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We can’t ignore emerging creative class

A slow revolution has been taking place in the world, but we have hardly been paying attention to it. It started in the United States of America and for three decades starting in the 70s, it went unnoticed.

However, in 2002, American economist and social scientist, Richard Florida, noted this phenomenon and thereafter penned three books, including Rise of the Creative Class, Cities and the Creative Class (2004) and The Flight of the Creative Class (2007).

According Florida, there has been an emergent class comprising of knowledge workers in fields like science and technology; arts, culture, media and entertainment.

He breaks the class into two broad groups. The first one includes a wide range of occupations, such as science, engineering, education, computing, research, arts and entertainment. Florida considers those belonging to this group to “fully engage in the creative process.”

The primary job function of its members is to be creative and innovative. “Along with problem solving, their work may entail problem finding,” he writes.

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In emerging countries, this class is growing around large cosmopolitan cities. The second group, which he refers to as the creative professionals, is made up of the classic, knowledge-based workers, including those working in healthcare, business and the legal sector.

They “draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems” using higher degrees of education to do so. Now, as is usually acknowledged, when America catches a cold, the rest of the world sneezes.

Here in Kenya, a rudimentary creative class is already with us, and it is just a matter of time before they reach a critical mass.

This class is emerging in Africa partly because of the recent political liberalisation. According to Florida, economic growth tends to be focused in places that are tolerant, diverse, and open to creativity. This is where creative people want to work.

The class thrives in areas that possess what he refers to as three Ts: Talent (highly educated and skilled), Tolerance (a diverse community, which has a ‘live and let live’ ethos), and Technology (technological infrastructure to fuel an entrepreneurial culture).

This class is the fastest growing in some of our urban centers, just like in America. It is this group, making up close to 40 per cent of the US population that President Barack Obama used to win the 2008 elections, making history as the first African-American President.

At the time, no one had linked Florida’s work to politics or thought of the class as a cohesive group that could cause change.

But a BBC news analysis in November 5, 2008 highlighted some of the technological characteristics associated with the creative class, noting that Mr Obama “developed and exploited a vast database of information about potential donors and voters in every key state.

His team again tapped into the Internet, targeting ads at those online.”

A large number of the creative class are self-made and so when Mr Obama projected his image as a wholesome, self-made family man with one house, one car, and one family, he dealt a major blow against John McCain whom the BBC described as a man who had “divorced the wife who waited for him through the Vietnam War, married an heiress and couldn’t remember how many houses he had.”

Florida argues that “social change occurs not during booms, but during crisis,” as in the great depression of the 1930s. But rarely do leaders see what is coming; for that reason, they are rarely able to avoid a disruptive revolution.

A problem like unemployment could trigger social change unexpectedly as it happened in Tunisia and Egypt leading to devastating consequences. When African migrants die in the Mediterranean Sea, it should be an African problem.

But African leaders remain silent as though it is not part of their problem. Yet the creative class feature these anomalies in their daily creative cultural products, including music, film, writing, and even in academia.

It is as though leaders are unable to appropriate the lessons contained in these qualitative products.

As Florida notes, “the creative class can develop cohesion to help others who are not in that class.” He hopes that adversity can create that social impetus to bring that cohesion and change. This, in my view, is not an unlikely scenario in Africa’s near future.

Among the younger members of the creative class that is emerging in places like Nairobi, tribe or any other affiliations that divide us does not exist.

It is a growing trend that cannot be ignored as it promises to change our social, political and economic landscape in ways we cannot imagine today. Yes, there is a revolution going on, but it is not being televised like the violent ones.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

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