Thursday, 09 April 2015 16:44

The Creative Workforce as a focus for Economic Development

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The Creative Class
The idea that economic development policies should look beyond their traditional focus on attracting manufacturing jobs was fundamental to Florida’s case. A decade on from the publication of his book on “The Rise of the Creative Class” this view has become widely accepted. Thus the ESPON report observes that the ability of cities and regions to attract creative workers “is usually associated with place-based qualities such as cultural and recreational amenities, diverse neighbourhoods, architectural quality, access to nature, etc.”.

The ESPON research analyses data from 2001-2008. This reveals a strong link between GDP per capita and levels of creative employment. However, some of the detail is interesting. The countries with the highest share of creative workers in the active population are Finland, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands. In each of these the ratio is over 10%. However, the highest growth rates in the sector (over 30%) were in Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, though these and other countries in Eastern Europe were starting from a low base.

Does the creative workforce generate growth – or feed off it?
Capital city regions generally have the highest share of the creative workforce within a country. This is no surprise. However, ESPON found that other urban areas had not seen such rapid creative employment growth as rural regions – the figures were 9.2% and 12.6% respectively. Indeed in industrial regions, the creative workforce has been declining as a proportion of the economically active population. This trend is most marked in Germany, the Netherlands, Northern France, Spain and Bulgaria. In contrast peripheral rural, mountain and island regions have been doing well.

Although the ESPON research maps the situation down to NUTS 2 level (i.e. regions) looking at the picture it does appear that the deviations in the GDP/creative workforce relations are most evident between countries rather than within countries. Thus countries such as Austria, Ireland, Sweden and Finland had high GDP and high creative workforce in the 2005-08 period, while Portugal, Spain and the Eastern European countries have low GDP and low creative workforce levels. This pattern begs questions about causation: does a creative workforce generate growth, or do well-off countries spend more on consuming the products of the creative workforce?

Town Planners are not the only creative workers
The categories included as the creative workforce include not just “architects and town planners” but also occupations such as secondary school teachers, travel guides, social work associate professionals and religious associate professionals. In respect of the Scandinavian countries, could it be that a combination of the Lutheran church, social democracy, and a commitment to supporting services in rural regions accounts for the high scores, especially in more peripheral regions? If that is the case then Florida’s arguments look less convincing. Similarly, the messages from ESPON urging policy-makers to recognise the potential of the creative workforce to spur economic growth may not be robust. Meanwhile, Austerity Europe is slimming down, rather than growing, its creative workforce.

Manchester’s media
The ESPON research highlights Greater Manchester, which has the UK’s largest concentration of employment in media and creative industries outside London. It notes the city’s longstanding strengths in music and TV. Importantly, it recognises how the recent move of BBC jobs to the Media City development built upon a much longer regeneration process for Salford Quays that was supported by ERDF money.

We speak geek – The Creative Coast Alliance
In our recent book on Regional and Local Economic Development, my co-authors and I looked at a number of examples of practices in different parts of the world to attract and retain Florida’s creative class. Often in North America the results were displacement of traditional residents and industrial jobs, while local elites were the direct beneficiaries. In particular, Tax Increment Financing schemes often seemed to lead to such outcomes.

More positively, we also noted the work of The Creative Coast Alliance (TCCA), based in Savannah, Georgia. Savannah’s Economic Development Agency had traditionally sought to attract big-box stores and established manufacturers. In contrast the Creative Coast Initiative successfully worked with companies employing between 5 and 10 people. TCCA also projected itself to young technical professionals through branding that stressed youth and informality: “we speak geek”, for example.

What to do
In summary, planners and economic development practitioners should not accept uncritically the creative class thesis, especially as a formula for neighbourhood regeneration. However, there can be little doubt that sectors such as media, and especially electronic media, have seen strong growth, and play an important role in regional differentiation within national economies. The media cluster in Manchester certainly helped the city region to recover economically (if not socially) from the devastation of de-industrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s, and just as importantly it sustained a regional voice in the face of the intense centralisation of UK media in London. As the ESPON report suggests and TCCA’s practice shows, the challenge is to build on local strengths and build targeted place-based strategies. This may well require co-operation with others across local authority boundaries.

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