Data-Smart City Pod: Richard Florida on Data, Cities, and Structure

Episode Summary

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews the renowned professor, author, and urbanist Richard Florida.

Episode Notes

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews the renowned professor, author, and urbanist Richard Florida. They talk about the interconnectedness of shared labor markets, how to address racially concentrated disadvantage, and the importance of a living wage. Tune in to hear Professors Goldsmith and Florida discuss concentrated advantage and disadvantage, and how cities can use data in a meaningful way to improve the lives of all residents.

About Data-Smart City Pod

New from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Data-Smart City Pod brings on top innovators and leading industry, academic, and government officials to discuss data, innovation, and government. This podcast serves as a central resource for cities and individuals interested in the intersection of government and innovations, the adoption of data projects on the local government level, and how to become data smart. Hosted by Stephen Goldsmith, former Deputy Mayor of New York,  Mayor of Indianapolis, and current Professor at Harvard Kennedy School.

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Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa

About Data-Smart City Solutions

Data-Smart City Solutions, housed at the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, is working to catalyze the adoption of data projects on the local government level by serving as a central resource for cities interested in this emerging field. We highlight best practices, top innovators, and promising case studies while also connecting leading industry, academic, and government officials. Our research focus is the intersection of government and data, ranging from open data and predictive analytics to civic engagement technology. We seek to promote the combination of integrated, cross-agency data with community data to better discover and preemptively address civic problems. To learn more visit us online and follow us on Twitter

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Episode Transcription

Steve Goldsmith: Hello. This is Steve Goldsmith, Professor of Urban Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. And you're listening to Data-Smart City Pod, where we bring on the top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart.

Well, this is Steve Goldsmith. Today we're talking with one of the country, if not, world's leading thinkers on urban areas, Richard Florida, the University Professor of Economic Analysis and Policy in Toronto, and also scholar, and I think Richard, you have so many titles, but I think you're still at NYU as an expert in cities and real estate? So, when I start asking you questions, you can tell me what title I should have used, but welcome to you. 

Richard Florida: Thanks. And you've got them all right. Thanks Mayor.

Steve Goldsmith: You are one of the country's leading thinkers and we have an audience that cares a lot about data, but let me just start with kind of a general question in terms of…many of our listeners are either in cities or in regions with a significant city, lots of thinking about, "Well, how do I plan for the future. If I can't figure out if people are going to live downtown, they're going to live in the suburbs." And I know there's no crystal ball here, but you watch the data. What's going to happen over the next few years would you guess?

Richard Florida: Well you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that we all live in interdependent regions. It's something you've thought a lot about. How you led your career as mayor in Indianapolis. And that interdependent region, we call a metropolitan area. What is a metropolitan area? It's a shared labor market. That's what it is. So when we talk about our downtown city, our suburbs and our outlying excerpts in rural areas, we are all part of a shared, shared metropolitan labor market. Some of us choose to live in the downtown core and many of our companies are headquartered there of course. Business centers, office towers. Many more choose to live in suburban areas because they want a backyard or a swing set for their kids, or they enjoy that quality of life. And I think one of the things the pandemic has done with remote work has given many people a shot at living a more rural life, a more laid back life. Getting out to that periphery.

We've seen some of the biggest gains in terms of where people are going during the pandemic, going out to that rural hinterland. So I think for any resident of a metropolitan area, you want every part of that metropolitan area to be strong, but in particular, you need your downtown core to be strong because, one, it's where most of your business takes place. Two, it's where your high quality amenities are and that could be your symphony, your orchestra, your ballet, your theater scene. It could be a professional sports team or a AAA minor league team, or it can be in the case, which you oversaw in Indianapolis, college sports. But it's where people come and spend money. And also three, it's your calling card. When you're trying to recruit talent and bring people to your region, they kind of want to know that you have a downtown that's exciting. Maybe they want to live in the suburbs out further afield. But they're not going to come if they think downtown is dead. If they think nobody goes downtown. So I think for all those reasons you need every part of your metropolitan area to be hitting on all cylinders.

Steve Goldsmith: Let's continue this just for a second. You were kind enough to write a preface for a book I did, that's going to come out this summer, but in the introduction you spoke of racially concentrated disadvantage. The need to kind of strengthen place-based assets. If we think about racially concentrated disadvantage, how would a local official address that? How would they think about that in terms of what assets they might have?

