Fueling the New Creative Economy

Robert O'Neill identifies eight insights learned from communities that have, or hope to, build diversified, successful economies.
November 28, 2007
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

In late October, I joined a passionate group of forward-thinking individuals for the National Conference on the Creative Economy, held in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Richard Florida, best-selling author, professor and founder of the Creative Class Group, delivered one of the three conference keynote addresses. He theorized that with America's transformation from an industrial to a "creative economy" (more than one third of us work in fields related to the arts, sciences, culture, innovation, entrepreneurialism and knowledge-based professions), the challenge now is to "tap and stoke" the energy required to fuel those creative industries and ensure the regeneration of our cities.

I participated on a conference panel that explored how communities can attract and retain creative people and solve community problems imaginatively. To prepare for this discussion, I identified eight insights learned from communities that have, or hope to, build diversified, successful economies:

1. Recognize worldwide competition

Competing in a global economy brings out the best in cities throughout the world. Florida's creativity index recognized Manchester, England as Britain's most creative city for attracting a talented, ethnically and culturally diverse workforce fueled by a technology-driven economy.

2. Play to existing strengths

Cities and regions must take stock of existing assets and map skills and experiences from traditional disciplines such as industrial design -- which served the automotive industry so well in its heyday -- to knowledge- and entrepreneurial-based industries, such as information technology, bioinformatics, and modeling and simulation. Wellington, New Zealand's Creative HQ and satellite incubator was established in 2002 to capitalize on the region's strong creative competencies and foster the entrepreneurial growth required to create jobs and build economic activity.

3. Partner with initiators and accelerators to develop creativity

Universities, not-for-profits, chambers of commerce and organizations with seed capital can jumpstart a region's economic development. Since 1999, the University of Central Florida has worked with more than 80 emerging companies to generate 700 new jobs and more than $200 million in annual revenues.

4. Support institutions such as workforce training centers and community colleges

These mainstays of human capital development can move communities beyond a one-off success to build the momentum and scale new economies need. Social innovator Bill Strickland, for example, used a handful of grants from federal employment programs, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and eventually the National Endowment for the Arts to turn a near-bankrupt community training center on Pittsburgh's North Side into a $7.5 million, 62,000-square-foot vocational training and visual/performing arts center. Today the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild is considered one of the most successful models of its kind.

5. Leverage connections to other regions and networked approaches

Just as stand-alone information technologies are rarely successful, so, too, are self-contained industry clusters. The "hubs and nodes" model, in which research, development, and commercialization are spread across thousands of miles and locations, is quickly becoming the new industry standard. To succeed in this environment, communities must identify their strengths and then form nexuses with specialized networked regions that have complementary competencies and assets.[1]

6. Employ social networking and marketing

Cultivating relationships with established business leaders is no longer enough. Creative communities use social media (blogs, podcasts, and even Facebook) to engage, listen to and respond to residents at all levels. Successful regions create a social "buzz" that galvanizes the community and supports residents' shared values and their vision for the region's future.

7. Use basic infrastructures and regulatory flexibility to support creativity

Creative companies are drawn to regions that can support their vision, and no data support the assertion that lower tax structures build better communities. Regions must "pay to play" in the new economy by combining tax and other revenues with regulatory flexibility to support mixed-use zoning and the development of nontraditional housing and arts districts. Charleston, S.C.'s Digital Corridor, for example, offers resources to the new business community in the form of "technology enabled initiatives and business incentives, private business support, and member-driven programming."

8. Create sustainable, eco-friendly communities that attract creative companies and people

Affordable housing, good schools, user-friendly parks, bike paths, strong transportation systems and access to affordable telecommunications attract young, dynamic companies and their workers. But creating sustainable communities is as much about creating a balanced economy as it is about smart growth and recycling. Local governments are the key to ensuring that a community or region's basic business practices support all of these elements.

Steve Miller of New Economy Strategies observes that "not every community can sustain a creative initiative, and certainly no one initiative can fit all regions." The most progressive and high-performing communities continually strive to innovate. And local organizations must do the same to effectively address those issues that threaten the social, environmental, and economic future of those communities. There are many paths to success. As public sector leaders, we are responsible for ensuring that our communities nurture innovation, competition, creativity, and sustainability.

1. "From Clusters of Industry to Clusters of Knowledge & Competency: Briefing Paper 1," New Economy Strategies LLC, Washington, D.C. 2007.