Creative people help a company ‘thrive’ in tough times

As a young boy, Richard Florida begged his father to show him his workplace – an eyeglasses frames factory that he worked at since quitting school in Grade 7 until the day he retired, with a brief interruption to fight in World War II.

But his father refused for a long time.

“My job is to work in this factory so you don’t have to,” his father said. “The key to becoming happy and successful is to get your education.”

Still, the young Florida persisted and eventually visited his Dad’s workplace. While he was fascinated by the technology and machinery that put the frames together, his father focused on communicating with the people operating them — talking to colleagues on the shop floor in Italian, Spanish and German.

“It’s not the machines that make the factory great,” Florida’s father told him. “It’s the intelligence of the people that work here.”

People and their innate creativity are what make a company thrive and an economy boom, Florida learned.

He delivered that message in a keynote address at IT World Canada’s Toronto-based Showcase Ontario event, Sept. 22. The academic and author discussed ideas put forward in his best-selling book The Rise of the Creative Class and his soon-to-be-released (and tentatively titled) The Great Reset.

This past year’s global economic recession was a fundamental societal crisis, he told the audience. Recovery from the fallout will mean changing the way people live and the economic landscape they do business in.

“This is the biggest economic and social transformation in all human history,” he said.

Human economic history has depended on two factors of production. At first, land and raw materials were the main economic asset and driver. Then, the industrial revolution combined raw materials with physical labour to create a new mode of production.

But that doesn’t work anymore. New economic production, Florida says, has to come from innovation driven by creativity – a quality intrinsic to all humans.

This is the spark, that produces wealth, he says. “Public policy should stoke the creative furnace that lies at the heart of every human being.”

Florida points to the numbers to prove his point. Since the beginning of the 1980s, North America’s job market has been bulking up on its creative class of workers. It added 20 million new workers in the beginning of that decade.

Currently the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Florida sees Ontario as being in a good position to take advantage of the new economy. The province is well-regarded for its tolerance, and the strip of development stretching along Highway 401 from Windsor, Ont. to Montreal is a mega-region attracting investment.

The old philosophy used to be that regions should attract large companies and then people would follow the jobs and move in. But in the new market, companies will pursue the creative class where they already live. To get that creative class, you need a “cluster,” he says.

“A grouping of companies based around a university, sprinkled with venture capital,” he explains. “It’s a driver of growth.”

It worked in the case of Lycos. The Internet search company moved from Pittsburgh to Boston to get access to the talented workers that already lived there. This despite the high cost of business in the city, and lack of incentives offered.

Success in a future economy also requires that creativity and innovation be applied to other sectors, Florida says.

This has occurred in the agricultural industry and there are good examples of this now in the manufacturing industry.

But Ontario should be focusing on the service industry, where more than two million workers make a living.

“They’re the backbone,” he says. “These are the jobs many of our new immigrants, and our less skilled people do.”

It’s important to engage workers in a team that blends skill sets and experience levels. Service jobs can’t be off-shored because you can’t get your haircut from someone sitting by a phone in India, so it’s important to make these jobs as innovative as possible.

For example, take the janitor that cleans up the building and team them up with the engineers for ideas on how the building can be more efficient.

“They know more about that building and its systems and they know how to make it work better,” Florida says.

The urban theorist will expand on his ideas in his new book slated for release in April.

One thing is for sure, this author and professor doesn’t work in a factory – that’s what his father did.

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