“Sometimes, I think it’s a sin when I feel like I’m winning when I’m losing again.”
That memorable morning-after line was written by Canada’s great singer-songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot, in a 1974 hit, Sundown. It came to mind last week when I was conducting Top7 site visits in Canada and reading an article by Joel Kotkin in The Daily Beast. The title was a real grabber: “Richard Florida Concedes the Limits of the Creative Class.”
According to Kotkin, Dr. Florida recently admitted in the pages of The Atlantic, “what his critics, including myself, have said for a decade: that the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members – and do little to make anyone else any better off.”
The flaw in the Creative Class idea turns out to be simple: attracting a horde of high-skilled hipsters tends to push up the cost of living, so that any benefit to lower-skilled workers is lost. In an impressive show of academic honesty, Dr. Florida admitted, “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”
According to Kotkin, “For Rust Belt cities…following the ‘creative class’ meme has not only meant wasted money, but wasted effort and misdirection. Burning money trying to become ‘cooler’ ends up looking something like the metropolitan equivalent of a midlife crisis.”
Far beyond the rust-belt in places like New York City, Kotkin finds inequity incongruous with the lifts-all-boats Creative Class meme: “In nouveau hipster and increasingly expensive Brooklyn, nearly a quarter of people live below the poverty line. While artisanal cheese shops and bars that double as flower shops serve the hipsters, one in four Brooklynites receives food stamps.”
A public battle of ideas is always interesting. But my purpose here is to suggest a more serious risk of wasted effort and misdirection. In recent years, Dr. Florida has evolved from his Creative Class focus to become a major proponent of urbanization. In The Atlantic, where he is an editor, he wrote:
Cities are our greatest invention … because they enable human beings to combine and recombine their talents and ideas in new ways. As highly skilled people concentrate in these places, the rate of innovation accelerates, new businesses are created, and productivity – and, ultimately, pay – grows…The critical mass for knowledge work is higher than for manufacturing: the knowledge economy thrives at a larger scale.
It’s a powerful argument for a more urbanized world. But here’s the thing: cities have been fulfilling this role for – and I’m not making this up – 3,000 years. Cities work, except when they become nightmares of dysfunction. To avoid that dire fate, a new movement called Smart Cities has sprung up to install sensors, networks and automation systems through urban areas to make them run faster, cheaper and better. In a very short time, it is becoming its own government-industrial complex, with everybody from the European Union to the biggest names in technology putting their shoulders to the wheel.