A conversation with Richard Florida

More books are published these days than ever before. Few of them, though, have the kind of intellectual throw-weight that can actually change the way people look at things. Richard Florida"s new book, The Rise of the Creative Class, feels like it has the necessary heft. Florida, the H. John Heinz III professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has written a book as readable as it is provocative about how an increasing number of us work and live today.

Florida, to risk a bad pun, is hot. Published in May, The Rise of Creative Class is already in its second printing. It was No. 1 on the Amazon.com best-seller list before being officially released and is now the most requested title in the considerable history of Florida"s publisher, Basic Books.

In a nutshell, Florida"s book describes the emergence of what he calls a new social class. This Creative Class is defined by its use of creativity - the creation of new forms - in business, education, health care, law and, of course, the arts. "The creative class derives its identity from its members" roles as purveyors of creativity," Florida writes. "Because creativity is the driving force of economic growth, in terms of influence the Creative class has become the dominant class in society."

Florida"s research, which has included a vast number of focus group interviews in cities throughout North America, suggests why so many of our financial, political and social institutions seem more concerned today with preserving an aging status quo than building for the future. His work has special relevance for cities, like Indianapolis, that are trying to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.

One of Florida"s most striking assertions is that the highly regarded idea of social capital popularized by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, actually appears to inhibit regional growth and innovation. This could be significant for us because Putnam"s ideas have been embraced by many local policy makers, most notably, the Lilly Endowment, which cites his work in their most recent annual report.

Social capital refers to the ties that bind a community together - mutual respect, civility, trust and civic-mindedness. Putnam, in fact, identified 13 qualities, including "civic leadership," "faith-based institutions," "protest politics," "diversity of friendship" and "giving and volunteering" that could be used to measure a city"s social capital. While these are certainly virtues no one would want to live without, Florida points to research done by a University of Texas sociologist named Robert Cushing finding that social capital provides little explanation for regional innovation and growth. What"s more, communities emphasizing human capital, or what Florida calls creative capital, are becoming centers for innovation while strong social capital communities are not.

NUVO spoke with Florida recently about the differences between social, human and creative capital, and about the sorts of values his research shows make some cities successful.

NUVO: Could you differentiate social capital theory from the theories of human capital and what you call creative capital?

Florida: Let me begin by saying I really admire Robert Putnam and think he is a stellar example of a public intellectual. There"s a lot of merit in the general idea of social capital. I think he hit on something with the sense that community has broken down and people are feeling lonelier.

But Cushing literally went back and took all 13 of Putnam"s measures, operationalized them for like 100 metros and found that only two were positively associated with innovation and economic growth - protest politics and diversity of friendship. All the other Putnam measures - trust, reciprocity, club activity, dinners at home with family and friends - they were all negatively associated. So I think that some of those communities are a little exclusive.

The alternative theory of regional growth is the human capital theory and that"s a fantastic theory. It goes back to Jane Jacobs, but more recently Robert Lucas and the paper he wrote after getting the Nobel Prize, in which he said the only way to understand cities is as concentrations of human capital. Then Ed Glaeser at Harvard - he and his students understood that what really powers the economic growth of regions and metros over the past 100 years are these clusters of human capital.

Then along comes Florida. And what Florida says is, the human capital theory is terrific. I basically buy it. However, I think we can define human capital a little more precisely. Or at least we want to entertain alternative measures of human capital, like creative occupations. We got occupational data no one else thought about using. And so we could identify not only which people were educated, but by what they do. I think the idea of counting people based on their having a bachelor"s degree and above is both a little bit broad and too narrow. It excludes people who might be artists and poets and painters but haven"t finished college. Or technologists. Bill Gates would not be in the Human Capital Index - he didn"t finish college! Neither would Steve Jobs and all these college drop-outs who became entrepreneurs.

So we tried to define by occupation. People can debate whether ours is a little too broad or too narrow. These definitions will improve with time as more people do research.

But the other part of my theory which I think diverges from human capital theory is that I asked the question which the human capital folks didn"t think to ask or neglected to answer. They say a city is endowed with human capital. In Glaeser"s model it"s like land, labor and raw materials. They think a city is naturally endowed with this. What I said is, no. People are very mobile. Creative people have choices. So what we have to do is look at reasons why they choose to locate where they do.

