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Is there a creative class?

My colleague Hasan Bakhshi has just published a brilliant analysis of the creative economy in the UK. Written with Alan Freeman and Peter Higgs, this is the first time I have seen a seriously rigorous approach to creative industries and creative roles.

It shows that there is a distinct set of creative industries with a high proportion of creative roles, but also that there are more people with creative occupations outside the creative industries.

This work has many implications. Clearly creativity matters to some extent in almost any job. But a relatively small number of jobs give it much greater prominence. Hasan, Alan and Peter define creative jobs as ones with "a role within the creative process that brings cognitive skills to bear to bring about differentiation to yield either novel, or significantly enhanced products whose final form is not fully specified in advance".

Using existing definitions they show that there are some half a million people in creative roles in the UK's creative industries - over half of all jobs in those industries, and slightly more in creative roles in other industries, but making up only 2% of total employment.

Overall about 4% of the workforce fill creative roles.But applying their new more rigorous definition some roles fall in and others fall out and we're left with a significantly higher estimate closer to two million, or around 7% of the workforce. The paper looks at different options and definitions but feels broadly right in the orders of magnitude it suggests. 

One of the many implications of this work is to cast light on some of the most influential work in this field, by the American writer Richard Florida, and in particular its claims for a new 'creative class'. Florida has become a best-selling author, a highly paid speaker and consultant, and has attracted his fair share of critics and enemies.

More than anyone in recent years he has promoted what to me are important truths about how the world works: the growing importance of creative roles, sectors and jobs; the need to shift urban regeneration away from its fixation on physical improvements to a focus on people; and the links between cultures and milieu and economic effects.

I started my career working on how to grow the creative economy of cities (with a cultural industries strategy for London in the mid-1980s), and with colleagues at the Comedia consultancy lots of good work was done in the 1980s and 1990s on how cities could use creativity to turn around depressed neighbourhoods, create wealth and jobs. Charles Landry was a pioneer, working for a time at the World Bank, and bringing together a great network of cities - from Helsinki to Barcelona - who shared ideas through the 1990s. My former colleague Peter Hall wrote what still stand out as the most penetrating theories and histories of creative cities - notably in his magnum opus Cities in Civilisation, which showed the importance of the feel and milieu of cities; how open they were to outsiders; and the connections between culture and growth.

We were all initially glad when Richard Florida showed up at the end of the 90s. He had a marketers' flair for turning ideas into an easily digestible format. The pioneers had to grit their teeth as he adopted their ideas without acknowledgement - but they recognised that this is usually how change happens.

Before long, cities were falling over themselves to employ him. In this blog I offer a few reflections on what's been learned, and why the sort of work Hasan is doing is so important, providing a more rigorous foundation on which to understand creative economy dynamics, and in time the sociological implications of occupations which require a lot of creativity. I'll do so through a series of questions.

Do arts drive growth?

One of the starting points for this field in recent decades was the perhaps surprising claim that spending on the arts could generate economic growth - through a mix of effects, some indirect (such as attracting investment and qualified people) and some more direct (like the formation of creative industry firms).

This became a fashionable proposition in the US and UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as old industrial cities like Glasgow and Pittsburgh used investment in the arts to transform their identity. Bilbao later became perhaps the best known example of all. 

So what happened? One of the most thorough analyses of this argument, done by Mel Gray, assem­bled data for fif­teen US cities span­ning thirty seven years-from 1969 to 2006-and showed that spend­ing on the arts did appear to drive eco­nomic growth in four cities (albeit with very different time patterns): New York, Atlanta, Dal­las, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, but didn't have any clear effect in the 11 others.

That's roughly the pattern that has been found elsewhere, and often the arts funding has revived the inner city, but had no effect on economic prospects for the rest of the city. Not a decisive win by any means: but not a bad hit-rate.

Is there a creative class, and if so who is in it?

