Voices of Digital Communities

The Creative Class is Flunking Out. What’s Next?

"The benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members – and do little to make anyone else any better off.”

by / May 6, 2013

“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.

The trouble is, I think they are looking at the wrong problem.  Cities work.  Using information and communications technology (ICT), we can make them work better.  But the place where ICT can make a revolutionary difference is in rural areas.
Rural areas around the world have been losing their relative share of population for decades.  In the less lucky places, economic viability is all but lost.  And that is a problem for everyone.  Everyone alive today depends on rural areas for such useful things as food, oxygen and clean water.  

The revolutionary change we need is not a 10% increase in the efficiency of cities.  It is a major boost in the economic vitality, social welfare and cultural richness of rural areas.  Because of ICT, rural areas have for the first time an opportunity is to plug into the world at low cost regardless of location.  They can affordably import the world’s learning and culture to enrich the lives of young and old, and to give local cultural traditions new life in a global community.  They may even be able to make themselves as vital and exciting a place to grow a business or build a career as the busiest city center.  All of this is possible in an economy and culture that are conducted increasingly online.    

We do not yet know how to do it.  But at ICF, we believe it can be done and must be done.  We have launched a project called The Rural Imperative to begin figuring out how.  Check it out at www.ruralimperative.com.  For rural areas, for all of us, this is vital work.  It is the only way we will avoid that morning after, waking up with a bad hangover and the sour knowledge that we thought we were winning while we were losing again.
Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.