That"s when I invented the Gay and Bohemian Indexes as attempts to look at some underlying characteristics - whether that"s openness to diversity or openness to cultural innovation - that might be signals. I don"t think it"s that bohemians, gays and artists are the whole story, but I think they signal an environment. They signal an environment in which creative people are more likely to nest. Certainly, Miami has a lot of diversity but it doesn"t have a lot of technology. So it"s not always the case that every city with a large gay population is going to be a technology and innovative creative class Mecca. But, in general, higher scores on diversity will increase the odds. And if you"re a city like Indianapolis or Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Cincinnati and you"re scoring very low on that measure, maybe that"s a constraining factor.

NUVO: Where Putnam seems to be viewing community in a rear-view mirror, it sounds as though you are suggesting that the very nature of community has changed.

Florida: In our Cincinnati focus groups people said, "We don"t want to talk about "race relations" anymore." And this was said by members of the African-American community. "We want to talk about diversity. We want to talk about exclusiveness. We want to talk about gays and straights, blacks and whites, Hispanics and Indians and Asians."

In a sense, I think the place that understands this the best in the world - a place I am fascinated with and which may be some unique melding of my theory and Putnam"s - is Toronto. I met a young woman from there in one of my Cincinnati groups who said, "Look, we don"t call it a melting pot. We don"t make people fit into our institutions. We call it a mosaic. We are a mosaic society in Toronto." She said, "I don"t fit into Cincinnati society, it"s exclusive. I want to be in a society where I get your Christmas off and, like in Toronto, I get my Christmas off, too. Where I"m valid as an individual."

What we"re hearing from creative class people is that everybody wants their identity to be validated - and they want to be quasi-anonymous. This came up time and time again. William Whyte says this in The Organization Man back in the 1960s: The appeal of the new suburb is to get away from the tightly knit, mother and father and auntie looking over your shoulder, ethnic neighborhood in the city.

Now Robert Putnam is idealizing Italy. In a sense, Italy is a wonderful society, but when you walk around the town square everybody knows your business. Kids are not getting into trouble because everybody"s watching them. And that"s great, but what we"re finding in the United States is that people want to live their own lives on their terms. In fact, many Italians are moving to the United States. Many of the most creative and talented Italians are choosing to live here because they can live the lives they want. That"s why bigger cities like Chicago, New York or San Francisco appeal - because people can be themselves and do their thing, whatever that happens to be.

NUVO: Why doesn"t high social capital contribute to regional growth and innovation?

Florida: It"s a conundrum. We"re getting a society that"s a little bit lonelier, that is a little more alienated - but we like it better that way. Putnam and others are talking about mechanisms of social cohesion and they"re looking at trade unions and voluntary associations and political parties. What if those forms of social cohesion no longer fit the people we"ve become? What if they really are relics of an industrial, mass production, organizational age? I think they are. I think the union, the town center, the VFW, the bowling leagues and the political party are time-dependent institutions - and they were part of the industrial, organizational age.

As we become more creative, the salon is a better place to look for the associations we want. The causal mechanism is that social capital communities exclude outsiders - or they"re not open to outsiders. But if a place is going to grow in this creative age it has to be very open to transplants and transients. High levels of social capital - and political scientists know this well - create high levels of social cohesion. But they are also "insider" organizations.

NUVO: Strong social capital communities are characterized by strong ties. But you show that lots of so-called "weak tie" relationships characterize creative communities. What"s behind this difference?

Florida: High levels of geographic mobility and the fact that we manage many more ties today. Human beings need some subset of strong ties but we"re not going to have all that many. We really enjoy these weak ties. Creative people like meeting new people Ö And then we"re moving a lot and not rooted in communities the way our parents and grandparents were. I don"t think it"s bad. I don"t think it"s going to lead to the downfall of society. The end of the long-term job didn"t lead to the end of society. I think communities of weak ties, properly constructed, with high levels of plug-and-play integration and high levels of mobilization can work really well. Look at Toronto. More than 50 percent of its population is recent, foreign-born immigrants. It"s working fine and it"s cohesive. And they all go to the same public schools with the rich people. They live in integrated neighborhoods so they don"t shoot one another.

NUVO: How do these new ideas about community translate into public policy?

Florida: I think what the Torontonians are saying is, you can become, truly, an Italian Canadian. An Italian American, in my case, meant my folks never speaking Italian in the house, naming their boys Richard and Robert and saying get an education to fit in with the rest of America. In Toronto, people are saying, no, no. Whether you"re Indonesian or Malaysian or Senegalese or Bengalese, your heritage is important. If you"re gay, your heritage is important. So continue that identity and become part of our society. I think the policy lever is to think much more in terms of mosaic and create organizations people can resonate with.

The other thing is - I"ve said this to economic developers - every human being is an attraction and retention problem. You"ve got to do your best to compete for that human being. How do we build the most successful, integrating, constructive people climate?

