Rethinking the “Creative Class”

By Sheldon Greaves

Years ago I came across an article that touted the civic planning theories of Richard Florida, who was making waves with the fascinating claim that the real money-making parts of America were those that emphasized “creative” work; computers, movies, music, etc. His was a call to develop the “creative class”: artsy types, tech heads, eccentrics of various colors and flavors. All this would attract investment and concomitant growth:

“His observations quickly formed the basis of a set of breezy technical solutions. If decaying cities wanted to survive, they had to open cool bars, shabby-chic coffee shops, and art venues that attract young, educated, and tolerant residents. Eventually, the mysterious alchemy of the creative economy would build a new and prosperous urban core.”

The above quote is taken from an interesting article whose title says it all: “Richard Florida Is Sorry” although it could have just as easily have been “Richard Florida Admits He Got It Wrong.” After reading about his ideas, being somewhat of an artsy sort (or at least an aspirant thereto), I picked up his book The Rise of the Creative Class. There was much to admire in what I found there, although some of his reasoning and criteria seemed a little fuzzy and even arbitrary. It is true that historically those civilizations that were the most vibrant, the most robust and technically advanced also boasted a highly diverse population. Where arts and learning were encouraged, commerce thrived as well. This is a frequent pattern. Likewise, shutting off free inquiry and constraining or reducing diversity puts any society at a serious long-term disadvantage. So, on one level, Florida’s thesis makes sense.

But the result of feeding the “creative class” has produced gentrification, massive income inequality, increased homelessness, etc. There are a number of reasons why this might be so. One of them is because, frankly, I don’t see jobs like coding for Google as all that “creative.” Seriously. Google is a company that can’t even design a decent user interface. How creative can they actually be? How much of coding is truly inventive and how much is just smart use of code libraries? I’ve met a few truly good auto mechanics whose analytical skills are at least the match of a high-end coder.

Perhaps I am confusing “creative” with “artistic,” but the creativity that makes a city interesting is usually found in the poorer quarters. Think New Orleans. That’s where one finds the interesting art, music, cuisine, independent bookstores and, at one time in our intellectual history, a vibrant marketplace of ideas and politics (I’m thinking Berkeley or San Francisco when hippies walked the earth). College campuses, filled with young people with time, but not too much money, are hotbeds of creative fervor, albeit against a rising tide of corporatist administration. Florida’s theories–as he now admits–pushes most of that out and replaces it with mass-produced counterfeits with about as much soul as a parking meter. Florida’s creative classes were, frankly, not all that creative.

I had grown a bit suspicious of Florida’s work a few years ago when I saw some critiques of his work. One claim of his thesis was that the creative class could set their own rules, gain some autonomy from corporate management. In fact, anyone who has ever worked for Hollywood knows that creative talent is usually just one of the more easily exploitable resources for corporate America. I’d also seen this personally in Silicon Valley in the late 80s and early 90s. In fact, Florida’s book became something of a guide for managers on how to do just that.

Now Florida has a new book, The New Urban Crisis in which he reflects on where he went wrong. I can’t commend him enough for being willing to change his mind on this; that it the mark of a true scholar. I have only read about his new book, which apparently offers only modest solutions to the urban crises that are arising in major cities around the world. But let me offer a few suggestions:

  1. Creativity starts at the bottom. It must have a wide base of ideas. If you inject too much money into a society or a segment of society, the result is a sameness of outlook and thinking. Support the arts at the grassroots level, wisely yet generously, and creativity will emerge.
  2. Competition must be recognized for the innovation-killer that it is. It does not breed innovation, but imitation. Competitors invariably start to resemble each other until there is little to choose between them. Competitors also become fewer as they are forced out of the marketplace.
  3. Tolerant societies are more creative than non-tolerant societies. In this case, Florida was spot-on. Liberal, open societies are required for creativity in any field. Some “big thinkers” of the rich elite are arguing that democracy and freedom are no longer compatible when in fact the arts and science are both social in nature. They demand free, open societies for greatest effect.

Creativity is an emergent phenomenon. It is unpredictable and even capricious. That is its genius. If we are to solve the urban crisis, and so many other crises that beset us, we need to leave space for the truly creative among us. It’s a safe bet they won’t be found in the Boardroom.





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