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October 22, 2013 / Leo Hollis

The Problem with Creativity

The accumulating discussion of the work of Richard Florida, and Bruce Katz’s recent The Metropolitan Revolution, have established the gospel that the city’s future is creative, driven by a hyper mobile creative class that bring innovations and skills to wherever they lay their hat. Richard Florida was the first to coin ‘the creative class’ as a new, dynamic social and economic group who were having a profound impact on urban regeneration. The new human economy, he proposes, will be split between those who are mobile and those who are stuck. Knowledge workers will move around the world, in search of places of excellence: ‘the mobile possess the means, resources, and inclination to seek out and move to locations where they can leverage their talents.’ The ‘Creative Class’ is the human equivalent of the ‘Bilbao effect’, developing a place where small start-ups and multinational companies can share the same car park, attracting talent from around the world.

Does this high level investment in the gospel of the creative class help grass roots creativity? Richard Florida’s ideas are not without their critics. For some, his new intellectual nomads are not a special breed apart, but generally more educated and therefore always more likely to be able to go in pursuit of the best jobs. For others, mobility itself is no proof of success or creativity, and that ‘the stuck’ could easily be reinterpreted as happy.  Others warn against the worship of the ‘creative class’ as the only means of developing a competitive economy, dismissing all that has happened before as irrelevant, promoting a doctrine that preaches that ‘the history of a city is at best of little use, and at worst an obstacle to entering the advanced knowledge economy. The prescription is to bring the economy from up high into one’s city.’ It is sometimes too easy to be seduced by the new, rather than really looking and seeing what is happening at the grass roots.

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It is, however, only from long term creativity that the present day innovation emerges. In 2008, two years before Tech City, in London’s East End, was announced by David Cameron, it was estimated that there were no more than 20 start ups in the Old Street area; by the end of 2011, this number has risen to over 300. Location, agglomeration and the right atmosphere has helped form this natural cluster of firms. It is here that Last.Fm, Moo, Dopplr, and SoundCloud started; in 2011 local heroes Tweetdeck were bought by Twitter for £25 million. The most recent success story can be found at Mind Candy who created the on line sensation Moshi Monster, that has encouraged over 50 million children worldwide to adopt their own pixilated pet. On merchandising alone, the company expects to make £60 million in 2011.

According to a 2012 report by the Centre for London, it is clear that the top down initiative needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. It appears to be something of a rebranding exercise with the aim of attracting foreign investment rather than stimulating grass roots activity. Silicon Roundabout is not a science park that has been raised up on the outside of the city; it is located in the heart of one of the most creative neighbourhoods that has organically grown in the past two decade. The government project appears to be more of an attempt to find a purpose for the Olympic Park following the games. In contrast, around the roundabout itself, there has been little actual investment: the tube station (one of the least attractive in the city) has not been improved, there has not even been an improvement to the broadband capacity to the region. There are fears that the cheerleading will simply raise rents and squeeze already poor commercial space in an already fragile emerging economy. The report concluded:

‘One of the most striking characteristics of the East London cluster is its organic growth. It has been evolving for years under the policy radr, and only now – as it reaches critical mass, and becomes the figurehead of London’s digital economy – is it recieveing much public attention. . . Tech city should be about taking what Inner East London already has and helping it get even better.’

Creativity does not evolve out of a vacuum, it does not emerge from a photo opportunity or a government initiative. No project has even worked when it has been imposed against the grain of the place. The notion that by building a business park and a good road to the airport is sufficient work to inspire economic revolution is a foolish one that has trapped many cities who have rebranded themselves as ‘creative’. In the case of Shoreditch, the creative class has brought little more than marketing and the violence of gentrification to a fragile neighbourhood.

Cities are extraordinarily creative places, where good ideas come and interact, mutate and evolve  – but not like this.  Florida and Katz are both very alive to the growing inequalities within the contemporary city, but is the creative class a means to bring prosperity to all or a new class warrior? Do they stand at the vanguard of neighbourhood revival or dread gentrification?

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