One of the things that came out of my focus groups was that people do want connective tissue. It was so funny when this woman in Cincinnati said, "What you"re talking about is the Rotary." Everyone said, no. What we"re talking about may look to you like we"re mimicking the Rotary, but the Rotary was an exclusive organization. These organizations are fluid and permeable. People walk in and out of them. And they don"t have this tight structure. They"re organic. Certainly, we"re in the infancy of this.

NUVO: Where, in this country, do you see bridges being built between social and creative capital?

Florida: I think Chicago is a place that"s very interesting because, for an old, industrial city with a working class heritage and a lot of the old, Putnamite organizations, it"s not only encouraged a lot of integration, but it"s actually attracted the creative class in droves. And attracted lots of foreign immigrants.

I think all communities are struggling to do this. I think my hometown of Pittsburgh is struggling to create organizations for these creative class people, but they"re swamped by traditional, Putnamite organizations. We"re Putnam"s community. We still have the VFW halls and Moose lodges and the strong communities. But, in a sense, this has not been effective in luring creative class people. You can"t force the old organizations on people - they"ll just walk away and move to San Francisco. These people think these organizations are stodgy and boring and not diverse and not inclusive.

I hate to keep pointing to Toronto, but the way Torontonians look at this is they say, "We"re a lot like New York City, but we have much more balance. We don"t just care about making money, we care about building these new kinds of communities." I think they have a lot to teach us.

NUVO: What"s the role of politics?

Florida: By and large our political system is totally out of touch. I can"t believe the gap between the political structures and the demands of the electorate. I"m sure this has happened before - like when the feudal monarchy was in power and the bourgeoisie was rising up. I"m sure it happened in the early working class movement and the organization of labor and social democratic parties. But this is the way we are now: Our political institutions are tied squarely in the 1950s. They"re trying somehow to recreate the organizational/wage society. There are very few political institutions at any level that are transforming.

We"ve only finally got one creative class candidate in Pittsburgh - a guy who sees his necessary constituency as this group.

NUVO: And what about philanthropy?

Florida: I think philanthropy has a big role - and I think philanthropy, for some very good reasons, was influenced by the social capital argument. I think there are some very good things about community connectedness, but it"s not the whole story. Community connectedness alone might make you Bismarck, N.D. As one of my friends once said, "We don"t need so many of these caring, nurturing organizations, we need a design for collisions." We need a way for people to interact with each other and collide. Maybe people need to be openly debating more and getting in each other"s face to a certain extent.

If I were to advise philanthropy what I"d say is, you have to build truly creative communities. This idea of supporting the cultural district or the symphony hall - that"s important, but you have to support grass-roots, organic efforts to build arts and culture. In Pittsburgh we created the SPROUT Fund which gives the equivalent of very small officer"s grants almost instantly to new and budding organizations.

I think this idea of civic and social entrepreneurship is very important. There was this belief that entrepreneurship comes out of a business school. But the Kauffmann Center [a foundation devoted to entrepreneurship] is finding that ain"t true. Entrepreneurship comes from everybody. Forming a garage band is an entrepreneurial act. You have to get the gigs, you have to manage the schedule, you have to practice in the garage - just like the people who built computer companies. So when you"re supporting local music and arts scenes, you"re supporting entrepreneurship.

NUVO: What are some misconceptions affecting today"s policymakers?

Florida: This whole idea in the United States that we have to collapse our efforts, merge organizations - there"s too many nonprofits. I always thought this was cuckoo. This is the Frederick Taylor efficiency approach. Frederick Taylor has long been dead as a model for how you organize industries. This idea that you"re going to set up some chain-linked system of organizations that report to one another and go in lock step Ö I would support more organizations, more competition, more entrepreneurship. More people doing their thing - and if they don"t make it, phase them out.

Another thing I"m very concerned about, and it"s happening in state after state: They"re cutting higher education funding. The university is the key institution in the creative age. They"re also cutting arts spending. And what are they doing? Increasing spending for sports stadiums.

NUVO: How would you characterize the response to your book so far?

Florida: Even if people don"t buy the definition of the creative class - it"s too inclusive, not inclusive enough, it"s elitist, too much emphasis on gays, or the Bohemian Index - they still say, "Shit, there"s something here." The things we"ve been fed in the name of economic development - call centers and factory recruitment and malls and downtown stadiums - have not worked. Many political leaders still buy into this same old game. But regular people and city council people and economic development leaders - not a majority by any means - but they really see there"s a need for another model. Whether they buy my stuff or not, they at least want to open up a conversation. I couldn"t be happier about that.