yet highly reproducible.

Among the creative class as a whole, Florida counts almost 1 in 3 Americans. There is a high degree of probability that the remainder are creative human beings. But they aren’t required, or allowed, to employ this creativity in their jobs — because they stayed in their hometown which is ethnically homogeneous and sparse in technological assets, and they didn’t graduate from university, like Steve Jobs.

Florida is not uncritical of the new cities, and notes some of the contradictions of the rise of the creative class: as university graduates relocate to join the creative class, we can see intensifying economic inequality between a few fast growing regional economies and the shrinking regional economies of the various backwaters where they grew up; and within fast growing economies, anyone not a member of the creative class can no longer afford their rent and must move to those hollowed out communities that the creative people just evacuated.

Worst of all, members of the creative class must check their email frequently, causing mental disorders that will lead to social breakdown in the absence of support structures like bowling leagues, Kiwanis, church, community, friends, and family.

To summarize, the Creative Age is distinguished by the movement, accumulation, concentration, and infinite reconfiguration of “human capital”. The creative class is, in other words, capital incarnate.