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Smart societies for smart cities

11 February 2014


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Dr. Richard Florida Professor, University of Toronto and New York University

The emerging creative class across the world’s 40-odd mega regions – including Dubai-Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, New York, London, Tokyo, Greater Moscow, Mumbai-Bangalore – have the responsibility to lead the transformation of the new economic and social organising units of today to create the true social, creative infrastructure of future cities, said Dr. Richard Florida Professor, University of Toronto and New York University.

He made these comments at the opening plenary on Day 2 of The Government Summit in Dubai. Florida kept the elite audience interested in his narrative about the future of cities by combining in-depth analysis, cutting-edge trends and compelling personal anecdotes. Urbanisation and a transformation in the use of natural resources are “revolutions” that define the current economic order and people have a role to ensure that two fit together in order to support economic growth, he said.

Florida explained that unlike in the past, when the primary driver of development was the large corporate and the sovereign state, the future will be built around mega cities. “The next generation has to work together, distil, translate, and codify all of our learnings to create the true social, creative infrastructure of cities,” Florida noted while sharing his insights into how creativity and the emergent Creative Class are revolutionising cities and the global economy.

“The key context and container, the most important constituent of growth today is the city itself,” he said. Creative revolution is upon us and it is our responsibility to make urbanisation and a transformation in natural resources fit together in a new growth model, he said.

According to Florida, the financial crisis that the world has witnessed since 2008, and even the ones before it, all present challenges as well as huge opportunities and, in fact, almost always mark a change in the way we do business, live life. 
“I’ve come to understand that these periods of crises are not only periods of downswings, but of recovery, of great economic changes,” said Florida. “It represents the rise of new economic and social systems, in ways of organising business and society,” he said.

“I call it a great reset – a great resetting,” he said, explaining that periods of crisis redefine the way we go about with life, periods when business, policy, politics, etc, are all reset to adapt to the new realities so as to power future growth and development. 
He said the world was reset after the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the world is getting reset today as well.

“Not just in this period, but throughout all of human history, as we emerge out of recessions, we embark on waves of creative disruption,” Florida noted.
He added that according to experts and analysts, “the most innovative decade of modern history was the 1930s itself.” That was a decade that was marred by the Great Depression, and societies had to necessarily evolve new ways to do things in order to emerge out of one of the most depressing economic crisis of all times. 
“Great crises unlock the greatest innovation,” said Florida. “They cause people to unlock new ideas, new ways of doing business, whole new social designs,” he said. 
“What powered the economy out of Great Depression wasn’t just government spending, it wasn’t just industrial technology, not just the rise of a new system of infrastructure – it was the rise of a new way of life,” he said. Wherever we are in the world, what powered the world was the rise of an organised system of living, based on cars, roads, massive building of house, a system of suburbanisation, he explained.

“It stimulated the rise of the auto industry, the steel industry, refrigerators, TVs, leading to rise in wages of a middle class following a dream to build a great society,” he said. “That age is over.”

Looking toward the future, Florida identified the patterns that are transforming virtually every aspect of our lives – from how and where we live, to how we work, to how we invest in individuals and infrastructure, to how we shape our cities and regions.

What is the centrepiece of a true global city along with travel, connectivity, and world-class hospitality, he asked. “What truly distinguishes it is its rise as a smart city,” said Florida, who is also Senior Editor of The Atlantic (USA).
As we begin to recover from the latest crisis, a new era is now beginning, he said. As we move along, a couple of very powerful revolutions are underway, Florida pointed out.

The first revolution is the shift from an industrial society based on extraction of oil, iron ore and coal to one based on services – a transformation from natural resources-based society to the creative industry.

The second and intertwined revolution is the urban revolution, he said, which signifies the move from a society that stands at a frontier and grows larger at its outskirts to a society that becomes bigger and more compact at the same time.
“The key to that growth model is not business building, not innovation building, not nation building – although all of these are important,” he said. “It is city building.”

Cities are what are at the core of this creative revolution, which will power future growth, he said. 
Over the course of past several decades, the world has moved from being an industrial world to post-industrial society. “Something changed. We are changing into something new – from resource-driven economy to knowledge economy,” he said.

“This is what you are doing here in Dubai – transitioning from a resource-driven economy to a knowledge economy. Resources become building blocks for creating knowledge,” he noted.

“It’s more than a knowledge economy – all great people (artists, CEOs, political leaders) are creative people,” Florida said. He went to illustrate the growth in the so-called creative club by offering historic statistics. “In 1900, 50% of Americans worked on farms, and a growing number of people worked in factories. Less than 5% of Americans were part of the ‘creative club’,” he said.

The creative economy creates 2 kinds of jobs – management and service jobs. “A key element of building a creative society is to lift the creative elements of all jobs, or upgrade the bottom,” said Florida. This means not just tapping the knowledge of the knowledge workers, but the intelligence of everyone across the board.
Unlike in the past when the economy required large industrial units and nation-states, Florida said what a creative economy requires today is a new kind of organising unit – one that transcends the organisation and the sovereign state. “It is the urban centre – the city itself,” he highlighted.

He went on to offer some more statistics about the growth of cities as urban centres of economic activity. “Two hundred years ago, 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. Hundred years ago, it was 10%. In the 1950s, which isn’t too long ago, it was between 15 and 20%,” said Florida. “In 2008, that grew to 50%, and in the next generation or two, that will rise to two-thirds or three-fourths,” he noted. 

“This means we will put 3 billion more people in cities. In the course of the next 2 generations, we’ll put more people in cities than they are today,” he said, putting the future growth of cities into perspective.

“We will spend more on building cities in the next generation or two than we have over all the past history,” he said, reckoning that an estimated $2 trillion will be spent on building new cities over the next two generations.

“He explained that, out of the 200-odd countries in the UN, only 40 or so mega regions matter. These mega-regions host 18% of population and are responsible for two-third of global economic activity, as well as 9 out of 10 innovations.

“Our world is being reorganised. If you are not part of the spikes, you’ll be left behind,” he said. Florida noted that Dubai and Abu Dhabi are part of one of the mega-regions, of a global spike that will lead global transformation over the next decades.

He defined the characteristics of spikes as having a great international airport, a great hospitality sector, and a centre of tourism to become a centre of ideas exchange.

“There are very few places in the world with airport, hospitality and tourism to become a centre of ideas exchange,” he said. Creativity and diversity go hand in hand, he noted.
The next generation has to work together, distil, translate, and codify all of our learnings to create the true social, creative infrastructure of cities, he concluded.