Richard Florida's most prominent claim, however, went much further. He argued that there is a meaningful category called a creative class, which in the US accounts for as much as 30-40% of the workforce, and that its size drove economic growth: the bigger the creative class in a city, the faster its growth rate. The implication was that cities shouldn't just build art galleries - they should do all they could to grow and attract this group of people.

Unfortunately the argument that there is a single creative class has crumbled under investigation. Accountants, consultants, professors, engineers are very different from each other, and not obviously much more creative than, for example, builders or engineers. No generalisations about the creative class - for example about their movement, motivations, cultures - has survived analysis.

For example, one important study in Germany - by Krätke - broke Florida's Cre­ative Class (which includes accoun­tants, real estate, bankers and politi­cians) into five sep­a­rate groups and found that only the "sci­en­tif­i­cally and tech­no­log­i­cally cre­ative" work­ers had an impact on regional GDP. Just as important they are not necessarily the ones who will be the most avid consumers of culture (and if you're in any doubt I recommend a visit to Silicon Valley which no one would pretend is a hotbed of culture).

Many of these creatives want to live in leafy suburbs with good schools, not in the inner city. 

A 2009 study by Michele Hoy­man and Chris Far­icy used Florida's own data from 1990 to 2004 and came up with equally damning results: in Faricy's words, 'the results were pretty strik­ing. The mea­sure­ment of the cre­ative class that Florida uses in his book does not cor­re­late with any known mea­sure of eco­nomic growth and devel­op­ment.' 

Hasan's definition is far more rigorous - and a lot more persuasive. A significant share of the UK's workforce is in creative occupations, and this is rising. They do tend to value openness and tolerance (as Peter Hall argued), but the patterns are complex (again, Peter Hall has pioneered some of the work on this, showing for example how 24 hour cities can alienate some of the most important creative occupations).

The size of the creative class is much smaller than Florida claimed, and it would be unwise to conclude that they are a cause rather than an effect of growth.

What makes creative people move?

This takes us to the next crucial issue. Florida argued that creative people like to move to places that are tolerant, open and diverse, and that growth then follows. This felt intuitively true. Unfortunately a four-year, multimil­lion study of thir­teen cities across Europe called "Accom­mo­dat­ing Cre­ative Knowl­edge," pub­lished in 2011, showed that it wasn't.

Movement was much better explained by where there were jobs or existing personal networks. It's still sensible to create an environment that's attractive to mobile creative people. But jobs will do more to attract people than vice versa.

Is the proportion of the population who are gay important to economic growth?

The most eye-catching claim of Florida's was that a large gay population drives economic growth by attracting creative workers. As far as I'm aware no subsequent research has found any corroboration for Florida's claims. Big cosmopolitan cities do attract gay men and women - because of their tolerance.

And economics has long shown that the presence of highly educated people drives economic growth. But that's an opposite direction of causation to the one claimed by Florida. Human capital explains growth much better than the proportion of the population who are gay.

I remember one expert saying many years ago that Richard Florida was both original and right, but that where he was right he wasn't original and where he was original he was wrong.

That may be harsh but it's roughly what a decade or more of research has confirmed.

He's done a great job of popularization, and deserves credit for that. He's rightly persuaded cities that they should take creative sectors and roles seriously. He's right in saying that there are positive feedback loops - more creative jobs attract more creative people who in turn attract more creative jobs. And his emphasis on measures of human capital that look at what people do not just what qualifications they have is sound.

Unfortunately, he's never been strong on policy, strategy, or for that matter detail, and cities and governments should be somewhat wary of his prescriptions. These have placed too much emphasis on lifestyle and city centre culture - and not enough on jobs and opportunities. There has been too much generic prescription and not enough fitted to specific contexts and conditions.

The good news is that this field is now moving onto strong footings. It's now possible to map the creative economy in much more fine grained detail, its patterns and clusters, and the networks that link up creative firms. The basic insights that got everyone interested in the first place are sound: the creative economy is continuing to grow in importance, and every city should have a serious strategy for growing its creative economy. But this can now be based more on facts and evidence, and less on broad brush assertion.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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