Richard Florida identifies the best areas to apply tech skills, and the reason we should all be learning them

Richard Florida may teach urban studies, rather than coding, but that doesn’t mean he’s unaware of the forces that are leading more people to learn things like UX design, web development and data science than ever before.

The best-selling author and lead contributor to the Altantic’s CityLab was the keynote speaker at Drive, a new conference hosted by The Lazaridis Institute and HockeyStick that aimed to help more entrepreneurs develop startups into “scaleups.” While many startups fail within a few years, in other words, those that grow to the scaleup phase — whether you measure that in terms of revenue, market share or some other metric — tend to become leaders in their industry.

For Florida, who made his name with his book The Rise of the Creative Class, today’s emphasis on innovating with digital technologies isn’t some kind of historical accident. It’s a growing shift he’s studied since the early 90s, since he and some colleagues began tracking the deals in Venture Capital Journal to see how innovation clusters were changing employment needs.

“We tended to use physical labour to harness raw materials — from hunter-gatherer to farming and harnessing natural resources,” he said. “The mind is now the primary means of production.”

The opportunity presented by digital technologies, in other words, is part of what gave rise to what Florida calls the “creative class” of designers, developers and other talent. According to his research, Florida said the creative class makes up 33 per cent of the workforce in Canada, and is even higher in places like Australia and Singapore.

According to Florida, this change in talent needs has also increased the role of cities and urban areas — and not just because a lot of startups tend to gather there. He referred to the idea of “urbantech,” or sharing economy-style services like Uber and AirBnB that help city-dwellers waste less time and improve the ability to move goods and services around. Urbantech accounts for 20 per cent of all VC investment, he added, making it the largest single vertical market in tech and possibly the most likely area you might apply skills like programming, product management or data science.

“This is the thing: the city is not the platform for innovation, but the subject,” he said.

The same benefits of skilling up to become a member of the creative class may also explain the political polarization that’s happening in places like the United States, Florida suggested.

“When a third of us are members of an advantaged group, that creates tension,” he said. “We’re seeing the rise of diversity, multiculturalism, the rise of new sexualities — all of which are challenging to traditional values.”

Florida urged the Drive conference audience to avoid thinking in terms of elites vs. the disadvantaged. Instead, we should recognize that education can be transformative across almost any role or sector.

“Every human being is creative. It’s just that some of us get to use it more than others. The real challenge is, how do we tap and harness that creativity and reward that creativity of everyone?”

There may be no quick solution to this problem, but there’s no doubt it’s going to take strong programs that help all members of society learn skills that prepare them for new work. It will take tools that help them identify the best places and models to learn those skills. And for those doing the learning, it’s going to take a lot of drive.

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