Deconstructing Richard Florida

My first encounter with Richard Florida’s work took place, ironically, mere hours after I delivered a presentation on economic development and the arts to an audience of business school students one year ago as part of Yale SOM’s Organizational Effectiveness Seminar. For the initial slides, without realizing it, I had employed a classic Florida trope – comparing the top 5 destinations of new Yale School of Management grads over the past five years with a list of the five largest metropolitan areas in the United States to show how highly educated, capable people were clustering in specific regions. Shortly after the presentation, my then-future colleague at the Hewlett Foundation, Marc Vogl, was kind enough to email me a link to Florida’s extended preview of The Rise of the Creative Class in the Washington Monthly. I recall that my initial reaction was something along the lines of, “hmm, this is interesting – but NYC ranked below San Diego and Houston as a ‘creative city’? Umm, I don’t think so.”

It wasn’t until I was knee-deep in research for the Hewlett Foundation’s Bay Area cultural asset map last summer that I began to realize just how influential Richard Florida and creative class theory had become in policy planning circles. His name appears in study after study, report after report – sometimes with only a passing reference, other times with borderline worship. He is so ubiquitous that even his detractors have no choice but to cite his work. His community development strategies have been borrowed from or adopted wholesale by city and regional governments across the world, though sometimes with less than stellar results. A representative list of clients from his website includes the governments of Ontario Province and Miami-Dade County; the cities of Austin, El Paso, Long Beach, Seattle, Brisbane, and Cape Town; the Boards of Trade of Toronto, Vancouver, and Greater Washington; the Anaheim, Memphis, Sarasota, and Savannah Chambers of Commerce; the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation; the Downtown Denver and Tampa Bay Partnerships; and the US Council of Mayors, just to name a few.

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One of the reasons I sought to pursue an independent study on public policy and the arts this semester was because it would finally gave me an excuse to read The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida’s original treatise on the subject. I highly recommend the book for anyone serious about studying the creative economy and arts-based community revitalization, if for no other reason than the influence it has had on the conversation. Framed by a sprawling narrative covering trends in workplace attire, cultural consumption, professional networking, and more, the book puts forth three main arguments:

  • The nature of society and work is changing. Instead of staying with an organization for their entire careers, people now switch jobs frequently. Workers value intellectual challenge and variety in their jobs as much as or more than salary or job security. Our social connections, the ways we relate to each other, are shifting radically as more informal cultural norms and diverse lifestyles take the place of the lockstep conformity seen in previous generations. Increasingly, work is seen as an expression of identity as much as a way of feeding the family, a part of the outfit that an individual wears in life. The people driving these changes in values are part of a huge new class, the Creative Class, that wields tremendous economic power and encompasses some 30% of the United States population.
  • Traditional notions of economic development are out of date. The old models assumed that people flock to wherever the jobs are, implying a development strategy of cutting corporate taxes, developing industrial parks, and so on. By contrast, Florida argues that jobs move to, or are created, where the talent is, implying a development strategy focused on attracting people as consumers of place.
  • The Creative Class chooses where to live based on a number of factors, most prominent among them a supportive social milieu that includes networks of other Creative Class workers, an openness to ideas and people of all kinds, and opportunities to express creativity not only through their work but outside of work as well.

It’s important to understand that Florida’s definition of the Creative Class is exceptionally broad. Florida’s “Super-Creative Core,” a subset of the Creative Class, includes not just what we normally think of as “creative types,” i.e., artists and media people, but also scientists, engineers, and education professionals. Florida’s vision of the full Creative Class adds on virtually all white-collar workers, including bankers, middle managers, lawyers, doctors, and high-end marketers and salespeople. Essentially, as several have pointed out before me, he is talking about yuppies. Florida argues that this is because all of these professions require some degree of creativity in their execution—some level of strategic analysis and planning. (If I were constructing the definition I would also include chefs, restaurateurs, and bar owners, as many of them are central to the creative ecosystem, along with nonprofit professionals outside of the arts, healthcare, and education.)

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On the face of it, I find little to quibble with in The Rise of the Creative Class. Certainly, my own experience bears out the notion that highly educated, intelligent networks of people congregate in specific regions and not others, and that because those networks play a major factor in relocation decisions, they are highly self-reinforcing. It also makes sense that a friendly environment for such folks would not only include places for them to work and people for them to hang out with, but also things for them to do – specifically, things like a street scene, cultural activities, recreation, and so forth. One can imagine that the openness and tolerance seen on university campuses creates a demand for that same openness and tolerance later in life, since one would not want to live where one’s friends would not feel comfortable.

