April 14, 2005 in Business

Now we’re safer - from new ideas

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 
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(Full-size photo)

The creative class has taken flight, and those planes are not necessarily inbound.

Urban economist Richard Florida says the world’s most innovative minds no longer rally to the United States as the only place where their ideas might transform economies. And young Americans, connected by the Internet to friends around the world, are increasingly open to moving to places like Toronto, Dublin or Sydney.

“America is no longer the land of every opportunity,” Florida said Tuesday.

Florida has just released a new book, “The Flight of the Creative Class,” that explores the challenges American cities face as U.S. immigration laws become more restrictive, and other economies around the world provide the education, laboratories and entrepreneurial environment that foster new technologies.

Cities in particular because they bring together those resources in one place. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has embraced Florida’s theories, so much so the organization sponsored a webcast to help launch his latest book. Executive Director Tom Cochrane and David Ceciline, mayor of Providence, R.I., which Florida regards as a model, echoed his suggestion the federal government become a partner with the nation’s cities.

The Bush administration budget has given them little encouragement.

In September 2003, Florida was in Spokane to expound on his theory that a “creative class” of artists and entrepreneurs was the wellspring of a community’s economic well-being. Cities that could attract and retain these pathfinders would prosper while less desirable cities would deteriorate.

His “Rise of the Creative Class” itself attracted a lot of attention when it was published in 2002, and Florida has built something of a cottage industry around the concept. Last year, he moved his base of operations from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh to George Mason University, which is just outside Washington, D.C.

Florida says he realized just how footloose talent has become during a visit to Wellington, New Zealand. While there, he toured the studios of Peter Jackson, the director whose “Lord of the Rings” trilogy ruled multiplexes around the world for three years.

“In that studio were talented people from all over the world,” Florida says.

Although careful not to place blame on President Bush, Florida says the nation’s capital — itself a magnet for talent — is discouraging immigration of the best and brightest. Visa applications by scientists and engineers have fallen, and U.S. go-it-alone foreign policy has fostered the perception the country has become isolationist.

“Every visa officer lives in fear that he’s going to let in the next Mohammed Atta when, in reality, he is going to turn down the next Vinod Khosla, who co-founded Sun Microsystems and was the original angel investor in Google,” Florida says.

Cochrane suggests the single-minded focus on security could have the same effect U.S. preoccupation with the Soviet Union did during the 1950s and 1960s. Japan used the period to create auto and electronics industries that became world leaders.

Florida says reliance on immigrants is nothing new. Scotsman Andrew Carnegie was a giant of the Industrial Age, and the Atomic Age was the brainchild of German-born Albert Einstein and Italian Enrico Fermi. But the sad state of America’s education system threatens to increase our dependency.

“We’ve stunk at human capital development,” he says.

Although many are put off by the way Florida has packaged his concept of the creative class, they agree that some of his observations cannot be dismissed. Nicholas Lovrich, director of Government Studies and Services at Washington State University, uses Florida’s books and essays in his class on urban planning.

The innovators who develop breakthrough technologies and the entrepreneurs who can build companies around them are scarce, Lovrich says.

The retreat of foreign students from Pullman is all too illustrative of the phenomenon Florida warns is taking place at many U.S. campuses, even though the universities remain models for the world.

“He’s got a very strong point,” Lovrich says, adding that the poor foreign language skills of American students and their reluctance to study overseas contributes to the perception the U.S. no longer cares about the rest of the world.

Florida says the U.S. must awaken to the potential cost of such carelessness, and retake leadership from new global competitors. He has an unlikely example.

“The icon is George Steinbrenner,” he says, because the owner of the New York Yankees spares nothing to win, and brings in players from anywhere who can help him do it.

“The Yankees got it right.”

And the Red Sox?

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