People are creative; industries, not so much. And cities?

So it looks like I’ll be in Amsterdam next month to speak at WCIT 2010: the seventeenth annual World Congress on Information Technology, an event whose theme is “Challenges of Change.” (Lot of challenges this year, I guess, and that’s even before your civilizational transportation grid is brought to its knees by the merest grumblings of an Icelandic firegod.)

I am of course delighted to be at WCIT, but I have to say I’m a little perplexed by the relevance of anything I have to say to the track I’ve been assigned, “Creative Industries.” People I have a great deal of respect for have found institutional homes in departments so named, so there must be some there there, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why a rubric so fuzzy and problematic has risen to prominence so quickly.

Actually, I find the recent emphasis on “creative” X, Y and Z more than a little troubling. Part of this is simply a lifelong aversion to flavor-of-the-month thinking and empty jargon, but it’s also that it all seems to be down to the influence of Richard Florida — and in my mind, Florida’s seeming advocacy of things I care about deeply winds up trivializing and ultimately undercutting them.

Methodologically, of course, Florida’s original work leaves a great deal to be desired, so much so that the serious social scientists I know preemptively cringe when they can sense his name about to be uttered. The problems start right off the bat, with Florida’s definition of “creative”; in his hands, the term becomes so elastic as to be effectively meaningless, unless you truly believe that surgeons, hairdressers and cabinetmakers are all responding to the same primary imperatives in their choice of occupation.

But then it’s not clear that even if they did, they would think of themselves as a self-conscious class — i.e. a group with overriding shared or collective interests — at all. The sprawling cohort Florida anoints as creative for the purposes of making his case have so little in common otherwise that it’s hard to ever imagine them constituting a coherent constituency, voting bloc, market or audience.

I also wish somebody would tell me just which fields of human endeavor constitute these supposed “creative industries.” The laundry list of criteria that have been advanced strikes me as more self-congratulatory than diagnostically useful, and just about Borgesian into the bargain.

The error is compounded when some well-meaning effort is made to attract both class and industries to what are now being dubbed “creative cities.” Believe me, I have absolutely no problem if you want to attract creative people to your city, nor would I complain in the slightest if you rigged the machinery of municipal policy so as to render your part of the world that much more welcoming to gay men and bicyclists. We could all use a leisurely ride every once in awhile, and so far as I know no city has ever done anything but make money and have a good time during an International Bear Rendezvous. That is all well and good.

But don’t for a moment make the mistake that by so doing, you’ll automatically become Silicon Valley 2.0, let alone catapult your two-bit burg into the stratum of Sassen-class world cities. Convincing the startups, the venture money, and the young innovators that your part of the world would make a congenial home, in the hopes of cultivating a robust and sustainable tax base, is a perfectly reasonable thing to want to do. But the honest truth is that not every place is or ever will be equally set up to succeed in these things, and anybody who suggests otherwise is selling you a bill of goods.

The cynic (or the realist critic of neoliberalism) points out that investment is attracted by a “stable” local political environment and a docilized labor market contained by business-friendly wage and collective-bargaining laws. The Floridian, ever so slightly more evolved, will argue that sidewalk cafés, plentiful bike parking, and a neighborhood that breaks out in fluttering rainbow bunting come Pride each year are more likely to attract the clean, green twenty-first century investment you’re presumably really looking for. Better to snare Jamba Juice and the Apple Store and the kind of people who shop in them, goes the argument, than Pig Iron Smelting Joint Venture No. 4.

That’s all fine, as far as it goes. But I believe there’s a single factor that makes one or another region more attractive to the kinds of people and investment that apparently now signify above all others — and I’m sorry, Metz, it’s not having a starchitect-designed museum. It’s a factor I think of as organic sense of place.

Amsterdam, Barcelona, San Francisco, New York and London all have persistent local ways of doing and being, and that’s what makes them compelling places to work and settle, despite the inevitable hassles attendant upon doing so. These lifeways obviously evolved over historical time, and the harsh truth we can conclude from this is that there’s no turnkey way to join their ranks, no book you can read or seminar you can attend that can tell you how to be one of them. This has got to be a bitter pill to swallow, I know, if you’re Masdar or Sejong City.

I understand that times are tough, competition between cities is relentless and those of you responsible for making urban-scale decisions are desperately interested to hear from someone, anyone at all, who seems confident about having the answers. I’m simply begging you not to swallow Richard Florida’s ideas whole (or mine, or anybody else’s at all).

If you care about queer lives and two-wheeled transit, by all means take measures to support them. But do so on their own terms, in, of and for themselves, and not because you’re following some pop sociologist’s half-assed recipe for urban renaissance in the hope of luring development. Who knows, maybe a sincere effort at the former will wind up fructifying your town in all kinds of unexpected ways; it’s not as if it’s ever a particularly bad idea to underwrite civilization and amenity.

But if all you care about in the end is the flow of investment, talent and human capital through your town, you can probably save yourself the half-hearted effort at draping yourself with the Creative Industries mantle. There are plenty of other ways to attract capital, and though they’re neither as glamorous nor as generative of the instant cred that goes hand-in-hand with having purchased this year’s model, they work and work reliably.

