The pandemic upended urban patterns and rituals, paralyzed public transportation, emptied out public spaces and replaced in-person business meetings with Zoom calls. Just how many of these changes will outlive the crisis is a question Richard Florida, urbanist and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, is uniquely placed to answer. Cities—and the ways we live and create within them—have long inspired Florida’s writing, thinking and teaching at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
He spoke to John Stackhouse and Trinh Theresa Do about remote work, the post-pandemic creative class, and how COVID will reinvent the office district.
John Stackhouse: Richard, you put the idea of a “creative class” on the map two decades ago. What’s changed since then?
Richard Florida: When I wrote the book, the criticism was, creativity doesn’t really matter and talent doesn’t really matter: when there’s a downturn, people will go back to strapping on ties and communities will go back to attracting businesses. What’s happened is that all of that has been reversed. Creativity is more valued than ever before. When you talk to community leaders, when you look at LinkedIn, it’s the skill that matters.
Creativity is more valued than ever before. When you talk to community leaders, when you look at LinkedIn, it's the skill that matters.
Your book suggested that mingling was the jet fuel of creativity. How do we balance social distancing with that need?
In a nearly 40-year career as an academic and urbanist, not once have I encountered the role of pandemics or infectious disease in abating the tide of urbanization. That tells me something. The basic force of economic growth isn’t factories, isn’t raw materials, isn’t capital. It’s human beings clustering together—and it’s powered through far worse. Cities will survive. People are getting vaccinated en masse. People are going back to meeting.
What things will change about urban life?
What I think is going to happen is, instead of going to an office and plugging your laptop into a cubicle, the city or neighborhood will become more what the office used to be. Maybe you go two times a week. But it’ll be more like a local business trip where instead of just sitting in an office space, you’ll go to meetings, you’ll meet with colleagues, you’ll grab a coffee with friends. This sense of co-mingling and density and social interaction will become more important, not less.
A lot of people have left the city for the suburbs. Do you see opportunities for smaller towns?
We had about 5% of people working remotely before the pandemic. Now that statistic is well over half and we think that 20% to 25% of people will continue to work remotely full time and about half of the workforce part of the time—a day or two a week, anyway. That creates enormous opportunity for rural areas that are beautiful, that have countryside, that have lakefront. It breaks the connection between where you live and where you work.
How does technology and an increasingly virtual world affect creativity?
For communities, the big question is how do you build remote work ecosystems? What we’re looking at is not a place where remote workers are isolated in their homes. We’re talking about new kinds of communities, still in third places, in coffee shops and co-working spaces where remote workers mix and mingle. Those kinds of spaces used to be exclusively in cities. Going back to the 1920s after the Spanish flu, Greenwich Village emerged as an artistic and creative centre because creatives flocked there for this kind of density. Now, we’re finding that you can create an analog to that in smaller communities too.
What else has the pandemic revealed about how we live and create?
Life in quarantine has also shown us how much stimulation we get from others and from the natural environment. Creatives need a combination of interaction and isolation. Creative people need a lot of time alone, without interruption and disruption. But at certain times, they want somebody to bounce an idea off. Or they want to go for a bike ride or walk in a ravine to recharge their energies. In the North American context, you just have to look at some of our great painters and musicians to see it.
How do communities coming out of the pandemic need to think about attracting, and nurturing that creative class?
There is a sense that everyone is going to go back to the old way. They’re not. For the creative class—the innovators, the techies, the artists, the musicians, the professionals—remote work is something they’re going to come to expect. And if you tell them to report to the office and strap on a suit, they’re going to say goodbye.
It's not where people live that's the big change. The big change is going to be the way people work.
It’s not where people live that’s the big change. The big change is going to be the way people work. And they’re not going to go back to this old industrial age idea that people go to an office at 9 and come back at 5. For those who have the privilege, the skill and the talent to demand that.
That poses a big challenge for central business and office districts. We have an amazing ability to remake our office districts as live-work communities. How are we going to build the office spaces, the co-working spaces of the future? How are we going to rebuild our central business district to be more live-work, more of a complete community, more housing in that area? And how are we going to rebuild our outlying areas to become more complete communities? That’s what we’ve got to really start to think about.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
For more insights from Richard Florida and how Canada can weave creativity into its culture, listen to our Disruptors podcast episode in a special two-part series on The Creativity Economy.
John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.
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