Not surprisingly, then, I find most criticism of Florida’s work on philosophical grounds largely unconvincing. Florida’s decision to use the prevalence of gay couples as a proxy for a culture of tolerance predictably made conservatives apoplectic. While making enough noise that Florida felt compelled to publicly deny that he himself was gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that), they rushed to disprove the notion that gays somehow drive economic development on their own (Florida never makes any such claim in the book). In fact, many of Florida’s critics either seem to miss the point of his argument entirely or overlook its nuances. For example, Mark Stern and Susan Seifert, whose work I generally love, imply in their monograph From Creative Economy to Creative Society that Florida had ignored the potential for exacerbation of income inequality due to creative class clustering. Yet the original edition of The Rise of the Creative Class addresses this issue prominently in chapter 17. Ann Daly’s oft-cited essay “Richard Florida’s High-Class Glasses” devotes several paragraphs of its length to a snippet of the book on cultural theory and political content in art that, while interesting, is so tangential to the author’s core thesis as to be virtually irrelevant. Charges, such as Melanie Smith’s, that Florida’s theory is based on circular logic don’t quite hold up either. The theory relies in part on network effects to describe the attraction of Creative Class people to a place, so it’s appropriate to think that (for example) the number of tech workers or artists in a community would be a factor in the migration of more tech workers or artists to that community.

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Where Florida is more vulnerable to criticism, in my opinion, is in his methodology and use of data. In the first appendix to The Rise of the Creative Class, he writes, “in retrospect, I probably could have written this book using no statistics at all.” Sometimes, while reviewing chapters 13 and 14 and the accompanying appendices, I found myself wishing he had done just that. Florida offers several prescriptions in the book for creative community development. He boils down his recommendations to a three-axis yardstick, the “3T’s,” for Technology, Talent, and Tolerance, and creates measurement indicators for each. For the most part, both the logic and data tying these axes together are vague at best. He relies mostly on lists of rankings of metropolitan areas that look somewhat like each other. Though he documents statistically significant correlations in most cases, we are not told whether they have more explanatory power than other combinations (economist Edward Glaeser explores this very question in his review of the book by testing the impact of the percentage of adults with BAs versus other indices on population growth), nor given much information about the regressions.

A more serious flaw is that the connection between the 3T’s and actual economic growth is quite weak indeed. If Florida and his team ran a regression on each of the 3T’s and job creation or per-capita income, controlling for other factors, we are not shown the results. In fact, the notes to chapter 13 document a correlation between the Creative Class concentration and employment growth that, while statistically significant, is only 0.03!

By venturing into the world of quantitative analysis, Florida considerably raises the bar for his claims and makes it easy for critics like Steven Malanga to assail him with statistics countering his own:

Yet since 1993, cities that score the best on Florida’s analysis have actually grown no faster than the overall U.S. jobs economy, increasing their employment base by only slightly more than 17 percent. Florida’s indexes, in fact, are such poor predictors of economic performance that his top cities haven’t even outperformed his bottom ones. Led by big percentage gains in Las Vegas (the fastest-growing local economy in the nation) as well as in Oklahoma City and Memphis, Florida’s ten least creative cities turn out to be jobs powerhouses, adding more than 19 percent to their job totals since 1993—faster growth even than the national economy.

To be fair, Malanga’s cherry-picking of stats—why take only the top and bottom 10?—shows only that two can play at this game, but the burden of proof here is still on Florida. Malanga’s core point—that Florida barely makes any effort to show how the “3T’s” are related to actual economic growth—is powerful. The author’s subsequent writing, including his essay Revenge of the Squelchers and the follow-up book Cities and the Creative Class, attempts to rectify these omissions, but the problems remain in the original.

