I went to the Cities of Knowledge conference in Dublin, at the historic Clontarf Castle, to give a talk on citizen use of government data. But I would say that the man of the hour was Richard Florida. His theory about the economic and social impact of what he calls the creative class was repeatedly invoked by the technologists, officials, and academics who were at this conference to discuss the future of IT-enabled cities.
The gist of Florida’s thinking, which you can catch at ITConversations if you are not inclined to read the book1, is that a vibrant creative culture — where creativity is very broadly defined to include scientists, technologists, entrepeneurs, artists, musicians, and others — has become the defining reason why cities, regions, and countries succeed.
If you buy into that notion, and the attendees from Barcelona, Derry, Dublin, Helsinki, San Jose, Tallinn, and elsewhere very much did, it leads to an interesting conclusion. Cities have always competed with one another to provide attractive business climates. Quality of life was an aspect of the competition, but incentives to businesses were what really mattered.
A point made at this conference, though, is that the creative class values place above employer. To a 25-year-old European marketing or software professional, the choice of Barcelona over some less desirable city is now more decisive than the choice between working for IBM or Microsoft.
You still need to make your city attractive to IBM and Microsoft, because these companies help create and sustain the quality-of-life conditions that attract the creative class. But companies don’t have a direct interest in those conditions, people do.
It was fascinating to see how these cities are now thinking explicitly about competing — in terms of their housing, transportation, safety, culture, and IT enablement — to attract the creative class. Success produces a compound benefit, because the creative class is an engine of prosperity. Not only does it spend money, it also germinates new businesses. And those tend to be just the kinds of businesses that appeal to the creative class, so it can become a virtuous cycle.
Is it elitist to focus on the needs of the creative class? I don’t think so. Every citizen cares about housing, transportation, safety, culture, and IT enablement. If cities do better in those areas in order to attract the creative class, everybody wins.
1 Can this really be a good thing for the book business? Based on the number of books I have not read after catching the author’s drift in an extended audio interview or lecture, I do wonder.