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Flight of the Creative Class

The U.S. must invest more in R&D and universities to retain its best and brightest.


As the global economy becomes more dependent upon knowledge industries, nation-states must nurture what Richard Florida, professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, calls “the creative class.” The United States, however, is no longer doing so and could lose its economic advantage. That’s the theme of his latest book, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent. Following is an excerpt:

When I say every human being is creative, I don’t mean we ought to expect every human being to write great symphonies or design monumental buildings. As a group, we wouldn’t be very effective if all we did was the kind of work that people usually consider “creative.” What I am arguing for is a broadening of the very definition of creativity.

Where Creativity Flourishes
THE AUTHOR has created a “global creativity index,” a measure of equally weighted indexes for talent, technology and tolerance, which includes attitudes towards gays, minorities, the foreign-born and artists. Here are the most creative places:
By Country
United States

United Kingdom

By State

San Jose, CA

New York, NY
Dallas, TX
Washington, D.C.
Orange County, CA
Raleigh-Durham, NC
Austin, TX
Middlesex, NJ
San Francisco, CA
Houston, TX
Boston, MA
West Palm Beach, FL
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Los Angeles, CA
Monmouth, NJ

A truly creative society would value the opportunities and ideas flowing from all its people. I met a woman in Oklahoma City whose nine-year-old son had big plans for the future of his downtown. He envisioned a large-scale complex, a sort of community center, where kids and adults from the neighborhood would come to play with LEGOs. Yes, LEGOs. The small plastic bricks of a young child’s fantasyland. But there was something more to his fantasy. He wanted the center to be a place where the local homeless population would feel comfortable, and where they could interact with the city’s residents. Children and old folks alike would come to talk about their community, making use of the abundant multicolored plastic bricks on hand to model possible future plans, make giant and minuscule works of public art, and, well, just enjoy one another’s company.

What are the chances you’d find a politician to sign on to such a plan, dreamed up by a child? Slim to none, of course. But this is innovative thinking, nonetheless. To have gathered in one place the fields of art, engineering, civics, social work and entertainment€¦quot;that is a combination for the creative age. My point is not that our city councils should be funding the daydreams of nine-year-olds, but that as a community, we need to start paying more serious attention to the creative ideas of our youngest, oldest and most marginalized members. If this kid is making plans for such multi-use facilities in elementary school, imagine what he’ll be doing in another 15 years, with the right combination of education, experience and civic encouragement.

Yet we as a country don’t seem terribly concerned about investing in the future of innovative inquiry. Instead, the U.S. government is cutting key areas of R&D spending, while corporate R&D funding was also down by nearly $8 billion in 2002, the largest single-year decline since the 1950s. State governments have slashed funds for higher education and for arts and culture while pumping up funds for stadiums, convention centers, and other bricks-and-mortar projects. Never mind that the local economic benefits of such projects often turn into the red the minute the last construction worker drives off the site. These choices signal a profound lack of understanding of what an atmosphere of innovation requires.

Investing in innovation and in our collective creative infrastructure is important for the U.S. and for the world. As Paul Romer and other leading students of innovation have shown, investments in innovations and ideas have extraordinary rates of return and promise to pay incredible dividends precisely because they are public goods; the benefits they confer are broad and reverberate throughout the entire economy.

Around the world, in fact, leading countries will have to spend significantly more on research and development and on higher education, opening up universities and colleges to take in more of the world’s best and brightest. Like earlier efforts to build canals, railroads, highways and other physical infrastructure to power industrial growth, the U.S. and countries around the world must invest in their creative infrastructure if they want to succeed and prosper in the future. Again, if it is to do any good, the scale of the effort required will dwarf the public-education system, land-grant colleges and the GI Bill of a previous generation. Investments in human capital are the most important investments we make. We need a massive increase in our ability and capacity to educate and train people from primary and secondary education through the most advanced stages of higher education.

To make the most of increased education and training investments, countries must redouble their efforts to generate high-end creative jobs in R&D, innovation, higher education and arts and culture. They must reduce barriers to entrepreneurship and encourage even more new company formation. In short, the world economy requires a wide-reaching effort not just to pump out creative talent but also to increase the market for creative opportunities.

Investment in creative infrastructure means more than just increased R&D spending. It must involve massive increases in spending€¦quot;from both the private and public sectors€¦quot;in the arts, culture and all forms of innovation and creativity. For proof of the potential of arts and culture to make big economic waves, we need look no further than the other side of the Atlantic. In the spring of 2003, I had the good fortune to meet with high-ranking British economic officials in Tony Blair’s cabinet. We were on the topic of high-tech clusters, and they voiced concern over their ability to ever overtake the U.S. in this field. We began to brainstorm other possible British niches, and, as a way to spur the conversation, I asked the ministers to rattle off the richest people in Britain. They shot back without hesitation, and in their list I began to notice a pattern: Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Elton John and David Bowie. Someone joked that not only were these performers fabulously wealthy, most of them had been knighted, too. Largely without realizing it, Britain had created a killer industrial cluster.

