06/20/2013 07:46 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2013

Is This Just A Silly Little Debate ?

The continuing debate over the future of cities between Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida--both considered scholars on the subject of urban renewal--is not helping our nation's effort to reinvent itself. In fact, the debates themselves are rather insane.

Almost everyone agrees that technology, particularly the Internet and the ubiquitous worldwide web, have leveled the playing field--and everybody is suddenly able to compete with everybody else.

To meet these challenges, almost everyone also agrees, we need to deploy technology to reinvent our cities and do much the same to our educational system...for what we do in school, and what we as a community do out of school is paramount to our success and survival as a region. The two main issues of our time--education and renewal of our cities--are thus, integrally intertwined.

The education discussions are now dominating public consciousness. Education is seen as a real problem and folks are not only talking about reform but also experimenting with ways to give our young people the new thinking skills they need in the new global economy. Even the National Science Foundation (NSF) is spending millions to test art-based learning of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

But community renewal, renewal of our cities, is not happening in most places in America, or happening so slowly it's difficult to notice.

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, proposed a decade ago that cities of the future aggressively deploy the three T's: Technology, Talent and Tolerance as a path to prosperity. Importantly, he said that for a city to attract the creative class and be a creative and innovative community, it must possess "Talent" (a highly talented/educated/skilled population), "Tolerance" (a diverse community, that has a 'live and let live' ethos), and "Technology" (the technological infrastructure necessary to fuel an entrepreneurial culture.

He has often said:

Economic prosperity relies on cultural, entrepreneurial, civic, scientific, and artistic creativity. Creative workers with these talents need communities, organizations, and peers that are open to new ideas and different people. They also look to places that are authentic and unique and the large presence of artists helps a community create an identity that is distinctive. Places receptive to new forms of culture, alternative lifestyles and identities and new views on social status and power structures will benefit significantly in the creative age.

Within weeks of such articles and books on the subject--and for about the next ten years-- Joel Kotkin knocked Florida largely because, ostensibly, he didn't talk about all the hard work every city needs to do to lower the crime rate, fix the existing streets and potholes, and insure that there is affordable housing among other issues. But it gets more pointed:

In Foreign Policy Magazine Kotkin writes:

Perhaps the most damaging misconception of all is the idea that concentration (of things artistic and cultural I suppose) by its very nature creates wealth...Ancient Athens and Rome didn't start out as undiscovered artist neighborhoods. They were metropolises built on imperial wealth -- largely collected by force from their colonies -- that funded a new class of patrons and consumers of the arts. Renaissance Florence and Amsterdam established themselves as trade centers first and only then began to nurture great artists from their own middle classes and the surrounding regions.

As proof, Kotkin cites Florida himself writing for The Atlantic Magazine as saying: the "creative class" strategy..."flow(s) disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers," since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see "disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account."

Kotkin misses the point. In an age when creativity and innovation are the hallmarks of a whole new economy, the addition of art and culture to STEM subjects are key to a robust economy.

What Kotkin sees as important cannot be ignored, but the world has changed almost overnight. Outsourcing and off shoring are commonplace; so too is the urgent need to concentrate on creativity and innovation, new products and services that America's entrepreneurship, prowess in technology, and creative skills best positions us in this new global world.

It is true that cities across America are struggling with the pressures to deal with pension and retirement plans, plans which have ballooned to such heights that cities are being strangled, and many say, leave them no funds to reinvent their cities. It is barely enough they say to maintain existing roads or bridges, and provide basic services such as crime prevention or safety.

Yet, as many city experts know, they urgently need to redesign their downtowns to make them the living rooms of the region, insure that affordable and accessible broadband is available to everyone, promote the arts and other cultural institutions, involve themselves in the education process, and do what it can to nurture, retain and attract the best and the brightest for a truly creative and innovation economy.

It is true that creative workers do fair better--as Florida concedes--but everyone will benefit by an education system and a community that nurtures creativity--especially the young.

You can move the chairs on the titanic around but the fact is, in the long run, the ship is going to sink. Both the manufacturing and service industries are going to less developed countries where the labor costs are lower. Even though some so-called smart manufacturing is emerging and there is an argument that America is gaining some manufacturing jobs again, the real jobs are in sectors that we have not yet defined but will require--be sure about this--the creative skills our educational system working with our cities will reap.

Tom Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburg, now a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute disagrees with mayors who say there is no money to invest given the financial straightjacket cities everywhere are living with. At an ULI/Aspen Conference on Powering Innovation Economies, Murphy said what everybody was probably thinking: "It's a question of priorities... Cities have the money. They just aren't spending it on their future."

It may be very hard to change a city. Indeed, it's hard to change, period. But there is money and there are best applications sprouting up across America for cities to reinvent themselves as creative communities, as incubators of creativity.