Richard Florida is back ... and he doesn't like what he sees. Florida is the urban economist whose book, The Rise of the Creative Class, identified people and cities as the major factors defining economic success in our post-Industrial era.
Seeing that we have to compete with other cities is one thing, actually doing what it takes to be successful is something else again.
According to Florida, "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." And cities, Florida observed, are the places where this highly mobile talent congregates.
Florida has just published his second book, The Flight of the Creative Class. It's a warning that, through our attitudes and policies, the U.S. is putting itself at risk.
"First," Florida writes, "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."
Florida's ideas have a special resonance in Indianapolis. The Rise of the Creative Class was just being delivered to bookstores in 2002 when Florida was invited to speak to local leaders here by the Central Indiana Community Foundation and Indianapolis Downtown Inc. He's remained in touch with local policymakers and made a public presentation at Butler University last year. In his writings and speaking engagements, Florida often alludes to the years he spent living in and studying Pittsburgh, a city that has gone from industrial prosperity to hard times and is now trying to reinvent itself. Florida has argued that Pittsburgh's trajectory reflects the condition of numerous other American cities of a certain size - a point not lost on people here who see that if Indianapolis is going to prosper it has to successfully compete for talent with other cities in this country, and around the world.
But seeing that we have to compete with other cities is one thing, actually doing what it takes to be successful is something else again.
In The Flight of the Creative Class, Florida questions whether our leaders have the vision and the will to create a social environment that not only attracts and retains creative professionals in high technology, engineering, the sciences, arts and cultural enterprise, but that makes new opportunities for fulfilling work available to an ever-expanding portion of the population. Recent events in our state Legislature and City-County Council suggest we Hoosiers are falling down on the job.
Florida says that you can measure a country or a city's worldwide economic competitiveness based on what he calls the "3 T's" of economic growth: Technology, Talent and Tolerance. Other economists have stressed the importance of the first two elements. Florida's contribution has been his insight that in order to understand why some places are better than others at "generating, attracting and holding on" to the technology and talent that people bring with them, we must also factor in tolerance.
"Truly successful societies go out of their way to be open and inclusive," Florida writes. "And the places most likely to mobilize the creative talents of their people are those that don't just tolerate differences but are proactively inclusive. Courting divergent ideas isn't about political correctness; it's an economic growth imperative."
Put another way: Places that are more interested in how your ideas can make money than in what you look like, who you're married to, how you dress, what kind of accent you have or whether or not you go to church are going to be prosperous, dynamic places where you might be able to get not one, but many jobs over the course of a career.
And then there are places like Indiana - and cities like Indianapolis.
Indiana's governor, Mitch Daniels, has told everyone that revitalizing Indiana's economy is his top priority. But he was silent when his fellow Republicans made a spectacle of gay-bashing in the Statehouse rotunda in the name of "defending" marriage between a man and a woman. Only weeks later, a majority of city-county councilors in Indianapolis self-righteously voted down an ordinance that would have protected gay people from discrimination.
Intolerant acts like these send a message to people throughout the global economy about the kind of place this is to live and work. Given the fact that talented people can work wherever they choose, it's the economic equivalent of shooting ourselves in the wallet. Florida is quick to say that this isn't because gays cause high-tech growth; it's because studies show that a strong gay community is a leading indicator of a place that's open to many different kinds of people, "and those places open themselves up to innovation and entrepreneurship from a wide range of human sources."
Florida cites studies finding that American attitudes on a wide range of issues, from religion to nationalism, divorce and women's rights, have become more traditional or conservative than those found in other, equally prosperous societies like Scandinavia or Canada. Does this matter for us in Indiana? If we want to be anything besides a fueling station between one destination and another, it does.