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Resilient economies, resilient cities: An interview with Richard Florida

Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Fast-Changing Citizenship

Richard Florida

If a citizen today must be flexible and adaptable to fast-changing environmental factors, so too must the economy that those citizens rely on for sustenance.

But if the development of an economy often requires massive amounts of long-term investment and planning, either on the part of the city or the citizen, what does a flexible, adaptable, fast-changing economy look like?

It’s a question that has long marinated in my mind through my travels—from the artisan markets I patronized in Freetown, Sierra Leone, that relied heavily on the business of the international workers at the temporary UN Special Court, to the southern Ontario former steel town I lived in for a few months that was crumbling at its social seams due to industrial decline.

I’ve watched with the same trepid curiosity my home province of British Columbia, where logging, mining, and tourist industries boom and bust at the whim of the market’s demand for copper, lumber . . . heck, even wine tours. The towns associated with them naturally follow suit and boom and bust as well.

Woodward Avenue, Detroit

But no citizen wants to live in a bust town, and over the past several years it’s been shown that we can’t rely on the stability of industries or other economic drivers that many of our cities and towns rely on. Thus, in a time of ever-increasing uncertainty, the question looms more pertinently than ever:

How do cities develop resilient economic systems that don’t crash and leave them in the messes they have in the past? Is it possible to plan an urban economy that can easily adapt to constant change?

I recently put this question to one of the world’s leading thinkers on both cities and economies, Richard Florida. Author of the international best sellers The Rise of the Creative Class, Who’s Your City?, and, most recently, The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, Florida is also senior editor at The Atlantic and the brain behind their recent city-centered upstart The Atlantic Cities.

Bagley-Clifford Office of the National Bank of Detroit

How can a city guard against future instability by developing an economy that is resilient and flexible to sudden change?

Since writing The Great Reset, I’ve been able to see for myself what I’ve long suspected: that Great Resets unfold not from top-down policies and programs, but gradually, as millions upon millions of people respond to challenging economic times by changing the way they live. We are starting to see that change, but we still have a long way to go in the current reset. That said, I believe generally we have to do three things to make our economy and cities more resilient.

First, to increase technological innovation, we need to make the core products of the industrial age—housing, cars, energy—cheaper if we want to fuel demand for the new technologies and industries of the future, from health care and biotechnology to new information, educational, and entertainment industries. By increasing the demand, we’ll create a new market for innovative products and services. Cities can lead this charge by fostering the sectors and industries that are creating sustainable products for the future.

Second, to develop new systems and methods of innovation, we have to build a new infrastructure that adapts to the new realities of collaboration and creativity. We need new infrastructure that can dramatically speed the movement of goods, people, and ideas. Cities need to lead the charge in advocating for more high-speed rail and a deeper, better digital backbone.

Third, our current system is failing to educate and train our workers for a creative economy, which requires individuals to think creatively and be innovative and flexible. Our future education system has to be more about leveraging the assets and capabilities of our future workers. The greatest challenge of our time—a challenge for nations, enterprises, and individuals—is to find ways to tap into every human’s creativity. To do this, our education system has to do more to spark the creativity inside our future workforce and ensure that students are driven down paths determined by their passions and natural skills. This will require a new way of thinking about education; we will have to experiment with new partnerships, models, and environments. As all research indicates, education and training cannot be a one-size-fits-all model. It must be individualistic, entrepreneurial, and innovative. Mayors are often the closest to local industry—more so than, say, state and national leaders; they need to be the ones helping to make a better connection between the private sector and education providers.

Packard Motors Plant, Detroit

If the economy changes, does this also require a different type of citizen? Does the worker need to change as well? If so, how?

I am not sure this requires a different type of citizen as much as it does a different way of life. In order to move beyond the current reset, on a personal level, we all have to define wealth and success differently and develop new approaches to consumption. Things that have always signified wealth and security—home ownership, new cars, luxury goods—have become a burden for many people. I expect they will be replaced by more experiential consumption, like travel and recreation and self-improvement, thereby creating growth in other sectors and ultimately making us a happier society.

Michigan Central Station, Detroit

Is it possible, or safe, in this new economic era for a city’s economy still to be based primarily on industry? Why or why not?

