What do Dryden and Temiskaming Shores have in common? And what do they have to do with ideas? More importantly, what do they have to do with ideas having sex? And how in the world am I going to make a serious economic column with an introduction like that?
Viscount Matt Ridley gave a TED talk in 2010 called “When Ideas have Sex.” If you haven’t heard it, just skip the rest of this column and look it up on Google. If you are still with me, I’ll try to explain why it is relevant for Northern Ontario, and why I think a big report by the mighty Martin Prosperity Institute is not relevant.
Ridley was chairman of the UK bank Northern Rock, the first British bank in 150 years to suffer a bank run (the bank was taken over by the government and eventually sold to Richard Branson.) He is even more famous for an error-ridden book called “The Rational Optimist” that claims the world is getting better all the time.
Despite his questionable credentials as a banker or a climate forecaster, Ridley has this lovely idea about creativity. Basically the more ideas you have and the more people to swap ideas, the more new ideas you’ll get. Ideas breed like coat hangers.
If Ridley is right, we should be able to apply his idea in Northern Ontario. Urban studies theorist Richard Florida claims that the trick is to attract smart people from other places. The Martin Prosperity Institute attracted him from the George Mason School of Public Policy. Once we attract enough smart people, we Northerners will be creative and prosperous.
And this brings us to Dryden and Temiskaming Shores.
Florida, who heads the institute, has just released a study of Ontario’s rural creative economy. Dryden is supposed to represent the rural communities of the northwest. Temiskaming Shores stands in for the northeast.
The study is full of big surprises – like Northern Ontario has more workers in the farming, fishing, and forestry class than southern Ontario. And a bigger fraction of the workforce are teachers, nurses and social workers. And a smaller fraction in the sciences, arts and culture areas. Even so, the study claims 23 per cent of Dryden’s residents are employed in creative class occupations, and only 24.6 per cent in the working class. Somehow this 228-page document is supposed to convince municipalities that the Martin Prosperity Institute is the place to buy advice.
Unfortunately the study reinforces a number of misleading ideas about the creative economy and the North. The “creative class” is defined as “people in occupations paid to think.” This includes accountants but not carpenters, teachers but not welders, mechanics or millwrights.
The study shows a definite bias for formal education and urban professions. It shows a definite bias against working-class people and resource-based economies. It ignores the kind of creativity that built sawmills and keeps them running. It assumes union reps are less creative than managers at the tax office.
Formal education is valuable, and regions that file lots of patents tend to have lots of university-educated engineers, but when you hire a carpenter or electrician, you hire her or him to think. It is just a prejudice favoured by university professors like Florida and me that thinking and education are hitched together like a horse and carriage. The average accountant got better marks for reading, arithmetic and obedience than the average carpenter, but his main contribution to the creative economy is that he is more likely to buy a theatre ticket once a year.
The right strategy for Northern Ontario is to build on the creative thinking Northerners really do, not to compete with Toronto for immigrants from the south. To have an economy that succeeds internationally, the first rule is to develop our own people.
There is a reason why the North’s mining supply sector is growing and bringing in export revenue. It builds on things we already do well. It actually respects the skills that built the North. And it takes advantage of the way ideas breed when you collect a lot of, mostly, local talent in one place.