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Failure of Place and Economic Development

How economic developers mistakenly frame human capital issues.
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The night skyline of Philadelphia, the city hosting this year's International Economic Development Council annual conference. (PHOTO: JASONHUDSON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The night skyline of Philadelphia, the city hosting this year's International Economic Development Council annual conference. (PHOTO: JASONHUDSON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

With no conference field trips on Monday, I sat through a full day of sessions on various talent migration sub-topics. The International Economic Development Council (IEDC) stressed four themes, or "tracks." I attended to learn more about the professional practitioner view of "Attracting, Retaining, and Developing Human Capital." What are the primary concerns? What's new in the field? I didn't hear any cutting-edge thinking on the matter, which was disappointing. I should have signed up for another field trip. I did, however, gain a better appreciation of how economic developers frame human capital issues. It's all about failure of place.

If nothing is wrong with your city, region, or state, then no one will leave. If people are leaving, then something must be wrong with your city, region, or state. This place needs fixed. Naturally, if the economic developer fixes the place, then talent retention and attraction will occur. Sing along with the Underpants Gnomes:

Time to go to work,
Work all day,
Search for underpants hey!
We won't stop until we have underpants!
Yum yum yummy yum yay!
Time to go to work,
Work all night,
Search for underpants yay!
We won't stop until we have underpants!
Yum yum yummy yum yay!

Underpants Gnomes would make great talent migration consultants. Phase 1, create a cool city. Phase 2, "?". Phase 3, retain talent. Ian David Moss gets credit for the metaphor:

Stolarick’s presence at the event was appropriate, for in many ways it was The Rise of the Creative Class that made the current creative placemaking movement possible. For a time it was the kind of book that smart people buy for all of the other smart people they know – a genuine ideavirus. Florida, more than anyone else, was responsible for conflating creativity, innovation, and artistry in the popular imagination, and among the measures that he and Stolarick developed for the book was a “Bohemian index” associating the concentration of artists in a given metropolitan area with population and employment growth. Though the empirical claims in the book turned out to be built on shaky foundations, they were intuitive (and well-argued) enough that municipal leaders started taking notice. In fact, Carol Coletta, the current director of ArtPlace, was one of the first people to invite Florida to help put his ideas into practice in a real city context as co-organizer of 2003’s Memphis Manifesto Summit. Florida, Stolarick, and their associates became the first widely acknowledged spokespeople for the idea that a vibrant set of opportunities and amenities for creative expression could lead to regional economic prosperity.

But Florida wasn’t the only one drawing public attention to the economic power of the arts over the previous decade. Separately, the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania has been studying the relationship between concentrations of cultural resources and various social and economic outcomes since 1994. As then-Associate Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, Joan Shigekawa commissioned a groundbreaking collaboration between SIAP and The Reinvestment Fund to study the dynamics of culture and urban revitalization, work whose influence can be seen clearly in much of the policy that Shigekawa has since helped develop as Senior Deputy Chairman of the NEA.

SIAP, which is led by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert, cites The Rise of the Creative Class frequently in its publications dating from that period, usually to position its approach in opposition to Florida’s. In fact, in 2008 SIAP published one of the most hilariously brutal program evaluations I’ve ever read, following the attempts of Florida’s Creative Class Group (CCG) to turn around three Knight Foundation communities by inspiring volunteer “catalysts” to drive toward the “4 T’s” of economic development (technology, talent, tolerance, and territorial assets). In that evaluation, Stern and Seifert offer a single overarching criticism: CCG forgot about its outcomes. Much like South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, the project team had a clear idea of what it was putting in to the process and what it hoped to get out of it, but a much vaguer sense of how it was going to get from Phase 1 to Phase 3.

Yes, creative placemaking has an "outcomes" problem. How phase 1 begets phase 3 is a phase 2 black box. Collect underpants and profit. Why does the logos of the Underpants Gnomes defy scrutiny? Because no one need migrate if a place has everything you desire.

Economic developers are focused on placemaking, not talentmaking. The talent is fully baked, either residing here or there. Why people leave isn't studied. It's a slam dunk. The outcome is assumed. I spend an entire day listening to various placemaking strategies in sessions explicitly about retaining and attracting talent without so much as one sentence dedicated to how a better place will achieve the desired outcome. Day 3 at the IEDC annual conference was a parade of Underpants Gnomes.