From: Issue 19 Categories: ideas

The Guru of Creativity

Pushing the Limits Interview with Richard Florida.

Written by Jordan Gold, Columnist

Image Via Flicker User opensourceway

If America’s “greatest economic challenge since the dawn of the industrial revolution” is the “global competition for talent,” as best-selling author and social theorist Richard Florida suggests, what does Florida think of the global competition for resources? In his books The Rise of the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class, Florida argues there’s a link between a region’s ability to attract and cultivate creative people and its ultimate economic success. But this coveted Creative Class also demands green places to live, says Florida, so sustainability and creativity may go hand in hand—along with the abandonment of the ex-urban structure.

JG:
Could you tell us what is the New Economy and the Creative Class?

RF:
We’re shifting to an economy where value is created through creativity. We have this group of people who are paid to use their creativity, and we have a bunch of other people who toil in manufacturing and service jobs; who use elements of their creativity but are not principally paid for that. The real challenge of our time is to extend the structures of the creative economy to include everyone. Creativity doesn’t know and doesn’t care about any of the social categories we’ve imposed on ourselves. It really comes in all kinds of people. So the key is to be an open, tolerant and diverse society where people can express themselves. Once they can express themselves, part of that expression will be an expression of creativity, which is the stuff of which economic value is created.

JG:
What is the impact of the New Economy and Creative Class on the sustainability of our urban regions?

RF:
Talented people who are participating in the creative economy and have a choice in where to live are selecting places that are greener and more sustainable. Being in a greener, more naturally oriented kind of community with better open space, parks and cleaner air and water must be something people really desire. Creative people will go to places that are more open, more tolerant and more sustainable.

JG:
Your writing often focuses on attracting more creative people to urban areas. Do you think there should be a limit to the growth of these areas?

RF:
I’m fine with thinking about limits, but I actually think probably, the thing holding back density is too many regulations to begin with. So I would very much like to see some relaxation of building codes and zoning restrictions which inhibit density.

One of the things my research and the research of my student Brian Knutzen shows is that density is strongly associated with innovation, high-tech industry and success in the creative economy. So I think the key to building more economically effective, more innovative and more sustainable regions has to be increased density.

I think that what we’re getting to over time is an understanding of which environments work best for people. People with higher incomes are demanding properties closer to the centre—trading their large houses for condominiums and apartments. And certainly young people have a very strong preference for urban locations and actually less dependence on the automobile. We know for sure that long commutes are one of the things which most significantly damage your subjective well-being or happiness.

I think that this ex-urban or suburban special structure that we inherited from the 1950s and ’60s is beginning to reach its limits. More tightly compacted, more dense special structures and regions, regions that really care about increasing density and creating human-centred environments—over time, they’re going to be more attractive to people. Over time, they’re going to pay off in more innovation.

JG:
Can you think of examples of urban areas that demonstrate some of the characteristics you suggest would bring innovation and creativity to the urban atmosphere?

RF:
I think at a regional level, no. 100 years ago at the dawn of the industrial revolution, people thought long and hard about the kind of cities and regions they wanted to build. I don’t know what’s happened, but it’s almost as if we’ve had this gigantic stroke or mental breakdown where we can’t think about cities and regions. When a city or region gets over 3.5 million or 4 million or 5 million people, the whole nature of its development changes. It has to become more dependent on public transit, on rail, on subway. It can no longer be so dependent on the car. It can’t sprawl in the way that it did. The whole system seems to break down. I don’t see the perfect place out there. I see more and more places neglecting themselves.

I’m so puzzled as to why we can’t put geography and space and community back on the table of our dialogues about the kind of country and world we want to live in. I’d say this is the basic sort of message of my work: the place you choose to live really matters to your future.

JG:
Capitalism seems to be bumping into a range of ecological boundaries. What do you think this means for the future of our economic system?

RF:
Capitalism is the most dynamic mode of production ever invented, and it has shown an uncanny ability to reinvent itself. Obviously, sustainability and energy and alternative energy are becoming some of the biggest growth industries that Silicon Valley venture capitalists are thinking about now. So I have no doubt that the human species and capitalism will be able to invent new profit-making forms of environmentally friendly technology.

I think we are moving to a much greater concern for sustainability, because people are demanding it. As soon as there is market demand in capitalism, people tend to provide for it.

JG:
Do you see a major economic change or downturn on the horizon?

RF:
There’s no doubt that the next 20 years is going to be a time of readjustment in the world’s economy. It seems to me the US is facing a series of issues just at the moment everyone thought it was the world’s unquestioned superpower. I don’t think the US is in for a nasty fall. I think it would damage the world economy too much; the world economy is too interdependent. I think what’s likely going to happen is the world economy is going to become more competitive. The rise of China and India certainly means that less developed countries can more and more become players, with all the environmental issues that brings.

We are seeing increasing concentrations of population, even greater concentrations of economic activity and still greater concentrations of technological and scientific activity in perhaps a dozen or two dozen mega-regions worldwide. This economic activity is extraordinarily highly concentrated, and in that sense denser. And the real question in my mind is, not only how do we make sure those mountains of economic activity are sustainable, but what the heck do the people outside that do? It’s a political powder-keg the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. It’s going to take global leadership to solve that, and part of the problem is we don’t have the mechanisms to do that.

JG:
What do you see in the future for Toronto, Canada’s largest city?

RF:
Toronto is now a world-class region. I think it’s time for Toronto to do what New York and Chicago did a century ago when Chicago had the Columbian exposition and
New York had the World’s Fair—they said, ‘we’re going to be cities the world takes seriously.’ The change in Toronto towards tolerance, openness and esthetics is so great over the past 20 years.

I think that Toronto, with its media assets and its literary and academic assets, needs to become a global media centre for North America—thinking about new perspectives, new ideas, economic competitions and global security. And I think you have the academic institutions to do that. I almost see Toronto as this kind of global think-tank centre.

JG:
If you could know the answer to any question in the world, what might it be?

RF:
How do we stop people from killing one another? How do we stop the militarization of the world economy? It’s really terrifying to me—the advance of technology and innovation that’s led to greater and greater capability to destroy ourselves. It’s really troubling to me that people run around cities with guns and weapons and shoot one another, that at this stage in our development we’re using these technologies to kill ourselves.

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