Richard Florida: Well I'm not a rocket scientist and I'm actually a pretty simple minded guy. And for years and years and years, decades, what I was working on was concentrated advantage. How do you build clusters of tech companies? How do you build stronger clusters of industry? And then learning from our great joint friend, Michael Porter, and then taking that an additional step. I wouldn't even say a step further, but additional step, and adding not only industry clusters, but my own work. How do you build clusters of talent? Where Mike looked at industrial clusters or business clusters. We look at occupational clusters and found something striking that you got similar clusters of knowledge workers or professional workers or innovative workers or entrepreneurial people or creatives. And so how do you build those up? Because we began to see that those were the core areas of competitive strength for cities and metropolitan areas.

Well, one day, I'm sitting at home working and I get this email out of the blue by a very famous criminologist at Harvard. His name's Rob Sampson, teaches in the sociology department. He said, "Rich, there's a lot of commonality in what we do." And I thought, I don't know a lick about crime. He said "You've been studying concentrated advantage. I've been studying racially concentrated disadvantage. In a sense," he said, "They're flip sides of the same coin." What cities do is concentrate both advantage and disadvantage. I wrote a whole book on that. Steve, I wrote a whole book called The New Urban Crisis, arguing that these two things were pit against one another and the middle-class has fallen by the wayside.

Look, it seems to be two things. One, we have to address it head on, and it's not an easy thing to address. Rob Sampson, or his student Pat Sharkey, who's now a full Professor of Sociology at Princeton, say you can't do this by nicking away at it. You need a full package of programs to address economic conditions, sociological conditions, better, safer communities. Kids who feel unsafe, they just shut down. So you need a whole approach and hopefully the Biden administration will get us back to that. We've gone away from that. We've kind of ignored it. The second thing I think we need to do is our society is kind of divided into these zones of concentrated advantage and then metastasize and growing zones of concentrated disadvantage that not only are inner city anymore, but have actually shifted out to our suburbs. So I think we have to restore the middle and we have to build a whole new suite of good jobs. And I'd say across two groups of jobs.

One, my dad, who had a seventh-grade education, went to work at age 13 in the Great Depression in an eyeglass factory, then served in World War II. He just told me the story that before he left for service in World War II, he had a crappy job that took nine members of the family, my grandma and grandpa, him and his six siblings, to make a living wage. When he came back from the war, he had a great job. Same factory, same job doing the same thing, except the pay changed. So we kind of made bad jobs, good jobs. We decided that those men working in factories deserve better wages. They deserve to be able to get a mortgage, buy a house. And we did it. So first we have to make more of those jobs. But the second one I think is even a bigger challenge.

We talk about the essential workers and the heroes who saved us during the COVID crisis that brought us our groceries, wrote us our pharmaceuticals when we needed them, delivered all the packages we need, worked, staff those warehouses and distribution centers, work in our hospitals and healthcare centers. Well, those people make a really terrible living. And so I think if those jobs represent 40% or 45% or 50% of American jobs, we've got to make those jobs better. That's sort of our big challenge ahead of us. How do we take those service jobs that are kind of what manufacturing jobs or my dad's. How do we actually increase the wages, make them better jobs, get people more fully involved at their brains, tap their brains. And maybe we're finally ready to have that conversation.

Steve Goldsmith:That's helpful. Just a few more questions. This may be difficult to answer. Let me try it though. A fair number of the people who listen to this podcast work in city government, but they work with data. They may be a chief data officer, they may be the chief GIS person, and they think about spatial analytics and we think about predictive analytics. I mean, you're a big thinker looking at huge datasets, but if you were working in a city, how would you think about layer data? What data should they watch in order to predict trends? If you wanted to, I mean, I know you've thought a lot about reusing urban assets, right? So how do you rethink the use of streets or curbs or sidewalks or parking? How would you think about those platforms, that data as part of the policy mix.

Richard Florida: So first I have a confession to make. I'm not very good at math. I never have been. I'm mainly a qualitative researcher. I'm mainly a field researcher and an observer. Kind of like, I don't mean to equate myself with Jane Jacobs, but I use the same tools of observation. And I learned about data because I had to, because there was no way I could get tenure in the modern university system without publishing papers. And the published papers in scientific journals, you needed to have data. So I kind of trained myself enough, or figured out how to work with better people, much smarter than me, but I think what I'm good at, and this is sort of the answer to the question for folks listening in.

