True to his reputation as a rock star among scientists, Richard Florida enraptured a packed house at the Lucas Theatre last Thursday night. The acclaimed author and researcher painted a picture of a Savannah at the forefront of the movement to attract the highly-skilled, modern workforce that is the wave of the future as the nation’s manufacturing jobs continue to ebb into oblivion.
Contrary to the George Mason University professor’s critics -- and he has many -- making a city attractive to this “creative class” of 25-34-year-old highly educated workers and entrepreneurs will require more than coffeehouses and wifi networks. It will take leadership and real commitment.
“People think what I’m saying is you should put a latte bar over here, and a nightclub over there, and an Ultimate Frisbee park over here,” Florida joked to much laughter.
“No -- what I’m saying, the bottom line, is that every single human being is creative. And the creative economy totally annihilates all the social barriers we’ve put around ourselves.”
Stating that “human energy creates economic growth,” Florida counseled the crowd that contrary to Tom Friedman’s bestseller The World Is Flat, the global economy is paradoxically creating even more consolidation of wealth and population in fewer and fewer primary centers of commerce.
“He got it half right,” Florida said of the New York Times contributing editor, who spoke on the same stage earlier this year. “The world is getting flatter -- for the manufacturing base.”
But for the ever-expanding creative sector of the economy -- loosely defined as the 25-30 percent of the workforce that makes it money with the product of its brainpower alone -- the world is “spiky,” not flat at all.
“Our data indicates that in the entire world, there are only 25 mega-regions -- about 12 in the United States and about 12 outside -- that account for more than 70 percent of the total production,” Florida said. “That means there are only about a dozen places in the U.S., no more, that are attracting these kinds of workers.”
Being one of those sticky spots where creative workers cluster is a tall order, one that will require great collaborative effort from government, education and the private sector.
While many of the usual faces from the local business community were present at the Lucas last week, perhaps most encouraging was the fact that the crowd included many local elected officials as well, including Mayor Otis Johnson, Chatham County Commission Chairman Pete Liakakis and many members of the City Council.
In another refreshing change, the crowd also included many younger people, of all races and ethnicities.
It was all a picture of “technology, talent and tolerance,” the triple mantra that Richard Florida preaches from coast to coast in his crusade to help cities adapt to a rapidly changing global economy.
Florida, who had been to Savannah several times before, was visibly affected by the changes that have taken place since his last visit.
“I remember when SCAD was just starting up,” he said. “Now I see a place that’s done historic preservation right, that’s done adaptive reuse right. It’s authentic, it’s real. The best thing you’ve got going is this seamless integration of civic and community life and your colleges and universities -- better than perhaps any other place in the world.”
Florida said the timing both here and in the world at large is perfect for Savannah to make its move to become the role model for literally all other cities to emulate.
“We’re at a big inflection point -- I know you can feel it,” Florida said to the crowd. “Fear has dominated the national conversation up to this point. There are lots of people who need to see what you’re doing here. They need to see your courage.”
The professor’s big epiphany came when he was taking a break from his longtime gig at Carnegie-Mellon University for a stint teaching at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
His previous work at Carnegie-Mellon had included helping the city of Pittsburgh, devastated and hemorraging population after the collapse of its industrial base, attract then-Internet giant Lycos to base its headquarters there.
“Then one morning I opened up the Boston Globe and read the headline, ‘Lycos to move to Boston.’”
Florida was shocked. Pittsburgh had done everything right, it seemed, yet was still being dumped for another city. Worse yet -- dumped for a city that had barely lifted a finger to attract Lycos.
“The mayor of Boston had promised them not one iota, not one dime of tax incentive, while Pittsburgh had invested all this money in infrastructure, had built two stadiums and a trade center,” Florida said.
So he began feverishly trying to find out what had gone so disastrously wrong.
“The answer that came back shocked me,” Florida recalls. “Lycos said they moved because there was a readily available pool of knowledgeable and creative people already in Boston. Pittsburgh was a just a tough sell.”
It was a devastating moment for Florida, who had spent years teaching his students that workers go where the jobs are. Yet in Lycos’s case, the opposite appeared to be true: Jobs were moving where the workers were.
“I said, I gotta figure this out. It’s heretical,” Florida said.
The professor did figure it out, and came to the conclusion that “We’re living through the biggest transformation in American history,” one even bigger than the enormous transition from farm to city during the Industrial Revolution.
“We’re moving away from depending on physical assets to human creativity. This is the first time in history that the primary source of economic value is our people themselves.”
The number of creative workers was about 5-10 percent of the American workforce up until recently.
Now, Florida’s data indicates, that percentage is up to nearly a third of all Americans who make their living using creativity.
“Not only that, but the creative sector accounts for more than half -- two trillion dollars -- of all wages and salaries,” he said. “The creative sector is to our lives what the manufacturing sector was to our parents’ lives.”
Florida plans to release a new book, Who’s Your City, late next year to follow his first two, Rise of the Creative Class and Flight of the Creative Class.
The new book relies on interviews with 30,000 American workers, and provides proof of what Florida describes as “the single most important factor of modern existence”: place.
Recalling that his father always said the most important thing was to get a good job and his mother always said the most important thing was to find the right mate, Florida did both his parents one better.
“Neither of those choices is as important as the choice of where you want to live,” he said, pointing out that your job and your prospective spouse are both products of that initial decision of where to live.
Florida said that humans are “aesthetic beings who are born with an eye for beauty,” and thus are deeply affected by their surroundings.
“Over and over people told us, if our city looks like crap, we’ll feel like crap,” he said. “And that means open space. It means parks. It means clean air and clean water.”
Florida said that Savannah is so uniquely positioned to be such an attractive and vibrant place to live and work that it could literally be “the first place in the world” to combine all the necessary ingredients of the quintessential creative hub.
“You have a gem here,” he said.
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