Cities should absolutely focus on their competitive assets and advantages. This may be one industry or it could be several. We know that, after this reset, we are going to see an even greater concentration of economic assets; this is why clustering is so important. The key will be continuing to innovate new technologies and models and maintain a climate and ecosystem that is appealing to creative-class workers. This includes fostering deep talent pools, a favorable regulation environment, and collaboration networks.

Fisher Body 21 Plant, Detroit

Right now, many brand new cities are being built from scratch around the world. So, too, are their economies. If we were to build a city economy from scratch, no retrofits required, specifically suited to adapting to rapid changes, what would it look like?

It would be a city that maximized what I call its 4-T’s—technology, talent, tolerance, and territory assets. Even ten years after writing The Rise of the Creative Class, I still believe that the 4-T’s provide the best blueprint for how cites can compete and prosper in the creative age.

Technology: Technology and innovation are critical components of a community’s or an organization’s ability to drive economic growth. To be successful, communities and organizations must have the avenues for transferring research, ideas, and innovation into marketable and sustainable products. Universities are paramount to this, and provide a key hub institution of the creative age.

Talent: The driving force behind any effective economic strategy is talented people. We live in a more mobile age than ever before. People, especially top creative talent, move around a lot. A community’s ability to attract and retain top talent is the defining issue of the creative age.

Tolerance: Economic prosperity relies on cultural, entrepreneurial, civic, scientific, and artistic creativity. Creative workers with these talents need communities, organizations, and peers that are open to new ideas and different people. Places receptive to immigration, alternative lifestyles, and new views on social status and power structures will benefit significantly in the creative age.

Territory Assets: More than ever before, place matters. Territory assets are the natural, built, and psychological settings of the community. It is the distinct “vibe” that makes communities unique from one another. People want to live in communities that are unique and inspiring to them.

Photograph of Richard Florida courtesy of the Creative Class Group. All other photography from The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, 2005–10; reproduced with permission. On exhibition at Wilmotte Gallery, Lichfield Studios, London, February 24–April 5, 2012.

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the third is Fast-Changing Citizenship.

  • aidan

    Florida works in a world of urban ‘How To’s’ and ‘Best practice’ policy realms. While these may appear as appealing given their rapid uptake among cities all across the world, the like so many developmental models, before them really just serve as policy scripts and don’t really do much to what is on the ground.
    I personally have a major problem with the idea of the ‘Creative Class’, number one because there is no ‘Class’ here, something Florida himself might say is a good thing, when in reality it is simply a way of creating a category of citizens that urban governments might want to attract. Yet creativity occurs in cities in many ways outside of what Florida ascribe to be creative, in fact if anything, his vision of creativity is largely based on a certain way of imagining modern subject (or postmodern if you’re that way inclined).
    Essentially while the man may have some good idea, parading him around on a pedestal as one of the foremost urban thinkers makes me sad to think of how academia and governementality come to be closely linked. His readings of the city are based on stats, idealised situations, and not actually existing creative places! hence why they have been so successful and adopted so widely.
    He is effectively the Nickelback of the urban thought world. Hugely successful, someone is buying into what he’s saying, but upon closer inspection lacking any substance.
    I guess this is exactly why his work has been so successful, it is easily applied to urban areas, it talks about growth, and suggests very simple steps to attaining this.

    • Folivieri

      What other authors do you suggest?

      • aidan

        Personally I don’t think there is anyway of scripting creativity unless you understand it as Florida does, which is really like a business model. I’m not saying he is not right about certain but rather that his idea of creativity is such that inflects things like the arts to perform within the same structures as business. In turn this feeds back into funding agencies who then expects direct ‘economic’ returns for their investments.

        Personally I think creativity has far great benefits than the the way Florida’s see it and while I can’t exactly think of any authors on creativity who claim to provide the overview that Florida does I know where my critical understandings come from.
        People like Henri Lefebvre’s book the Production of Space, Marshal Berman All that is Solid Melts into Air. George Yudice The Culture of Expediency.

        There are good papers written no the creative class by people like Jamie Peck and Anne Markusen too.
        I guess it depends on what your point of view and way of conceptualising creativity is. Florida’s mode of picking and choosing examples from different places and using indexes to highlight his point just doesn’t really do it for me. He’s not grounding creativity in anything experiential or affectual, which for me is how places really become endowed with creativity.
        Jane Jacobs, and even Mitch Duneier’s Sidewalk for me give a much better account of how places can be seen as creative and vibrant.

        But like I said….none of these offer the overarching arguments that Florida prescribes to cities.

