In 1994, Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida was paging through a newspaper when a headline triggered what he calls a "holy moly" moment. Lycos, a search-engine company spun out of CMU, announced it was moving from Pittsburgh to Boston. When Florida asked why, colleagues told him that "Boston offered the lifestyle options that made it easier for Lycos to attract top creative and entrepreneurial talent," he recalls.
Holy moly indeed, Batman! More than a decade later, Professor Florida is still enjoying the sunshine. But shouldn't the anecdote get some critical examination? I've heard this from lots of people in Pittsburgh with connections to CMU and the tech sector: Lycos didn't leave Pittsburgh because it lacked access to talent (in fact, initially, Lycos even left a presence here). Lycos went where the money was -- and is. (Trivia question: Where is Lycos today?) Lycos's leaving wasn't a bad thing for Pittsburgh. In fact, the Lycos deal was a big success for CMU and for Pittsburgh, as well as for its founders. That case has been made publicly before, but it doesn't stick, and when I hear it in conversations, most people are reluctant to talk about it publicly. Why is that?
It seems to me that the research that the observation generated is interesting -- but hardly conclusive. What Rich Florida found was a correlation between his defintion of the "creative class" and certain indicators of economic success. What's hard to pin down is the direction of the causal arrow -- if there's any causal arrow at work at all.
Here's an example of what I mean: The best-known concentration of technology companies in the United States is in the Silicon Valley, which stretches (roughly) from Menlo Park to Morgan Hill. How does that region do, anecdotally, on measures of "creativity"? For technological creativity, it may have no peer. For other "cultural" creativity, until very recently, and until long after the Valley became "the Valley," it was a wasteland. (I'd be happy to swap stories of downtown San Jose in the mid-1980s.) The Valley took off, IMHO, because Stanford aggressively pushed its research into the private sector; because the Santa Clara Valley (as Silicon Valley was once known) had a decades-long tradition of Defense Department-sponsored industrial R&D that spun engineers outward as the DoD gravy train dried up; and because the longtime San Francisco banking community realized that the mid-Peninsula is a pleasant place to work as well as to live. The tech community flourished because the money was there, in Menlo Park, to finance the revolution. It didn't hurt that Menlo Park was the original home of the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey's experiments with LSD, but the "creative class" element was always highly marginalized. There was one head shop in Menlo Park in the late 1960s and into the 1970s; in all other respects, the Valley of that era would make modern Mt. Lebanon look like a den of iniquity. The other relevant anecdote, it seems to me, is that Boston -- which allegedly stole Lycos from Pittsburgh based on superior access to "creativity" -- was seen in the 1990s as hopelessly out of it in battles for technology-based economic development. Silicon Valley was the model, not Boston.
That's an anecdote, not research. I hypothesize that the Silicon Valley lacked a deep "creative class," yet that region did okay for itself. If that area is better known today on "creativity" metrics, as I suspect it is, then that "creativity" may have followed economic growth.
There are lots of people with opinions about the Valley. Have a conversation -- at my expense, if you like -- about whether my hypothesis is right. Can Pittsburgh have a similarly honest discussion about whether Lycos matters, and if so, how?