The final insult, however, is Florida’s vaunted Creativity Index, the results of which seemed so strange to me when I first laid eyes on them. After some investigation of the methodology, I soon realized why. The Creativity Index in the original edition of the book is based on four equally weighted factors: the concentration of Creative Class workers in the area, a “High Tech” index measuring a region’s share of national tech industry output as well as the concentration of tech industries within the region, the number of patents filed per capita, and the concentration of same-sex domestic partners within the region. No explanation or evidence whatsoever is given to support the idea that these factors should be equally weighted. Instead, each of 268 metropolitan areas is ranked on each of the four factors, and the Creativity Index is calculated simply by subtracting the region’s rank order in each category from 1076, which, oddly, is four times 269. For example, Portland, ME ranks 28th on the Creative Class metric, 89th on the High-Tech Index, 134th on the Innovation (patent) Index, and 12th on the Gay Index. Its Creativity Index is 1076 – (28 + 89 + 134 + 12) = 813. No attention is paid to the distribution of the actual values within those ranks, which is not very useful if the distribution is anything other than linear, or differs between the four factors. Say there’s a giant cluster of cities in the Creative Class index that are almost tied from #140 to #157, but the city at #157 in the patent index is a huge drop from #156; this metric wouldn’t pick such common subtleties up. Rigorous scientific inquiry this is not.

The paperback version of The Rise of the Creative Class contains a slightly improved index that takes into account certain data, such as the Bohemian Index measuring the share of artistically creative people in a region, which did not exist in fresh enough form for inclusion in the original. Nevertheless, the equal weights are still not justified, and the ranking problem remains (though the calculation is different: now each index is computed as a percentage of its distance from the bottom, and the percentages are averaged across the three indices to arrive at the Creativity Index).

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What frustrates me most about Florida’s mathematical adventures is that the flimsy construction of the Creativity Index saps credibility from what is, in my view, a much stronger qualitative argument about the role of place in determining the futures of young professionals. If I were constructing my own triumvirate of attractors (places to work, people to hang out with, things to do), it would not look so different from Florida’s. I would only add one wrinkle. Arts and culture advocates and their critics tend to look at the relationship between the arts and development as a two-step process: bring in the arts, development happens. I think we have seen in the arts-led gentrification of New York neighborhoods, though, that it’s not quite so simple. First of all, it matters what kind of arts are being promoted—A-list, high culture, institutionalized art, or grassroots, low-barrier, scene-driven art. Secondly, arts-based economic development and community revitalization are both iterative in nature. To be more explicit, it’s not that yuppies who have no arts training in their backgrounds suddenly choose cities based on affinity for the art museum. Rather, it’s that the arts have their own sub-economies that, over time, can help establish neighborhood identity and set in motion the attraction of more mainstream amenities (such as interesting restaurants, music venues, nightlife) that drive further growth. The rest of my independent study will explore these intricacies in greater depth.

Richard Florida gets much right in The Rise of the Creative Class, and it’s just possible that he was most right about the parts that relate most closely to the arts. Drowning amid the swamp of data on the various indices is the following sentence on page 260: “A region’s Bohemian concentration in 1990 predicts both its high-tech industry concentration and its employment and population growth between 1990 and 2000.” There it is: a statistically significant relationship between artists and economic development. That sentence alone does more to make Florida’s case than the many pages of graphs and tables before or after. I hope future criticism and research will do more to shed light on this particular aspect of his argument.

UPDATE: Florida has responded to this post and you can read my follow-up here.

Further reading:

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One Comment

  1. Steve M.
    Posted July 4th, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Great article, in fact, great blog. I’m happy to have found it. I would just like to throw another take on Florida. I recently did a project about the creative scene in Detroit (2011), and it seemed there was some attitudes about Florida’s work as insincere in relation to the city. One quote I saw even called Florida’s vision of creativity “specious”. I think the point there is that creative people are moving to Detroit despite its troubles and despite its lack of resources, which seemingly contradicts Florida’s thesis. The ones moving to Detroit are the revitalizers themselves, the ultimate creative change-makers. I would be happy to share my findings if desired.

6 Trackbacks

  1. [...] other critics.  A good example is  Ian David Moss’ incredibly fine grained and detailed deconstruction of the creative class over at Createquity.com, and Richard’s response to that criticism.  Or while ago I was in [...]

  2. [...] with population and employment growth. Though the empirical claims in the book turned out to be built on shaky foundations, they were intuitive (and well-argued) enough that municipal leaders started taking notice. In [...]

  3. [...] I am speaking without statistical reference, I have seen first-hand the effects of our now rampant consumption of place in that I’ve seen many artist friends pushed out of these very neighborhoods on account of [...]

  4. [...] studies theorist Richard Florida had just released The Rise of the Creative Class, an influential (and not uncontroversial) book on how knowledge workers had become key catalysts for economic renewal in the cores of [...]

  5. By Failure of Place and Economic Development on October 9th, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    […] with population and employment growth. Though the empirical claims in the book turned out to be built on shaky foundations, they were intuitive (and well-argued) enough that municipal leaders started taking notice. In […]

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