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Richard Florida, Tracking the 'Creative Class'

Richard Florida

Three years ago, Richard Florida argued in his book The Rise of the Creative Class that artists and entrepreneurs, scientists and health care professionals drive American business innovation. Cities and regions will thrive by providing an open, tolerant environment for "cultural creatives," he said.

Now the public policy professor has taken his argument global in a new book: The Flight of the Creative Class. He also sounds an alarm: the United States may be on the verge of losing its competitive edge in attracting innovators.

Read an excerpt:

From the First Chapter of Flight of the Creative Class:

In March of 2003, I had the opportunity to meet Peter Jackson, the Academy Award-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, at his film complex in lush, green, otherworldly Wellington, New Zealand. Jackson has done something unlikely in Wellington, a smallish but exciting cosmopolitan city of roughly 400,000, and one certainly not previously considered a global cultural capital. He has built a permanent facility there that is considered one of the world's most sophisticated filmmaking complexes. And he did it in New Zealand for a reason.

Jackson, a Wellington native, realized what many American cities discovered during the 1990s: that paradigm-busting creative industries could single-handedly change the way cities flourish while driving dynamic and widespread economic change. It took Jackson and his partners a while to raise the resources, but they eventually purchased an abandoned paint factory that, emblematic in its adaptive transformation and reuse, emerged as the studio responsible for the most breathtaking trilogy of films ever made. He realized, Jackson told me, that with the allure of the Lord of the Rings movies he would be able to attract a diverse array of creative talent from around the world, enticing the best cinematographers, costume designers, sound technicians, computer-graphic artists, model builders, editors, and animators to New Zealand.

Sure enough, during my visit to Wellington, I met dozens of Americans from universities such as the University of California at Berkeley and MIT working alongside talented filmmakers from Europe and Asia. Many had begun the process of establishing residency in New Zealand, ready to relinquish their American citizenship for what they saw as greener creative pastures. One of them, a digital wunderkind from the San Francisco Bay area, told me he was launching his new high-tech start-up in Wellington because of the technology infrastructure and environment there, which in his case created advantages that trumped even Silicon Valley. As we walked past a world map with pins stuck in employees' native countries, the head of digital animation joked that the organization looked more like the UN than a film production studio.

Think about this. In an industry synonymous with America's international economic and cultural might, film production, the single greatest project in recent cinematic history was internationally funded and crafted by the best filmmakers from around the world. But not in Hollywood.

When Hollywood produces movies, it creates jobs for directors, actors, and key grips in California. Because of the astounding level of technical innovation required by films of Rings' magnitude-in areas from computer graphics and animation to sound design-such a project also germinates whole new companies, and even new nationwide industries. George Lucas's Star Wars films, for instance, almost single-handedly sparked the advancement of everything from video games to product tie-in marketing. The lion's share of economic benefits from the Rings trilogy, though, is likely to accrue not to the United States but to New Zealand. In an equally mighty display of economic irony, Jackson's remake of King Kong is also being put together in Wellington, with a budget running upward of $150 million.

Peter Jackson's accomplishment in tiny Wellington hasn't factored into any of the ongoing debates over global economic competitiveness. But the United States of America is now facing its greatest challenge since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. This challenge has little to do with business costs and even less with manufacturing prowess. And, no, the main competitive threats are not China or India. Our country-for generations known around the world as the land of opportunity and innovation -- may well be on the verge of losing its creative competitive edge.

The core of this challenge is what I've come to see as the new global competition for talent, a phenomenon that promises to radically reshape the world in the coming decades. No longer will economic might amass in countries according to their natural resources, manufacturing excellence, military dominance, or even scientific and technological prowess. Today, the terms of competition revolve around a central axis: a nation's ability to mobilize, attract, and retain human creative talent. Every key dimension of international economic leadership, from manufacturing excellence to scientific and technological advancement, will depend on this ability.

This new global competition for talent creates a serious threat to the United States' long-standing economic hegemony on three overlapping fronts. First, a wide range of countries around the world are increasing their ability to compete for global talent. Second, the United States is undermining its own ability to compete for that talent. And third, the U.S. is failing to cultivate and harness the full creative capabilities of its own people in ways that position it to compete effectively.

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Transcript

SHEILAH KAST, host:

In his first book three years ago, "The Rise of the Creative Class," Richard Florida argued that artists and entrepreneurs, scientists and health-care professionals are the ones who drive American business innovation. The cities and regions that will thrive, he contended, are the ones which provide an open, tolerant environment for cultural creatives. Now the public policy professor has taken his argument global and sounded an alarm that the US may be on the verge of losing its competitive edge in attracting innovators. The new book is called "The Flight of the Creative Class." Richard Florida joins us from member station KCFR in Denver, Colorado.

