(Re)Building Intellectual Infrastructure

Richard Florida, Dr. Creative Class himself, spent a good deal of time in a post today on his blog responding to some of the concerns raised in yesterday's Where post on questioning the logic of the CC. I'll admit that I haven't yet read Rise of the Creative Class (yesterday's post was about the phenomenon, not specificlly the book that started it), so reading his thoughts taught me a lot that I didn't know about his argument. As it turns out, I agree with him on more than I had originally thought. From Dr. Florida's post:

"My bottom line is that every human being is creative. And the creativity cannot be forced into the social categories we have imposed on ourselves...The real task is to build pathways to a creative society in which all can contribute and be rewarded [and] in which all engage their creativity at a much fuller level, thereby contributing to economic growth...The key to the future will be to extend the creative force into the service and manufacturing economies - across all segments of the population. The logic of the creative economy is such that the further development of the economy requires the further development of human creative capabilities. We need to shift from a creative economy and a creative class to much fuller and broader creative communities and a creative society."

This plays directly into the follow-up I had planned to last night's post. If cities hope to strengthen the creativity of their citizens in order to secure their economic futures, the officials holding the purse strings need to realize that coffee shops and bike paths aren't going to cut it -- they're the icing, not the cake. As illustrated in the Slate article referrenced yesterday, the creative class will seek out existing creative societies. Cities looking to invest in their creative infrastructure, then, should focus on building up the skills of those who already live there instead of looking to bring new folks in. To paraphrase City Comforts, brilliance innovates, genius follows.

Cities looking to build a creative populace can do so if they are willing to invest in what we'll call their intellectual infrastructure. Civic leaders' first step here would be to create the strongest school system possible -- a major responsibility that many cities illogically refuse to take seriously. That sadly overpoliticized issue aside, cities must find innovative ways to encourage their citizens to develop their own creative skills. It's time that politicians stop looking at citizens as "constituents" (read: votes) and start seeing them as what they are: the city's greatest assets.

In a recent post at atlas(t)'s Galleon Trade Edition, blogger Claire Light waxed nostalgic about the proverbial days of yore: "Once upon a time, before art was professionalized (insofar as people are willing to pay artists, that is to say) folks stayed at home a lot and made art themselves. Every middle class home had a piano, every working class one a fiddle, or a jew's harp. Young ladies drew each other for sport. Young men drooped from the forks of tree branches shouting, 'Beauty!' Jigs were danced, and danced well, on homemade wooden heels, family theatricals taught children the fine art of crying at will, [and] a blank wall was excuse enough for interpretive dance..."

As Dr. Florida (and several readers who commented on yesterday's post) pointed out, creativity is about a lot more than what we traditionally think of as the arts. Creativity and innovation, especially in terms of economics, must be valued in all fields and industries. What the atlas(t) post illustrates particularly well is the way that art used to be intregrated into society; these kinds of activities were much more accessible to the general public. Art-for-fun had no social stigma; it was just something that everyone did. In this way, artistic endeavors served as both social activities and intellectual stimulation. When you gathered around a piano and sang songs with your friends, you got some beneficial social juju and you gave your brain a workout. While you may not have been able to use your piano-playing skills or your ability to sing a high G at work the next day, your musical exploits sent you to the office or the factory with a fresh and slightly-stretched mind.

So what policies or public projects could a city undertake to try to rebuild this kind of intellectual infrastructure that makes creativity a common civic value? One idea comes from a recent airoots post (them again!) about a kind of dwelling in the Dharavi area -- best known as Asia's largest slum -- in Mumbai known as the "tool-house." When is a house a tool-house? "When every wall, nook and corner becomes an extension of the tools of the trade of its inhabitant. When the furnace and the cooking hearth exchange roles and when sleeping competes with warehouse space. A cluster of tool-houses makes for a thriving workshop-neighbourhood and its public spaces emerge as a dynamic by-product of such an auto-organized habitat."

To attempt the transformation of a contemporary Western (or Westernized) city into a tool-house city would be both disingenuous and impossible. What we can learn from these places is a social principle, not a building practice. Tool-house cities are innovative by necessity, but they illustrate "the relationship between production, livelihood and spaces." This relationship is vital to creative cities, where production -- not consumption -- is the primary economic mode of the citizen (think "prosumer").

Cities, then, should invest in projects and policies that reinforce the production-livelihood-space relationship and encourage citizens to apply the skills that they learn on the job to the world around them in new ways. Citizens should also be encouraged by civic leaders to build off-the-job skills as well, as these can also be applied to urban problems and will likely be more potent and flexible when combined with work-related knowledge.

But what, physically, might this kind of thing look like? Perhaps cities could organize and/or facilitate neighborhood skill-shares or tool-sharing programs, sponsor a job-shadow program for adults, or subsidize classes that could teach arts and trade-related job skills (how about a graffiti club that teaches teens masonry skills so that they can learn to build walls to paint on -- and how to clean them off) There are ten times as many solutions as there are problems. Any ideas?

(Photo from Flickr users pbo31 and Soumik.)

Creative Class Debates (Creative Class Group)

Manalo Juan (atlas(t) Galleon Trade Edition)

Urban Fictions: The Toolhouse (airoots)


Jim Russell said...

The most salient critique of Dr. Florida's work is that he implies causality where there is only correlation. Since we are discussing policy, we should further explore this charge.

I live in the Denver area. The regional growth of population is not the result of tolerance, diversity, or an abundance of "creativity."

The Californication of the Inter-Mountain West is a fleshed out story. Disparity in real estate, along with the tax structure, is one of the main reasons for this migration. Another attraction was and is the physical geography (climate, topography, etc...).

There is certainly evidence of a Creative Class dividend, but the draw to this region wasn't the result of successful policy. In fact, migration policy is notorious for being largely a crap shoot.

I'm quite skeptical that any city or region can engineer a reversal of fortune. I want to explore success stories. Where are the policies that worked? Why did they work? Can we reproduce this success elsewhere?

Until then, the world continues to get more spiky. To me, that suggests that any attempt to attract the Creative Class will fail.

Brendan said...

Denver benefits a great deal from geography. Not only does the city have a landscape that promotes physically active lifestyles (exercising your body is another effective way to keep your mind nimble), it also benefits from California's overflow (as you pointed out) and its own isolation. Denver's whole reason for existing, essentially, is to serve as a center to the Interior West region. That gives it rather unique benefits, making it a sort of regional Primate City.

In more densely populated areas (the Rust Belt, for instance), I think that policy can play a very important role in giving cities that understand the difference between an indie record store and a musically literate citizenry.

Look at Pittsburgh. The city's two biggest challenges are its self-perception (the city is notoriously divided into the Shameless Boosters and the Yinzer Naysayers) and its external reputation. The first of these directly impacts the other.

As you've argued on Burgh Diaspora before, Pittsburgh -- like any city -- is always going to see its young people migrate elsewhere. But what those people have to say about their home town, and how effectively they are able to say it, will determine whether young people migrating from elsewhere will consider a move to Pittsburgh. Now, of course, the city has to back that up with sound economic policies in order to provide jobs for potential new arrivals, but the cultural values of a place are reflected in diasporan evangelism, so policies that aim to re-frame those values are important.

I don't know about the effectiveness or accuracy of bohemian or gay indices, but pursuing policies that encourage curiosity and experimentation can only help a place in the long run. What those policies will look like is a mystery at this point, but that's no reason to write them off.

One final note: any place attempting this kind of thing would need a certain level of comfort with the possibility of failure. To encourage people to take risks, city leaders must not be afraid to do so. Brave cities will stumble, but they will also succeed. And if at first they don't? Try, try again.