Richard Florida speaks again this week in Memphis about the importance of creative workers and the implications for cities like ours. It’s been six years since he first spoke to Memphians on this subject, five years since he helped with Memphis Talent Magnet Report and four years since he helped develop the Memphis Manifesto for cities seeking these highly coveted workers.

We’re proud that we had the chance to work with Mr. Florida and prouder still that Memphis pioneered questions of creative workers, talent strategies and solutions pursued by many other cities.

Unfortunately, Memphis essentially squandered its golden chance to set the standard on these matters, but if we believe anything in our city, it is that it’s never too late. So, as Mr. Florida prepares to revisit a city that he knows well, it seems timely to recap what we’ve learned in the past and what it means to our future.

A Magnetic Pull

To do this, we’ll review this week the Memphis Talent Magnet Report and the Memphis Manifesto.

Memphis’ relationship with Mr. Florida dates back to February 4, 2001, when he was the first guest on the first show of Smart City’s 344 broadcasts. The theme for that opening show was, “What Is a Smart City?,” and comments by Mr. Florida and Harold Ford Jr. set a framework for all that would come later.

It was that interview that inspired local government and the Memphis Regional Chamber to fund a report that applied Mr. Florida’s research – then unpublished in his well-known book – to Memphis, the first city to undertake such a project. That report would become the Talent Magnet Report, and in support of it, Mr. Florida spoke by videoconference to a handful of Memphians determined to explore the city’s potential to attract and retain talented workers.

Getting On The Map

Between that first videoconference and his speech this week to the Chamber’s annual chairman’s luncheon, Mr. Florida appeared again on Smart City April 28, 2002, upon publication of his book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life.

In May, 2003, he came to Memphis to co-host the Memphis Manifesto Summit along with Carol Coletta who developed the three-day event that attracted 130 “creatives” to Memphis to write a manifesto for cities. Sponsored by Memphis Tomorrow, the Summit was envisioned as an event that would put Memphis solidly on the talent map, and the summit and the its manifesto did attract major coverage by national media and was used by numerous cities, young professionals’ groups and arts groups to define their agendas for the future.

A thread through all of this work was that to succeed, Memphis must shake its tendency to hunt for so-called best practices and to drop them into Memphis as the latest and greatest answer to all that ails us. We have been loathe in Memphis to leverage our own unique assets to develop best practices of our own.

It’s About Place

As Kip Bergstrom, the wise executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council, said at the Manifesto Summit, place has never has been more important than it is today. He said the questions facing cities like ours are: How does a city discover its essence and capitalize on its authenticity? Can a city be economically successful and not lose its soul?

It led Mr. Bergstrom to “place-based economic development,” a philosophy never as effective as when cities use it to try to attract creative workers. First and foremost, it means that city economic development agencies should abandon the “place neutral” approach that produces more suburban office parks and sprawl and instead, create closer working relationships with city centers.

The logic of place-based economic development is obvious. Competitive advantage today is based in differentiation, and it is what’s distinctive about Memphis that is hardest to imitate and generates the kind of mythology that no city can duplicate.

Seedbed For Innovation

Place, too, is critical in the birth of the brand of creativity that’s needed for innovation. After all, four things are needed for innovation: smart people with ideas, tolerance for risk, a supportive market for new ideas and places to share ideas.

In light of these facts, CEOs for Cities concluded that 1) cities with the highest concentrations of creative people and creative jobs are in a favored position to generate more ideas and more innovations, and 2) cities should take what’s being learned about fostering idea sharing in the workplace and apply that to the public realm.

But little of this was known way back in 2001 when Mr. Florida was interviewed on that first broadcast of Smart City. The economic impact of creative workers was just being understood, much less the overall importance of creative industries.

The Facts Remain

And yet, the facts are just as stark today as they were then to the cadre of Memphians addressing these issues back then:

* This generation of 25-34 year-olds are the most mobile in history, and in addition, the better educated among them are more likely to move long distances.

* Successful cities will ensure that their climate is appealing to young creative people, a group typically neglected by city boosters.

* Memphis’ competitive challenge is shown in its low rankings of technology, economy and tolerance.

* Memphis ranks poorly in the creative economy.

Updating Facts

What we’ve learned in the intervening years is that Memphis is not alone, but there are some critical facts of life that have to lay at the heart of any talent strategies:

* Two-thirds of top 50 metros lost 25-34 year-olds, creating a “rich get richer” syndrome that threatens cities unable to compete for these workers.

* Almost two-thirds of this demographic pick where to live before they pick where to work.

* These young creative workers want to live in a place that is clean, green, safe and allows them to be themselves.

* These creatives are 33 percent more likely to live within three miles of the central business district, and 41 percent of the creative jobs are within the same three miles.

* Most incredibly of all, about 25 percent of creatives work for themselves.

News Good And Bad

It’s an environment of great opportunity for cities that get it right.

The bad news for Memphis is that most of the recommendations from five years ago remain to be executed. The good news is that many of them remain just as relevant today, and that’s why we’ll take the next couple of posts to recap what the Memphis Talent Magnet Report and the Memphis Manifesto told us.

Next: Memphis Talent Magnet Report