Flickr/Stefano Montagner

A new study finds that cities with successful “creative economies” must have robust non-creative industries, too.

The new economy is a creative one, with knowledge workers increasingly powering innovation and growth. And while creativity is theoretically a limitless resource, a new study finds that a relatively narrow group of metros have emerged as winners in America’s creative economy—and discovers how much ground other metros must gain to catch up with them.

The study’s authors, Arizona State University researchers Shade Shutters, Rachata Muneepeerakul, and Jose Lobo, take a detailed look at the growth and development of the creative economy between 2005 and 2013, before and after the Great Recession. (In the interest of full disclosure, I found the study so interesting that I made it a Martin Prosperity Institute working paper.) The authors use Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the approximately 800 occupations that make up the U.S. economy to find the leading creative metros in the country. In the study, “creative occupations” are defined as those spanning science and technology; arts, culture, entertainment, and media; and business and management. The study’s authors then map the interplay between creative occupations and other parts of the economy, isolating and examining the role that these creative industries play in the productivity and affluence of all 360-plus U.S. metros.

The table below, from the study, shows the American metros with economies closest to what the researchers call “the ultimate creative economy,” one in which a city specializes in all 800 creative occupations. (Of course, no such economy actually exists.) Topping the list is greater Boston, followed by Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Seattle is fourth and Portland, Oregon, fifth. Los Angeles, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Diego, Denver and, perhaps surprisingly, Baltimore round out the top 10.

(Shutters, Muneepeerakul, Lobo)

All in all, the study’s authors find that just 19 out all 364 U.S. metros—5 percent of them—have fully formed and sustainable creative economies. This small group not only outperformed the rest across several key economic measures, but the creative gap between them and the rest grew over the eight years studied.

Next, the researchers asked: Can a city consciously and purposefully build a creative economy? The ultimate creative economy is represented in the images below. In the left-hand image, each white circle represents an occupation. In the right-hand image, creative occupations are highlighted in orange. Clearly, creative occupations in maximally creative metros are interconnected with other creative occupations, and are generally concentrated in the highly interdependent core.

(Shutters, Muneepeerakul, Lobo)

But not all occupations in the core are creative. The white circles, standing in for all other occupations, are sometimes as close as the other creative ones. As the researchers write, “the figure reveals that the occupations closest to a given creative occupation … need not themselves be creative.”

This is true of Boston, the leading creative metro, and Las Vegas, a lagging one. In the graphics below, orange dots represent the locations of creative occupations that are current specialties of the metro, gray dots are non-creative occupation specialties, and yellow dots are creative occupations that are not specialties. (A metro “specialty,” as the researchers define it, is an occupation in which a larger proportion of the city’s workforce participates than the larger national workforce does.)

(Shutters, Muneepeerakul, Lobo)

This interconnectedness explains some of the most creative cities’ economic success, the researchers find. The small group of creative metros, as they put it, “follow a general trajectory towards a creative economy that requires them to increasingly specialize, not only in creative occupations, but also in non-creative ones—presumably because certain non-creative occupations complement the tasks performed by related creative occupations.”

In other words, the places with the most creative economies also have the highest overall diversity of occupations and specialties—by a wide margin. As the chart below demonstrates, the nation’s most creative metros, denoted by the green dots, generally rate highly on creative and non-creative jobs metrics.

(Shutters, Muneepeerakul, Lobo)

Ultimately, the study finds that making the transition to a creative economy can be quite daunting. It is extremely difficult for other cities and metros to break into the small club of creative leaders. First, they need to excel across the board; their talent pool must be deep with all the skills, creative and otherwise, required for economic growth. Second, leading creative-economy metros must be able to overcome the tremendous forces pulling them away from the creative economy. That pull is the result of creative specialization, which in turn gives rise to specialization in complementary non-creative industries—more office buildings, for example, also create demand for more construction, maintenance, and trade skill staff.

“To overcome this pull, and to stay closer to the creative economy,” the researchers write, “a city must continuously attract a net influx of workers with creative skills.” Unfortunately, this outcome is achieved  by a small number of places across the nation.

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