I’ve never heard anyone accuse Zürich, for example, of having a blistering DJ scene, cutting-edge galleries or forward-leaning popup shops. Yet they seem to be doing OK when it comes to the cheddar, you know? Better a world of places that are what they are, and stand or fall on their own terms, than the big nowhere of ten thousand certified-Creative towns and cities with me-too museums, starchitected event spaces and half-hearted film festivals.

13 responses to “People are creative; industries, not so much. And cities?”

  1. maetl says :

    The various sundry “Fashion Weeks” are the most glaring sign of so many cities now, who are trying to buy their way in to this idea of being “creative”.

  2. Michal Migurski says :

    “Fructify”, nice.

  3. bryan says :

    Fashion week, design week, film festivals, art fairs to the point of exhaustion. Naming something is the first gesture towards its death. Putting “international” or “annual” seem to speed up that death.

    • Hannah Suarez says :

      From an event organiser/event promotions perspective you HAVE to name and encapsulate what these events are all about into something that people can recognise

    • AG says :

      Well, I suppose. I’ve done a few successful events with words in their names that hadn’t even existed six months previously, so I don’t think it’s an ironclad rule of the universe.

      I also think — and I mean this in the kindest possible way — that if you hang a buzzwordy tag on your event, you’re more likely to garner an audience with unacceptable levels of dullards and nonentities, while critical thinkers will be more likely to give it a pass.

      This has been my experience, anyway, and it obviously reflects my own values. It might not be a useful perspective for you…but it is a datapoint. There’s at least one member of your potential audience who feels this way.

  4. Tijs Teulings says :

    And still whenever florida is in the netherlands Dutch officials, the Amsterdam kind in particular, come out in droves to hear the man speak so they can run out and implement his incantations. You would think they were suffering from some kind of creative industry anxiety. Good your coming, maybe you can beat it out of them.

  5. Allana says :

    I don’t think it’s such a problem that cities want flourishing creative communities — it’s cities that think those communities will somehow be able to co-exist with heavy industry or sports or academia that create problems. The big change I want to see is municipalities giving up on the well-rounded, little-of-everything approach and starting to tailor themselves towards specific lifestyles at the exclusion of others. Towns based on a single factory or a single school have been historically unstable; I want to see this problem solved. It should be easy, given the sub-city model of large places like London and New York. If we segregate ourselves socially, why can’t we relocate ourselves physically to reflect that?

    • AG says :

      Wow, wow, wow. I thoroughly disagree with that idea. Unless you’re deliberately being Swiftian, in which case: heh.

      Listen, I’m not quite sure why you’d deliberately set out to create monocultures when everything we know about monocultures suggests that they’re brittle, susceptible to point failure and terribly, terribly likely to stagnate.

      And assuming that’s all you’re asking for is a very generous read, given your last sentence. Read it again and ask yourself if that’s really what you meant it to sound like, because to me it has some very unsavory resonances.

  6. Allana says :

    I don’t think you’re giving The Future enough credit. People already self-segregate by professional lines, else we wouldn’t have those artsy communities springing up in low-rent neighbourhoods. I’m not saying governments need to deliberately class-control, but surely there’s a way to preserve buildings and areas of cultural significance in a way that’s profitable (tourism?) without pushing stagnation. Isn’t the great artist complaint these days about gentrification? Why can’t we freeze development and keep their neighbourhoods dingy and rundown like they prefer?
    I’m not suggesting that any city can run without a healthy mix of trades and services, but enough people are stuck commuting atrocious distances that my idea seems no big step further. And I’m hardly planning ethnic or religious segregation; class/career/lifestyle communities are what people want, given the choice.

    (But I’m Canadian, so we have a lot less fear of government ineptness and corruption than you guys do. Also, I’m no longer a city-dweller, so I have a lot more interest in experimenting for experiment’s sake.)

    • AG says :

      If people are stuck with bad commutes (and I agree that they are), then fix the mobility system they’re embedded in. If people are having a tough time with gentrification (and I agree that they are), then fix the incentive landscapes that deny them affordable housing.

      But deliberately set out to create single-use colonies, when mixed-use, mixed income neighborhoods perform better on just about every criterion you care to specify? It would be undoing half a century and more of hard-won urbanist insight, and turning your back on most of what we know about how neighborhoods work.

      Even more centrally, though, surrounding yourself with the likeminded is ultimately inimical to personal development, and bound to lead to groupthink any way you slice it. As so many have observed — my particular touchstone here is Richard Sennett, but you can find literally dozens of other voices, all saying more or less the same thing — diversity is what cities are for.

      This is Richard Sennett, from The Uses of Disorder (1969):

      The jarring elements in one’s social life can be purified out as unreal because they don’t fit that articulated object, that self-consciously spelled-out set of beliefs, likes and dislikes, and abilities that one takes to be oneself. In this way, the degree to which people feel urged to keep articulating who they are, what they want and what they feel is almost an index of their fear about their inability to survive in social experience with other men [sic].

      This is what you’re asking for, and of course, it’s how social networking systems and applications like CitySense perform. It’s an essentially purificatory instinct, and if you’ll forgive me for saying so, it betrays an essentially adolescent lack of confidence in one’s ability to thrive amidst diversity.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Creatives, whether people or cities « a work on process - 18 April 2010
  2. Peter's Blog - 18 April 2010
  3. Frank Hecker - 25 May 2010

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