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.