        • Lisa Harmey

          Floridas theories have a bit of a chicken and egg problem. He’ll look at somewhere like London & its creativity and then try to replicate it or use it as a panacea without realising that the culture cannot exist without the city, the transportation, the geography. He tries to co-opt a certain model for economic purposes (being an American..) but European models of creativity cannot be replicated for purely economic health in a North American context.

      • Event One 7


        @ Folivieri, Jane Jacobs “The Death and Life of Great
        American Cities” might be of your interest but also “The art of city making” by
        Charles Landry.

        @All where are you guys from?

  • Luis Miguel

    Really interesting issue here. 

    This kind of “boom and bust” development periods isn’t something exclusive of the US, even when there are larger and “scary” examples there. In some areas in Europe, or for instance in Spain where I live, post-industrial urban areas have brought up some projects in order to redevelop neighbourhoods and, in the long term, cities. Old industrial spaces have been succesfully revamped and turned into public art spaces “Lieu Unique”, the old cookie factory in Nantes, “Matadero” the old slaughterhouse in Madrid, abandoned fabric factory as “Caixa Forum” in Barcelona… They’re not all the same but they made a big bet on bringing creativiy to disengaged old industrial areas in the cities. Some of them work as Creative Labs, some other as Museums, others as theatres… But then, in the end, the more they can do is to gather all that people that are ACTUALLY being creative in many ways in that cities. Somehow you need to fill them before they’re spreading all that change and creativity all around, but it’s the “fill them” part what becomes critical. That creativity, that community links, must be already there in some form. And that is when education plays its role. And I mean “education” not  only for what happens inside the schools, of course.Creativity doesn’t come to fill a museum as in “If you build it, they’ll come”. In the other hand, creativity doesn’t only come from great street art, so we shouldn’t focus on “arts as vehicle for creativity”, but to find creativity in such different areas. The way people use their streets in order to create community links, how they share (or not) their free time, and how can they face the same problems with different plans. Not something that is easy to plant and grow. 

    The issue is that sometimes some of this big public or semi-public high budget projects didn’t really worked and did little but create confusion on how this kind of policies should be designed and faced. But I still think public policies can help the flow and set the best conditions for natural community built creativity to grow and reinforce. By putting a special effort in public transport, public spaces for people to be able to gather, schooling, a neat integration in the city, well planned mobility… That matters are often not a matter of big budgets but being smart and efficient, and they’ll help the community to grow and find its own ways for creativity.

    • aidan

       Interesting points Luis. I have based most of my research in Barcelona so I am quite familiar with creative policy over there. Currently I am drawing up a new research plan and should be back in the not to distant future.
      The main area that I have conducted studies in was Poblenou in relation to the 22@
       redevelopment. Something which if you look at in terms of Florida’s work, and work on New Urbanism pretty much ticks all the boes in terms of what an area should have to be creative…ie. parks, open space, good infrastructures, good public transport, a street culture, and a promotion of encounter….on the ground it didn’t really work.
      In particular there were major problems before 22@ also with the redevelopment of the Forum and the extension of Diagonal. The main issue being, all the talk about community involvement and community development didn’t really happen. So that aspect of what makes places creative kind of got forgotten about and brushed over as the Ayuntamiento engaged with public/private developments more interested in property speculation and turning over money fast, than developing what might be called a creative place.
      The case of Can Ricart and the development of Parc Central del Poblenou highlight this masively in terms of what was lost, how little engagement with community their was, and the types of spaces that ‘creatives’ actually like to work in.

      • Luis Miguel

        Absolutely agree @158aee874e6cd34e79f6e71e8854b578:disqus . As you said in your first comment, I feel like the big ugly issue in order to get New Urban theories to the ground is precisely the context in which projects are developed. Too much real estate interests, too little politicians engagement with long term processes, and sometimes too little understanding of what reshaping a city really means. New malls, modern buildings filled with franchised commerce, or even very cutting edge art projects mean very little if you don’t let the community take part on them from the very start.

        In the end I still feel public policies should be the fist step on urban reshaping, and retrofitting of busted areas. But then, right after that first step, citizens and community must walk in and help to build the project. It’s not easy, but nobody said it would be…

  • Arthur Castillo

    Indeed, I like the design. The color is just fine with my eyes. The header itself is perfect for overall design. Absolutely looks awesome!