When I hear from people, say in the U.S Census Department or in a city government or people who work on big data from LinkedIn or Yelp or whatever these sources are or Zillow, they say, "You know Rich, when you wrote something up for City Lab, you kind of picked out a data point that we missed. We have these 100 page papers and they're kind of boring and you found something in there." And what do I do? This isn't rocket science. I just look for the data point that's meaningful. And not for me, but for the audience of people in America or the world. It's not data for data's sake. You have to think about a numbskull. And I'm saying this the truth, like me, who has no ability to even use it. My wife would tell you, I have to like, "Help me use the spreadsheet." No ability to really use a computer, but kind of is searching for that nugget of information. So I think that's what we have to do.

Our job in data analytics is to simplify the complex. Data is infinitely complex and I get lost in it. It's sort of using our heuristics. I don't know what to call them. Our intuitions to kind of fish around in there and find the stuff that's meaningful for people. And that can move the needle. And I think if we were sensible about that, and think of our moms and dads or our kids or just having a conversation with another person, one of our citizens, that's the way to get there. Or maybe put yourself in the position if I was the mayor, what would I be talking to the folks in my community about? I think that that's where the data analytics folks have to get. That's where we have to get to and surfacing those meaningful, meaningful bits of information that people need.

Steve Goldsmith: Last question, let's assume for a second, you had a couple of billion dollars in infrastructure money and you were the mayor of, let's not say Toronto or New York, let's say Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, whatever. And thinking about the evolution of the creative class from what was necessary for the creative class back then. How would you spend this couple billion dollars now? How would you think about spending? I know it would vary from city to city, but what process would you go through if the purpose was livable spaces and economic opportunity? How would you think about spending that money?

Richard Florida: So when, when I wrote a book, The Great Reset back after the economic and financial crash, that book was reviewed in the Financial Times. And the guy said, "Yeah, Florida's an interesting guy," and he's, "I liked the book. It's smart. We are going through this reset. It's not just an economic crash, but he's when it comes to infrastructure, the guy is totally confused. Like on the one hand, he says, 'why don't we build more walkable communities? So why don't we invest in things like better sidewalks, more bike lanes.'" And what I was arguing is that we need a tighter, better communities where people can live and work and share information because that's what drives innovation and creativity. That's what spurs our economy. So densify, but don't do that by adding more car lanes, make the neighborhoods more compact.

And in a way it's what Mayor Hidalgo is doing in Paris right now. I remember going to Paris with two young kids and trying to cross the street near the Champs-Élysées and getting almost mowed down. And I was like, "Why would Paris be so ruinous?" And what Mayor Hidalgo is saying, "Calm the street, less cars, less speeding, more bikes, more people walking. Use of the street for restaurants and dining and even now offices."

But on the other hand, the guy said, "Where Florida's totally idiotic. Now he talks about high speed trains. And he says, "Well how can he deal with this? On the one hand he wants the pre model T on the other hand he wants the future." But for a Cleveland or a Pittsburgh, what I was trying to argue is if you look at these mega regions, it's not all the neighborhood, it's not just the city in the metro area. When you look at these great places that are achieving a lot, that are super competitive, like New York or San Francisco, they're part of a bigger thing called a mega region. And the great one of course is the New York, Boston, Washington corridor. Where if you like you can take a shuttle plane, if you like you can drive, but you can get on an Amtrak. Joe Biden, right, his train from Wilmington to DC, right. And a lot of people use that mo... And what I was arguing is that high-speed rail, if you had, it creates a very functional mega region.

And here's why for Cleveland. The second great mega region in the United States is dubbed by this great geographer, John Gottman, ChiPitts. It’s the area that runs from Chicago to Milwaukee to Detroit to Cleveland to Pittsburgh. It was interconnected back before we were born. People would take the train overnight from Pittsburgh to Chicago to go. But that's no longer very much used. So what I was arguing is the second thing I would spend money on is connecting these really great, small, second tier cities, where possible, to one another to make a bigger labor market, a bigger metropolitan area, a mega-politan area where people can move between.

And so that's how I'd spend it. I wouldn't spend it on building roads or highways. I might spend it at the margin on some of our great airports, because I know airport connectivity is very important to regional growth, but that's not a lot. I would spend it on building tighter, better, walkable, livable communities on the one hand. And then I think, where appropriate, where there is a mega region, connecting some of these great small and second and third tier cities to one another to create more economic oomph.

Steve Goldsmith: Great answer. Thank you so much. Thank you for listening and thank you, Richard Florida.

Richard Florida: Thank you, Steve.

Steve Goldsmith: If you liked this podcast, please visit us at, or follow us at DataSmartCities on Twitter. Find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast was produced by Betsy Gardner and hosted by me, Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to serve as a central resource for cities, interested in the intersection of government data and innovation.

Thanks for listening.