Is Richard Florida Right?

Thought provoking article in the American Prospect about the work of Richard Florida. It is critical of him on a variety of fronts, but particularly his selling his ideas in speeches and consulting to many small to mid size cities and regions who he now has decided have little or no chance to retain and attract the creative class. Florida in a March, 2008 article in the Atlantic laid out his new thinking that some places in American are going to be winners and some losers in the transition to what he would describe as a creative economy and there is little policy makers can do to effect that. In essence writing off a large proportion of America in terms of  participating to any significant degree in the growing and high wage part of the American economy.

As the American Prospect article lays out there are lots of Florida’s ideas that are controversial. Lots of folks think his approach to economic growth is misguided. We will explore some of those issues in future posts. For now I want to focus on the geographic winner and loser question.

We wrote in our  2006 New Agenda report that talent is concentrating in big metros and a few mid size metros with major research universities. And because of that trend (apparently global, not just in the US) that the keys to recreating a high prosperity Michigan are primarily metro Detroit and to a lesser degree metro Grand Rapids and metro Lansing. This doesn’t sit well with most folks in the rest of Michigan. They want their communities to participate in the growing, high wage portions of the national economy as well.

But if our analysis is right, it’s not something that small metros and rural areas can do. They simply don’t have the assets – density being the most important – to create, retain and attract either knowledge-based enterprises or college educated adults at scale. So the new Florida analysis is likely right. That there are many places across the country that are unlikely to succeed– no matter how many resources they throw at it – to create places where talent will concentrate. Florida deserves the criticism that he sold many communities – including in Michigan – an unrealizable growth strategy.

What I think is wrong with his new analysis is that he also seems to writing off many big metros. The fact that Michigan’s three largest metros are not now talent magnets nor do they have the assets needed to become one, doesn’t mean that it can’t change. As we explore in our next annual progress report, Pittsburgh has gone from a declining industrial region to a flourishing knowledge economy. If they can do it, so can our three largest metros.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. That is quite interesting. I don’t know whether Richard Florida is right or wrong, but he does deserve credit for saying what he thinks even if he knows that people won’t like it. We could probably benefit from more politicians willing to look at out of the box ideas, especially in Michigan.

    While I don’t see an easy road back for the city of Detroit (except for areas of downtown), there is no reason to think the Metro area can’t attract new industries or hang on to (and attract) more college grads. Also, one of the few benefits of having fallen so far is that is should give more leeway to policymakers to experiment with a what-do-we-have-to-lose? mentality.

    Any strategy that relies largely on the auto industry to lead us back to prosperity is doomed to failure, and hopefully there are enough people in power who realize that.

  2. No one can predict the future with accuracy, but even if Florida is right, it is still unlikely that we can depend on manufacturing, especially automobiles, to lead us back to prosperity. Emphasizing education is still the best hope, even if Florida is partly correct. Even if more and more of Michigan’s young people leave the state, they will have a better opportunity wherever they go if they have a college degree. I still think we can attract knowledge industries to Michigan, but it will be a long difficult process, requiring much patience. We know the old formula of relatively low skilled manufacturing jobs providing high incomes is no longer working. We have to try something. And developing a well educated workforce seems to be an essential ingredient to whatever strategy we try.

  3. While it is true that smaller metros and rural communities will have difficulties attracting knowledge based industries and the talent they employ, it is possible for them to be successful based on their own assets and understanding their role within a regional context. Smaller metros in michigan such as traverse city and marquette have particular assets that can be used to build a successful regional economy(natural resources for tc and eds and meds for marquette as well as natural resources). The key for smaller metros and rural communities is to understand what assets they have and build from there.

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