How Richard Florida Is Reimagining the Creative Class He Helped Build

There’s probably no one more synonymous with the global conversation on how we can build thriving cities in the new economy than urban theorist Richard Florida.

Florida is perhaps best known for coining the concept of the creative class back in the early 00s and exploring what it would mean for urban regeneration.

His 2002 bestselling book The Rise of the Creative Class lays out this theory in detail. In it, Florida posits that high concentrations of tech workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men living in a city would foster an open and dynamic urban environment that would, in turn, attract more creative talent, as well as business.

This would inevitably lead to greater economic growth and wealthy, dynamic cities. By embracing the "three T's" — technology, talent and tolerance — a city could be completely reborn.


“The creative individual is no longer viewed as an iconoclast. He — or she — is the new mainstream.” — Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class


Fast-forward a decade and a half later and so much of Florida’s theory feels like widely-accepted knowledge about the major economic shift we’ve witnessed, as industries become increasingly tech-based.

Take the Toronto-Waterloo corridor, for example. Over the last decade, the region has become the second largest technology cluster in North America and one of the world’s fastest-growing innovation hubs.

And much like the creative class theory predicted, it has also become internationally recognized for its diverse talent pool, research-leading universities and colleges, and vibrant, livable communities.




The New Urban Crisis

Whether it was predictive, influential or maybe a bit of both, Florida’s theory came to fruition. However, what it didn’t account for — or at least explore in detail — was the negative socio-economic impact this kind of growth could have on a city.

Toronto’s incredible renaissance as Silicon Valley North has brought with it concerns about sky-rocketing housing prices, increased gentrification and marginalization of the city’s most vulnerable.


“We need to invest in creativity and innovation and technology for all. That's what's going to grow this city and create wealth.” — Richard Florida, Metro Morning interview with Matt Galloway


Florida’s latest book The New Urban Crisis wrestles with these realities and considers what’s at risk for many North American cities as the middle-class all but disappears and wealth becomes even more concentrated at the top.

The truth is that income inequality is a complex, nuanced issue tied to government policy, access to opportunity based on race, class and gender, and global economic trends. Certainly, neither Florida nor the creative class theory can or should shoulder the whole burden.

In fact, according to the Gini coefficient, a measurement of the statistical distribution of income between residents across Canada, income inequality started to rise in the mid-1990s and has remained at an all-time high ever since.

But that hasn’t stopped Florida from challenging his own ideas that have helped shape our cities.


The Great Predicament of Amazon HQ2

No moment better encapsulates Florida’s struggle with the changing urban landscape than Amazon’s application and bidding process for the location of the company’s second headquarters, or HQ2.

Initially, Florida was on board with Toronto putting its name in the hat — literally. He was on the board of directors for Toronto Global, whose bid made it as one of the 20 finalists.

The Toronto bid was strong — highlighting the city’s immense talent pool, inclusive environment, low crime rate and Canada’s welcoming immigration policy. Unlike other cities, Toronto didn’t dangle enormous tax breaks and other costly incentives to get Amazon’s attention. Instead, it relied on what it already has going for it.


“The future is always uncertain, but in choosing the Toronto Region, Amazon is choosing one of the most futureproofed locations on the planet.” — Toronto Region response to Amazon HQ2 RFP


But with Toronto still in the running, Florida resigned from the board early this year so that he could raise concerns about the lack of transparency in the overall process.

Ultimately, it wasn’t Toronto’s bid that worried him, it was the way cities were throwing whatever they could at one of the richest companies in the world, without telling their citizens exactly how much it would cost.

He even penned a petition asking HQ2 cities to stop with the giveaways.

In the end, Florida’s prediction came true (yet again). No sooner did Amazon announce that it was splitting HQ2 between Long Island City, Queens and Arlington, Virginia than the winners and losers began to wonder whether it was really worth it.


Driving the Conversation Forward

There is no denying we are living in a new era, and there is no going back. “Scaling” companies, especially tech companies, has become the focus of governments, investors and academics around the world.

And the benefits of having a critical mass of high-growth firms in a region are obvious. They have a disproportionately high impact on job growth, economy and quality of life.

Less obvious is how we can create a sustainable scaleup ecosystem — one where companies have the support they need to scale and where the entire population can feel the benefits of this growth.

DRIVE, Canada’s new global conference on scaleup ecosystems hosted by Hockeystick and the Lazaridis Institute, will aim to address these issues and so much more.

In its inaugural year, DRIVE will ask: how can we create domestic value in a global tech economy?

As one of DRIVE’s keynote speakers, Richard Florida will share what he’s learned since Creative Class was first published 16 years ago.

Through in-depth analysis, cutting-edge trends and compelling personal stories he’ll lay out his vision for the creative class and how they are helping to revolutionize this new global economy.




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