Welcome to the show.

Professor RICHARD FLORIDA (Author, "The Flight of the Creative Class"): It's great to be with you.

KAST: What is the creative class? How do you define who's in it, who's not?

Prof. FLORIDA: The creative class is really the growth sector of our economy and the world economy. In the United States about 40 million people work in this sector of the economy, and worldwide it's about 150 million. They're scientists, people who work in technology and innovate, entrepreneurs who start companies. They're also everyone who works in the artistic and cultural field and entertainment broadly. And in addition to that, we include the people who are in the classical professions: people in finance, the legal and health-care professions.

But having 30 to 35 percent of our working population in the creative sector is insufficient from both an economic and from a political stance. And, really, the challenge of our time is to grow this creative class to encompass many, many more Americans and to let many more people participate.

KAST: You write that you coined the phrase `creative class' because you were infuriated by the elitism of talking about the `knowledge economy.' How are they different? And isn't the idea of a creative class fairly elitist in itself?

Prof. FLORIDA: While most commentators who work on these issues see a culture war or red and blue states, what I tend to see is a fundamental class divide in our society that's worsening. We have to improve the quality of jobs in the service sector, everyone from people who do landscaping to physical therapy, work in grocery stores. Those are the jobs that can't be outsourced. We have to treat those jobs and make them better jobs.

KAST: How should the US improve those jobs?

Prof. FLORIDA: First, the US has to reinvest in our own innovation and creativity. We need to increase spending on education, science, technology and arts and culture because many people who are creative, arts and culture become their stimulant. Secondly, we have to remain an open country. The retreat that this country has made with regards to restrictions on immigrations, this ridiculous debate about securing our borders and keeping illegal immigrants out--immigrants add economic impact to the United States' economy. And, thirdly, we have to strengthen our cities. If we invest in creativity, if we keep ourselves open, tolerant and inclusive and make sure our cities and urban economies are strong, we'll have a pretty bright future. If we fail to do that, I think we face the gravest competitive threat of our time.

KAST: Isn't there a value, though, to the American economy of having smart, creative people who like the US functioning happily in other countries?

Prof. FLORIDA: Absolutely. One of the things that has made the United States so interesting is what Joe Nye at Harvard calls our soft power. A really incredible component of that soft power has been our ability to educate and train people who then go back to Europe, to Japan and help build thriving industries and, also, staff the political and bureaucratic apparatus.

What's happening, though, now is not only are we restricting immigration and visas; people have a worsening opinion of the United States as a place that is no longer friendly to immigrants, that is no longer friendly to foreign students. And one of the things they single out is this obsession with kind of the culture wars. What they're saying is, you know, `It looks to me like a place like Canada or the United Kingdom. They look like the kind of places that are more attractive.' And, unfortunately for the United States, lots of the 150 million members of the global creative class are choosing instead to go to those countries rather than come here.

KAST: You write that blocking creative newcomers is a greater threat to the US economy than terrorism. But isn't security as important as creativity?

Prof. FLORIDA: Well, I think people have to feel secure, and at the same time we have to realize that the thing that's made the United States a great country and an economic superpower has been our ability to attract the best and the brightest people from around the world.

KAST: You seem to minimize the importance of wages in decisions people make. You cite inspiring examples of people leaving fat paychecks for more exciting work at lesser pay. But aren't they really a rare exception?

Prof. FLORIDA: I think that wages are important, and certainly people continue to move to places for economic opportunity. But one of the things I think most economists have missed is that creative people are intrinsically motivated. And if you look at most people who work in the creative fields, they're not motivated simply by money. And for all of those economists who somehow believe you can spur national or regional growth by cutting taxes and using business incentives, the simple thing I would offer is that: Isn't it surprising that the fastest-growing places in the world are typically the highest-cost, most-expensive places? Putting the total emphasis on cost and business incentive factors nixes a much bigger picture: Creative people want to be in places where they can be themselves, do their work, be excited and be the person, the complete person, they want to be.

KAST: Richard Florida is professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia. The book is "The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent," published by HarperBusiness.

Thanks a lot.

Prof. FLORIDA: Thank you, Sheilah.

KAST: You can read an excerpt from Richard Florida's newest book at our Web site, npr.org.

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KAST: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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