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February 23, 2007

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This month's issue of Fast Company has a short article on how communities are working to implement new creative economic development strategies. It's a topic we frequently discuss here on the blog, and it's one of the things I personally care most about. I guess I had high hopes for the article. Its author, Andrew Park, seemed quite diligent. I spoke with him personally for more than 4 hours. He talked with members of our team, and interviewed people in communities around the country. I was hoping for a real feature on what communities are doing, what's working and what isn't, and what we've learned so far. I like the magazine, and there are some top-flight reporters there who I've worked with in the past.  I hesitate to blame the author, either -- knowing the publishing business, his article was likely hacked up due to a lack of space.

At any rate, the article tries to make five points. Even though I've responded to this kind of thinking elsewhere, because Park is talking about communities we admire and work with, I'd like to share my thoughts here...

First, the article quotes Jamie Peck, a professor of geography and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as saying the pursuit of the creative class" has become a cliché of contemporary urban regeneration." Quite a cliche it is, actually, to get in the trenches and begin to transform the prevailing framework of economic and community development. Economic development is a profession that has for decades revolved around "deals," using public money to underwrite lucrative tax abatements and business incentives to everything from factories and office parks to call centers, stadiums, and convention centers. I'll take  a cliche like this - one that's helping make economic development more people-friendly, more place-friendly, more sensible, and more accountable - any day.

Second, Park writes, "there's scant evidence that Florida-esque creativity strategies have moved the needle on traditional economic-development gauges such as job and income growth."  Talk about disingenuous. My theory says it's not any individual policy measures that moves the needle. What's important is a broad ecosystem that encourages open-mindedness and self-expression, harnesses and attracts talent, and generates new innovation and wealth. I call this approach the 3 T's of Economic Development, for short. The fact of the matter is that no single policy measure - mine or anyone else's  - can "move the needle" like this. Urban economies are big, complex systems that take a long time to change and morph. Rise explicitly notes that cultivating this kind of ecosystem is an organic process that takes massive amounts of time and energy.   It also cautions communities about single-bullet solutions. It implores them not to  focus on one any one T, nor on just their strengths. It encourages them to think holistically and strategically about this.

Stretching to make a point, Park resorts to an age-old tactic: the cheap shot. "El Paso has considered commissioning a giant piece of public art by the artist Christo for the border it shares with Ciudad Juárez, Mexico," he writes. " What's next? Designated lanes for Segway scooter traffic?" A future in comedy? Perhaps.  But El Paso is doing this for two reasons. One, to strengthen its connection to Juarez - a dynamic and growing automotive manufacturing center. Two, as part of a broader effort to make the broad bi-national region and an emerging bi-national downtown more livable, exciting, and people-friendly. He talked to people there. It's a shame he chooses to not report their overall strategy and tactics, in favor of a quick and easy punchline. Have a look at their terrific website and see for yourself.

Third, Park writes: "That hasn't stopped cities from chasing the creative class as if it were a high-stakes, zero-sum game. Florida says this is a misreading of his research, and that cities can't get ahead simply with me-too approaches aimed at poaching creatives from other burgs. 'These trends in the migration of highly skilled people are powerful,' he says. 'Public policy tools aren't going to alter them.'"

At least he got that right. My work uses facts and data to discern the long-term trends shaping economic development patterns and processes. These trends are so powerful that tinkering at the margins with limited public policy tools can't change them.

But that does not mean that communities are powerless. Far from it. They can certainly achieve results. And perhaps the best way to do this is to understand how to connect to these trends and use them to their advantage. Providence, Baltimore, and Philadelphia have all done it - in no small part by connecting to thriving creative metros nearby and using them to propel growth. Montreal has done so by leveraging its creative climate and affordable housing to make itself very attractive to people. El Paso is doing it by joining forces with Juarez - again, one of the most dynamic manufacturing centers in North America. This list goes on. I guess it's easier to create humorous straw-men than to dig in and identify the ways communities are best responding to such powerful trends.

Fourth, the "zero-sum" comment. My work is explicit about this. I never advocate poaching the creative class. I say such strategies are a big mistake. Really, it can't be done. The demographic trends speak for themselves. Top human capital - the creative class - is becoming more divergent and concentrated as the work of Harvard's Ed Glaeser and many others shows. But here again there is something communities can do. And it's the most powerful thing at their disposal, actually.

And here Park and others show basic misunderstanding of the creative economy. "Every single human being is creative." It's the starting point of my theory, and therein lies the key. It's not a zero-sum game, after all. As Paul Romer and others have pointed out, the knowledge economy is positive-sum. That's right, positive-sum. Right now we're tapping but a fraction of the human talent at our disposal. My model for the Creative Age is not Google but Toyota. Toyota prospers by seeing its factory floor workers as the key source of continuous process improvement.

Concretely, we tell communities to stop the zero-sum stuff, to get over the poaching of firms and people, to stop trying to become the next Silicon Valley by building a biotech park or trying to lure software developers. We work with them to tap into the huge untapped reservoir of creativity that they already have. We work with them to shuck off the squelchers who'll do anything to damp that creativity down.

And that's why we don't do traditional consulting. That's why we build teams of empowered people from across demographic segments to act as community catalysts. Park should know this. He talked to these communities. Our work says the key to prosperity lies deep within each community - in harnessing the full creative capabilities of all its people. It's a basic human right, really, the right to develop your full talent, to express your true self, and contribute to the fullest. That's the model of community-building the world truly needs - one that is livable, engaged, and prosperous. We're doing our small part in working with communities all over the world to help bring it about.

Fifth, Park writes: "The bigger problem with pursuing creativity strategies might be their potential to overshadow a city's more basic social, educational, and infrastructural needs. " Oh, come on. Another either-or thinker. It's an old saw used by skeptics and squelchers, and it's time to let go of it. My survey work with the Gallup Organization shows that we have already gotten beyond it in our own real-life decisions and everyday lives. What we really want is not an either-or community, safe streets or great parks, great schools or great culture. What the Gallup survey shows us is that people across all income levels, races, ethnicities, and walks of life not only want the basics - safe streets, good schools and the like. We want that and more.

Two things in particular. The first is quality-of-place and livability - great parks, clean air, clean water, historic architecture. Virginia Postrel shows how this desire for aesthetics is not a frivolity but a basic human need, as old as humanity itself. The second is a value system that embraces diversity and self-expression. It's not an either-or after all. People want - and deserve - it all.

Park ends his piece on this note: "No one can fault cities for trying to be more livable. The question is whether doing so will make them more prosperous -- or just more 'hip.'" But the fact of the matter is that livable communities are more prosperous. The people who live in them are also happier and more fulfilled. And that's what we should be striving for to begin with.


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Harold Jarche

Just read the FC article, and then by chance wandered to my computer and saw this article in my RSS aggregator. The power of the Net ;-)

Thanks for setting the record straight, though anyone who had listened to your podcasts or read your books would have understood it anyway.


Thanks Harold. What bugged me is the writer said he was doing a major story on how communities were using these ideas, trying to identify what's work and what's not - best-practices. This is something I've always wanted to do so I decided to cooperate. I gave two very long interviews, my team worked on this, we made sure he had access to cities and clients around the country and world. And then what he ends up with is essentially a short "opinion piece."


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