Saturday, September 16, 2006

American Knowledge Worker Geography

The second Richard Florida article I want to discuss, Where the Brains Are, is in the October edition of the Atlantic Monthly. Florida describes and attempts to explain the current "great migration" of highly skilled labor in the United States. The trend is from an even distribution of human capital across America in 1970 to the current landscape of knowledge clusters in a handful of cities that Florida terms "means metros." Florida's short list of winners includes Los Angeles, Austin, Silicon Valley, Boston, and Denver. This is the lineup of the usual suspects. As you already guessed, Pittsburgh is among the losers in the domestic "means migration" game.

There are two reasons why Knowledgeburgh shouldn't be too concerned. Chris Briem made the first case: When pondering Pittsburgh's desired future state, you should consider migration trends and age demographics together. Pittsburgh may not attract many highly skilled workers in the near term, but the city is beginning a journey of getting younger by the day thus revealing another means metro (though without the associated rise in real estate prices). I suspect that the demographic shift will encourage more knowledge workers to move to Pittsburgh.

Florida's explanation of the means migration frames the second reason. He employs classic urban geography: "increasingly, the most talented and ambitious people need to live in a means metro in order to realize their full economic value." The advantage is the opportunity to rub elbows with other knowledge workers resulting in a force multiplier effect. In other words, the rich get richer. However, as the affluent and educated flock to city-center, real estate prices skyrocket (as Florida notes). There is a significant cost to enjoying all the face time with other smart, creative types. I figure that there will be increasing economic incentive to develop virtual collaborative networks mitigating the need to move where the brains are. This should free up the knowledge worker to seek lower rents and usher in a new great migration pattern.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh should enjoy considerable regional comparative advantage with a large highly educated population and cheap real estate.

1 comment:

John Morris said...

That's why I am here. NY is too expensive. As much as I generally agree with Florida, he now seems like a one trick pony in analysing that one variable and not studying consequences and costs.

I had the same feeling that Pittsburgh's demographics should enable a cost advantage to be retained for a long time.

My personal feeling is that Pittsburgh, is ideal for the most price sensitive members of the creative class-- hard core artists, musicians, dancers, writers, etc..