It was the first time the culture-cluster connection had ever occurred to me, but on the spot we decided that perhaps one of the industries that warranted attention was popular and rock music. Imagine what could happen if you actually thought consciously about ways to support and grow this field, I said. Why wouldn’t the U.S., or at least cities within our country, want to do the same thing to boost some of our biggest stars€¦quot;and, better, rising talents? Instead of turning our national cultural icons into anti-American straw men and turning around the airplanes and visa grants of their international counterparts, it’s time we begin to embrace the diversity and freedom of expression€¦quot;and corresponding economic opportunity€¦quot;that Americans and world music embody.

Only when we begin to see all of these investments€¦quot;scientific, economic, artistic, cultural and others€¦quot;as mutually reinforcing parts of the same creative whole will we begin to take advantage of even a fraction of our latent human potential. Unfortunately, one of the places that has the most to teach us about such fusion of creative energies€¦quot;the university€¦quot;is also under assault.

Universities are the intellectual hubs of the creative economy. America’s vital university system is the source of much of our best scientific, social and creative leadership. To this point, though, our modern conception of what universities could or should be has been somewhat limited. The tendency to see universities primarily as the laboratories of new research and technology has grown particularly acute in the last 20 years. They do indeed serve our society as technological and scientific laboratories.

Why the U.S. is Losing Its Creative Edge
  • Post September 11 xenophobia makes foreigners feel unwelcome

  • Stricter rules for U.S. visas keep talented foreigners away

  • Visa delays make working with foreigners more expensive

  • Bright foreign students avoid U.S. graduate schools

  • Visa woes make it hard for foreign graduates of U.S. schools to stay here
Source: The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent

Universities also do a remarkable job of fostering the other two T’s of economic growth: talent and tolerance. On the one hand, they are undeniably powerful talent magnets, attracting the best and brightest to our shores. They are the Ellis Islands of the creative age. A huge percentage of the high-tech entrepreneurs that power places like Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; and the Research Triangle came here originally to attend graduate school.

Unfortunately, we now seem to want to send our top foreign talent packing. “When you graduate from Stanford University with an advanced degree in the sciences or engineering, we then make you go home,” venture capitalist John Doerr told Silicon Valley’s Technet Innovation Summit. “We should be stapling a green card to your diploma.”

Higher-education institutions are also the community entities that, perhaps more than any other, have opened up city after city and college town after college town to the world. In this respect, they are bastions and breeders of tolerance. A university, with its tendency toward openness to ideas, people and practices not always considered mainstream, is a natural source of diversity€¦quot;whether ethnic, socioeconomic or cultural. Readers of my work who come to see creative centers as somehow aligned with the coasts are always surprised to see how highly places such as Iowa City, Champaign, Ill., and Corvallis, Ore., rank on our creativity indices. In case after case, this occurs when states and communities were forward-looking enough to support great institutions of higher education early on.

In this sense, universities and colleges don’t serve just the economic winners of the creative age. They represent the key building blocks that cities such as Cleveland, St. Louis and Pittsburgh can use to rebuild. Our research team has also found that the “higher education€¦quot;knowledge€¦quot;learning cluster” is always among the top employers of both creative class workers and service-sector workers in major U.S. regions. I was once asked what I thought might be one of the keys to saving Detroit’s economy. My answer was simple: Ann Arbor. What I mean by this is not that Detroit’s downtown and neighborhoods aren’t important (they are, of course, crucial), but that the future of the Detroit region in the creative age lies more with the technology, talent and tolerance engine that is Ann Arbor than in stadiums and a refurbished Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit.

But how many political and business leaders in these kinds of regions are ready to act on this? How many of them are willing to believe that their future lies more in something as apparently abstract as using their universities as teachers and exemplars of tolerance? Where is the devotion to rebuilding our communities, economies and culture around such institutions in any kind of meaningful or authentic way, when it is so much easier to build a stadium, downtown mall or an industrial park? The latter category delivers, at first glance, more immediate results. In this way it seems we’re locked into an industrial-age materialist mind-set that has trouble accounting for the benefits of the more intangible creative age.

As a result, higher education doesn’t make the cut in tough economic times. State after state consistently cuts its higher education budget, and the resulting system of universities is made less accessible to those whom it could benefit the most. The federal government expands research funding at the margins while restricting access and politicizing cutting-edge scientific issues like stem-cell research. China and India, in the meantime, are pumping money into their universities.

How much longer can we rest on our laurels? It’s hard to say. It’s certainly true that we built the world’s greatest university system and still maintain a commanding lead in that respect. But now we’re letting this most crucial component of our creative infrastructure atrophy even as others are biting at our heels more aggressively. At best, we’re teaching the world’s citizens and then forcing them to go back to their home countries. At worst, we’re conditioning those students not to come here in the first place. And we’re giving ample reason to our own population to begin seeking educational opportunities elsewhere. This is not bad in and of itself, of course. We need more than anything to foster globally minded young people in this day and age. But it would be preferable if they went abroad proud of their country and looking to come back and share their insights€¦quot;rather than discouraged by our increasing political and economic isolationism and frustrated by the rising costs of learning skills and ideas. s

This article was excerpted, with permission, from The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent (Harper Business, 2005) by Richard Florida.


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