Editor’s note: Jim Roberts is the executive director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council.Last week, buzz-worthy economist Richard Florida, author of the influential book “The Rise of the Creative Class”, summoned 100 creative and influential professionals to Memphis to create a roadmap for cities, towns and regions hoping to create “knowledge based economy” jobs in the face of a stagnant global economy.
When we assembled for the Summit, dubbed “The Memphis Manifesto” by Florida, we had a wide range of ideas and notions about the advice we’d eventually dispense at the week’s end. The Manifesto’s recommendations range from surprising to obvious, but I believe it does provide real lessons on what it will take, for people, places and businesses to succeed in our evolving 21st century economy.
The biggest message coming out of the summit is simply that all communities need to listen to and cultivate the talented creative people they already have living in their region.
All communities have the potential to be creative hotbeds and can be magnets for future economic growth if they retain and nurture the local talent. If they don’t encourage local creativity, they could suffer a shrinking regional economy much like the rust belt and dust bowl cities of previous generations.
Creativity is not a commodity and can’t be shipped to regions with cheaper labor.
‘City of Ideas’
The key to a “City of Ideas” is not to go overboard trying to attract new talent to your city. The key is to nurture and engage the talent that already exists. Give them resources to build the creative infrastructure they need to succeed. The locals, if listened to and engaged, will become a marketing machine telling anyone who will listen how great your city is today. And you can’t buy word of mouth marketing. It is priceless! (To see a glimpse of what’s happening at the grassroots level in one western North Carolina city, Asheville, at: www.themap.org .)
For those who haven’t read it or heard about it yet, Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class”, and his consulting services based on theories espoused in the book, have given insight into the growth of places like Austin, San Francisco, and others as hotbeds for the knowledge based economy. His theory is based on research around communities that have a balance of what he calls the “Four T’s,” Technology, Talent, Tolerance and the newest addition, Territorial assets. The book, now in the 10th printing, has spurred economic developers to take a look at their own local “creative infrastructures.”
The pinnacle of the movement behind Florida’s theories led to the Memphis Manifesto, the three-day conference where 100 people from North America and Puerto Rico attended after being selected from more than 400 nominations. Florida, a regional economic professor at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon, will take the results of this Manifesto to an annual mayor’s conference in Denver on June 8th.
Communities need to be authentic
Another book I’ve found insightful in my work in western North Carolina entrepreneurial development is David Kaplan’s “The Silicon Boys”. Kaplan’s book includes an instructive quote stating, “Every region is trying to become the NEXT Silicon Valley, except for the Valley itself”.
Following the dot-com crash, many places are now clamoring to become the new biotech hotbed. Rather than waiting for the “next big thing,” Florida advises locals to do an honest and realistic assessment of their hometowns and promote those assets that make their home authentic and unique.
Memphis did a good job of showing off its unique assets during the summit by hosting the Manifesto bunch at a loft party on the banks of the Mississippi River, through a live local talent music party at the Gibson Guitar Factory and Lounge and by holding many of our sessions at the very impressive new home of the AAA Memphis Redbirds. Since my first visit to Memphis in about four years ago, and I can tell you that it is a much more exciting and vibrant place today with many new citizens already engaged in the process.
Retaining young adults
The Summit also made very clear the importance of young professional groups in retaining and nurturing critical young talent, and getting them engaged in the community. A Memphis organization called Mpact; a group from Canada (Canada25.com) and several others were present to contribute and take ideas from the conference and implement in their hometowns. My original business plan for the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council calls for the creation of a young adult retention program.
North Carolina has taken to Florida’s theories like no other state. He has had speaking or consulting engagements in Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte. Florida has publicly stated that cities in North Carolina have been by far the most active in pursuing his consulting organization’s (www.catalytix.biz) capabilities. In Memphis, there was an active group from Action Greensboro who were very passionate about the future of the Triad.
Florida’s theories understandably seem a little soft to the economic developers who have been dealing with the tough task of “hunting and gathering” for manufacturing relocations in the recent past. But many in North Carolina and around the nation are catching on to the “gardening” concept; where communities succeed by creating fertile ground for emerging growth companies to succeed. Talented people understand they are in demand and they can choose to live where they want to live instead of following the job market.
Young adults ages 25-34 are the most mobile and willing to move for the right live work situation. The jobs now come to them due to the natural flow of supply and demand, which is tough for some of us to imagine in today’s economy, but a reality nonetheless. As soon as the large generation of baby boomers begin to retire, many experts predict a newfound demand for labor. When this day arrives, the communities that have a “creative infrastructure” are going to win in economic development.
The importance of a music scene
Here is a soft idea with hard consequences. Florida talks about the music scenes of cities such as Austin, Seattle, San Francisco and Dublin. Seattle is the home of Microsoft and the home of bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix and Soundgarden. Austin is the “Live Music Capital of the World” with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson and more and Austin is the home of Dell Computer, Sematech research consortium, etc. San Francisco, home of Silicon Valley was also the home of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Monterey Music Festival.
A phrase I heard at the Summit struck a chord with me (pun intended), people are now looking for a “third place”, besides home and work. Young adults today are having kids later in life by several years and want be active and engaged in the music scene, outdoor activities and other ways to participate (not sit and watch) in life.
What can your city do to encourage and nurture a live music scene?
Austin software companies, according to the Austin Regional Chamber, have a fund where tech companies contributed money to support the local club scene if a live music club was struggling. Why? Because they realized that live music and other things unique to Austin is why their talented employees wanted to live in Austin. Or if you’re a decision maker at a company that employs the so-called “Creative Class,” you could even encourage your employees to form an after hours company garage band or hire local live musicians to play company parties.
Where is western North Carolina today?
Asheville, the only city in western North Carolina’s mountains that has currently been evaluated by Florida’s group, scores well on three of the 4 “T’s,” and identifies Technology as the “T” where we need the most improvement. We certainly have Territorial assets and Tolerance. And, though surprising to some outside the region, when it comes to Talent, we have more patents per capita than Charlotte and Greensboro according to Florida’s Innovation Index.
Our “Technology” component is making rapid progress some recent additions such as the high performance network computer and new fiber networks being installed by Congressman Charles Taylor’s Education and Research Consortium and through grants to our organization from the state’s Rural Internet Access Authority. Additional research being led by Western Carolina University and a new incubator, which could hold up to 50 emerging growth companies when completely renovated.
Talent is coming out of the woodwork, such as relocated talent out of Princeton and Boston, and reaching out as the awareness of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council grows. Our angel investor network is becoming more active and we hope to have a big announcement very soon.
Our next Blue Ridge Angel Investors Network (BRAIN) meeting is June 17th. Western North Carolina is moving in the right direction to be the long-term home of the Creative Class.
Jim Roberts is the Executive Director of the BREC and BRAIN in western North Carolina and the former founder of the Charlotte based firstround, which helped raise the intellectual capital of technology entrepreneurs in five second-tier cities in the Southeast. For more details on BREC and AdvantageWest visit: www.advantagewest.com