Reinventing the Way Workers Learn

Urbanist and Author
Mass-production institutions have been broken for a generation now. Why doesn’t anyone want to fix them?
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How can people train themselves to be value-added service workers, or knowledge-driven creative workers?

Richard Florida: Well the interesting thing about service work now that you say it, is a lot of the creative class is moving into this work.  And I think that’s why you see such a revolution.  And I mean, this fellow Matt Crawford who sometimes criticizes me.  I have no beef with the guy.  He say’s he left his PhD and went back to open his motorcycle shop.  Well, he had the skills and the capability to make a great motorcycle shop.  You see, so many members of the creative class going into home repair, or food.  The whole revolution that’s going on in food and restaurants and organic products.

In Canada, where we live, this whole thinking of ice wine and upgrading of ice wine.  So, you see the members of the creative class going into this stuff and saying, that’s really interesting.  In terms of skills, I think our work has helped up identify this.  I think in the United States, in Canada, and in Europe we’ve all been – and in Asia – we’ve all been told to be smart.  That’s what my parents said.  My dad said, “I work in the factory, Rich.”  And they sent me to Catholic school, Queen of Peace, of all places, Boy’s High School in North Arlington, New Jersey, in the heart of Soprano’s country.  And why did they send us there?  Two boys, Richard and Robert.  They wanted us to have a good education.  That was the ticket to upward mobility.  And you got a career.  So, we went to Rutgers College, got Garden State Scholarship and figured it out.  I majored in urban planning and it was a way into the economy. 

I think now though, that’s not enough.  Of course, an education is helpful.  And our work suggested the cognitive skills, the knowledge skills, are only part of it.  Actually, it’s the social skills that really matter.  And if I had to be really blunt and give kind of business advice, the one thing we don’t teach – I teach in a business school.  The only think we don’t teach in the business school that we don’t teach in schools, not only entrepreneurship, but we don’t teach people how to sell.  It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn.  How do you sell?  How do you pitch a book project?  How do you – and you know this too, you had to build a company, we have kids – and I try to hire people and they say, I’ll come work for you but I don’t want to sell.”  Well, I had to say it, in this kind of economy that we have, this fragmented free agent economy, which I think can be better for lots of people if we have the right social supports and the right benefits systems.  We have to sell more. 

So, the social skills, the team building, the selling. The other part is education, and we talk more about this.  But I always hated school, from day one.   I never liked it.  I never felt it was an education system, I felt it was an education school – maybe it’s because I went with nuns, and I have the scars to prove it. 

In college I never went to class.  And what’s interesting about this – and I hung out with my friends and we talked about interesting stuff and we had this kind of wide ranging seminar over beers at night.  But, you know whether it’s Steve Jobs, or Michael Dell, or Bill Gates, people that are far more business savvy than I’ll ever be, or most of us, 99.9% of us.  All of them dropped out of school.  So, that’s telling me that something in the system is broken and I think one of the great things about technology, and I don’t want to over blow technology, but we both love it.  I think that technology enables kids to learn without having to be stuck in these many stultifying places called schools.  And if we look at learning less as real estate as, you know, send the kid to a school, and more as development. 

Ken Robinson nails this when he talks about it.  99% of three-year olds score is creative, they go to school for a few years, it’s down to 50% by the time they’re teenagers, it’s 10% and by the time they’re my age, it’s like 1%.  I forget the statistics, but they’re something like that.  So, I think we have to build institutions, not of education, but of learning.  And those are going to have to be human centered and individual and I think that technology gives us a chance.  But when Bill Gates said the school system is broken, he’s right.  When Peter Drucker said, “The research university will not survive the transition to knowledge based capitalism.”  The way we deliver learning is very broken and very inhuman.  So, it seems to me that’s got to be a first principle.  In the 1800’s we built a system of mass public education, 1850’s and ‘60’s.  In the 1890’s, we started to really work on the colleges and the universities and build them up.  After the war, we had the GI Bill and we made education available to working class people like me.  My grandfather had none, my dad had 7th grade, I had a university education.  I think what we have to do now to remake this system is bigger than all of that combined.  And here we think about tweaking schools at the margin.  If we’re really going to build this kind of creative society, we have to completely reinvent the way human beings develop and learn. 

Question: Where do we stand in the process of remaking education? 

Richard Florida: It’s funny, if you look beneath all of my writing, and I often say I’m a much better verbal – I try to write, but I’m not a great writer and it’s hard for me, and I’m an academic, so that makes it worse.  I’m an okay talker.  So, all of my work really is about this question of institutional redesign.  I mean, from the beginning of my work in the late 1980’s and 1990’s was always about institutional design.  And I think our institutions, the mass production institutions, the Fordist institutions, have been broken now for a generation, and yet nobody wants to confront it.  I don’t understand why. 

Mansor Olson wrote, the real key to the decline of nations was when these institutions become, he called, “sclerotic.”  Institutional sclerosis.  He said, “Why regions decline, why nations decline, why companies decline is very simple.  These institutions are built, they’re great for the time they’re built, they work like clockwork, and then over time, as the environment changes, or they just become more rigid and bureaucratic and sclerotic, and he said that’s sometimes why history moves from the Netherlands to England to the United States, you know, from the east coast to the west coast, and now some say, I think it’s early in this, to Asia, the Asian century.  But I think the bigger question and I think what the United States has been uncanny.  You know, my dad used to say this.  He said, “Rich, when I signed up for the Army.  Well, remember the Depression, how down we were, and then when I signed up for the Army, we had doughboy hats and these old boots, and they gave us broom sticks.”  He said the mobilization institutional, he didn’t say institutional, “the mobilization for the war and the factories got changed and the government got into it, and boy we turned on a dime.” 

I am puzzled as an American living in Canada, why we can’t do this any more.  Why we’re so locked in, is the word economists would use, and I don’t know what it’s going to take to blow that up.  But the interesting thing is, it’s not happening anywhere in the world.  It’s not like you can look at China and say, they’re redesigning their institutions, or Brazil and say, they’re redesigning their institutions.  It’s almost as if everyone is stuck in the same place.  It seems to me that the mental models and frameworks of the Fordist economy, of the mass production economy, are so powerful and so deeply engrained in the way we think, it’s hard to think in other terms.  And so what I think happened actually is people create their own safe space.  So, the folks in Silicon Valley said, screw that, I’m not going to go try to rebuild industrial Fordism.  I’m going to carve out a really cool thing here in Silicon Valley for me.  I’m not going to take this on and redo arts education; I’m going to build a little interesting arts district in my community. 

So I think there’s enough space and flexibility in the system that people could find their niche, so to speak.  But I think the bigger question is one of institutional redesign and for folks listening in, the clock of history is always ticking.  It doesn’t stop.  So, it’s not like history stops, we’ve reached the end of history and the last man – the clock of history ticks.  Sooner or later, some group of people, some where, some place will figure this out.  And as they figure it out and get this institutional redesign right, they’ll get one huge advantage; huge competitive advantage, huge first mover advantage, and they’ll eclipse us. 

Now I still think we have a little time because these are generational processes, but somebody’s got to wake up and hopefully it will happen soon.  Hopefully that’s what this event we’re going through, this economic shock we’re going through, hopefully it’ll allow people to wake up and say, these are the new kinds of institutions.  First we have to take down the old ones that don’t work anymore.  That’s a big job.  And secondly, here are the new kinds of institutions we have to build to make a prosperous, a more creative, more productive, better society.  

Recorded on December 14, 2009

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