Innovators Aren’t Trying to Express Themselves & Squelching Creativity Is What Schools Are For

Richard writes:

It’s not that gays equal growth, or that more bohemians make a place more innovative. Rather, an open culture, one that encourages and fosters self-expression, is a key ingredient in innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, and ultimately growth. Open places encourage and foster new ideas. They attract new and different kinds of people.

I fully agree that places hoping to attract productive people need to support the sort of cultures those people prefer. And yes, in our world today many productive and well-educated people like local cultures emphasizing aspects of bohemian self-expression and ethnic diversity. What I dispute is the idea that the cultural preferences of productive people cause those people to be innovative. I claim instead that those same people would contribute about as much innovation to the economy even if they were forced to live in areas that less supported bohemian self-expression. For the most part, innovation is just not caused by people trying to express themselves.

“Isn’t the main problem our education system, which squelches people’s creativity?” I’m no education expert, but I have to agree. Sometimes I think our great research universities will save us, but then I recall what the always-prescient Peter Drucker liked to say. He says, more or less, that the university won’t “survive” the transition to knowledge-based capitalism.

Yes, the education system squelches creativity; that is what it was designed to do and that is one of the main reasons educated people are valued. Relative to the needs of most jobs, people are inclined to be more creative than would be productive. School is mostly about sorting out who is smarter and more diligent, and learning the habit of showing up day after day to somewhat boring jobs with ambiguous instructions.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Richard Florida, bestselling author of Rise of the Creative Class, argues that the old industrial era has given way to a new creative era. Science and technology, art and design, and culture and entertainment have superceded natural resources and industrial infrastructure as the key to economic success. Talent is now the key factor of production and winners in global economic competition will be those who can best deploy and attract it. However, the creative economy is a source of increasing inequality both within and between nations. Florida argues that the key to bridging the gap between the creative and service sectors is to harness the creativity of service sector workers to make their jobs both higher-paying and more satisfying.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Florida’s lead essay, George Mason economist Robin Hanson argues that creativity matters less for economic growth and the future of work than Florida thinks. According to Hanson, Florida’s emphasis on creativity distracts us from the prospect of a truly revolutionary change to work and economy just over the horizon: rapidly exponential growth driven by smart machines. “An economy with intelligent machines could grow very rapidly indeed,” Hanson argues, “and induce rapidly falling human wages.” Will we be prepared if we’re busy making the Creative Class comfortable?

  • MIT economist Frank Levy agrees that creativity is more important than ever in a world where computers and foreign workers can do routine work less expensively than domestic workers. This shift, Levy says, requires better education in problem-solving. But education can only do so much. The gains from rising labor productivity are going largely to the wealthy, Levy argues. Unless policies and norms are reinstated that spread those gains more widely “all of the nation’s institutions will be at risk.”

  • While agreeing with much in Florida’s essay, UCLA economist Edward Leamer suggests that the key to understanding the future of work isn’t creativity, but talent. “Is a personal computer like a forklift or a microphone?” Leamer asks. Forklifts are forces for equality, washing out individual differences in ability. Microphones, on the other hand, amplify difference in ability and talent. If training cannot create talent, but can only enhance it, the gains to training will be highest for the talented, and it will not be possible to close the talent and wage gaps by offering more training to the less talented.