Does civic creativity pay?

It’s a beautiful idea: Creativity, according to Richard Florida, is the great engine driving the world economy. To succeed, a city must recognize that the age of factory and farm has forever passed, and that a new age has dawned with a new breed of workers: the creative class.

According to Florida’s statistics, the creative class comprises nearly 30 percent of the American work force. They’re not just artists and actors, but doctors, lawyers, engineers, ad writers and techies — anyone, essentially, lucky enough to “create” for a living.

The creative class, according to Florida, takes home more than half of the American paycheck. And they want to spend it living in cities that make them feel like they’re really living — cities with rich arts communities, funky retail districts, vibrant nightlife and a tolerance for diversity.

By all rights, Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, a second book by a relatively unknown Carnegie Mellon University professor with some minor success on the speaking circuit, should have flared briefly and faded into the oblivion reserved for most reports on economic research. But he struck a chord.

Maybe it’s simply that Florida is a good writer — conversational, quick, full of apt illustrations and possessing the rare ability to draw readers through an argument while letting them feel as though they’ve figured it all out on their own.

Maybe it’s that he’s got an uncanny knack for public relations. Instead of burying his statistics in the appendix, he created press-friendly Top Ten lists: His Top Ten Most Creative Cities makes a great story, and coupled with the Bottom Ten it’s irresistible.

But the enormous success of his book — it climbed quickly onto the bestseller list, and has already generated dozens of regional initiatives — suggests he’s onto something bigger: either a new truth, or something people want very much to believe.

Like most great ideas, Florida’s idea is almost absurdly easy to grasp — and to attack. It’s hard not to respond with a hearty “amen” to Florida pronouncements like “the economy will prosper again when more Americans can do the work they love.” But he’s also an easy target for opponents who wonder exactly what bike paths and rock bands have to do with regional economic health.

Part of the answer is that, like most great ideas, Florida’s are not as simple as they seem. Artists and bike paths don’t create wealth on their own, Florida says. Rather, communities that value the arts and other forms of diversity are more likely to value innovation in the workplace and attract workers who can innovate. And in a global economy increasingly driven by “the next big thing,” innovation in the workplace is a matter of economic life or death.

The other part of the answer is that Florida’s numbers may not prove his point. His creativity index data is largely garnered from the 1990 census, which reflects a world in which the tech bubble had not yet burst and young, creative people were still making business decisions in an economic dream world, largely with other people’s money. Florida’s index measures four indicators: tech, talent, tolerance and creativity, and in some cases the measure seems primitive. His talent index is based entirely on the number of residents with bachelor’s degrees, and might better be termed an “educational achievement” index — less sexy, but more accurate. Florida likes to point to talented college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as models for his creative class.

Florida’s creativity index simply measures the number of residents who report employment in what Florida deems a “creative” field. This beats counting the number of museums in an area, as Florida points out, but the utility of his index is still debatable.

In either case, Detroit has good reason to examine Florida’s numbers. In his survey of the 49 major U.S. metropolitan regions, Detroit scored 39th.

We’re in good company. New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, scored 43rd, a ranking that caused such an uproar in Louisiana that Florida eventually wrote a response in the city’s local arts weekly, acknowledging the limits of his index but defending the general principle: that arts alone, without a strong, tech-savvy talent base, can’t float a local economy. His rejoinder didn’t fully explain why the high value New Orleans places on the arts didn’t correlate, as Florida suggests it would in his theory, with innovation in the local workplace.

Detroit didn’t put up much of a fight, even when ran an article on Florida’s findings that carried the tagline: “a new study says cities must attract the new ‘creative class’... or go the way of Detroit.”

Detroiters should have fought. We should have mentioned Motown, John Lee Hooker, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, the MC5, Madonna, techno, Eminem, D12, Kid Rock, the White Stripes — and the automobile. We should have asked what, exactly, of value has come out of San Diego, which ranks fourth on Florida’s creativity list. We should have suggested that perhaps the reason the national music scene is dominated by Detroit artists is that, in Detroit, our artists are too busy actually creating art to hang out at coffee bars or open boutiques. And speaking of coffee bars, we should have mentioned that some of the best artists we know work in such places, or at some other crummy “service job,” which means they don’t show up on Florida’s creativity index like all the “creatives” he counts because they’ve sold their soul to the man, designing Microsoft icons for a lousy buck.

Detroit will have a chance to tell Richard Florida what the city thinks — and listen to what he has to say for himself — March 3 and 4, when CreateDetroit, a local grassroots organization formed largely in response to The Rise of the Creative Class, will host Florida and his Creativity Group for a two-day “Regional Transformation Process.”

Interestingly, what Florida actually has to say hasn’t crystallized yet. Both he and his organization are riding a wave none of them expected.

“I wrote a book that I thought would be read by a couple of economic development folks and debated on its merits and promptly forgotten,” Florida says.

Now cities around the nation are turning to him for concrete solutions to complex problems.

Florida says his job is to help the people of a city realize their own creative potential, to help connect and encourage local drive and talent. Regardless of whether his numbers are credible — in fact, regardless of whether his basic thesis is right or wrong — if Florida can use his notoriety to spark dialogue in a city like Detroit, he will have accomplished something.

“I want to be very clear,” he says. “The purpose of CreateDetroit is not for me and my team to come to Detroit and prescribe fixes. What will help in Detroit is for swelling grassroots efforts like CreateDetroit to say, ‘This is where we want to be in the future. This is what we plan to do to get there.’”

Florida clearly has momentum, as well as the attention of Michigan business and government leaders. There’s opportunity here, for those willing to take it.

But who will fill the seats at Florida’s table?

It remains to be seen.


Check out these additional stories:

Hipster economics
How the cool collective and business leaders hope to build a better Detroit.

Ranking Detroit
A breakdown of how Florida rates the Motor City.

Funding the arts
Detroit's arts spending doesn't measure up to other cities.

Carey Wallace is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]