Brain Circulation and Miami’s future as a Start-Up City

By | February 10th, 2013 | 8 Comments
Richard Florida

Organized by influential urbanist and author Richard Florida (pictured), Start-Up City: Miami will feature talks by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and AOL co-founder Steve Case on Wednesday, Feb. 13. — photo by Jaime Hogge

The narrative of Miami’s ongoing transformation comprises various story lines, including, most prominently, the burgeoning of its artist community and cultural offerings (as chronicled in the recently released documentary Rising Tide). There’s also the less prominent stories of its increasingly vibrant music scene — attested to by our list of the Top 50 South Florida Songs of 2012 — and its surprisingly rich bike culture (surprising because our sprawled-out, car-centric city would seem utterly inhospitable to bike travel — and, in fact, it can be.)

But, to me, the most surprising story line is Miami’s fledgling tech industry. Consider The Next Web’s recent blog post, “Awesome Offices: Inside 8 fantastic start-up workplaces in Miami” — who knew there were two such places, let alone eight? And it’s not as if these “awesome” workplaces are sitting empty. There’s the web-as-TV start-up working out of a Midtown duplex, the expert video chat platform LiveNinja running from a Wynwood office, and the online music-streaming service Senzari operating in Brickell. Also in Wynwood is The LAB Miami, a 10,000-square-foot space that recently hosted a Wayra hackathon.

Of course, despite these green shoots, Miami is no Silicon Valley. But these promising first steps conjure a future in which the city takes it place alongside San Francisco, New York, Boston, and the other tech hubs as an urban incubator of innovative technology and game-changing ideas. With an eye on that future, urban studies expert and part-time Miami resident Richard Florida partnered with The Atlantic (where he is a senior editor) and the Knight Foundation to organize Start-Up City: Miami, “a forum that will bring together leading entrepreneurs and tech experts for a series of conversations about Miami’s innovation ecosystem.” Hosted at the New World Center on Wednesday, February 13, the event will “feature a series of roundtable discussions and one-on-one interviews with top voices from the tech, design, urban planning, and start-up communities, including Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, and Steve Case, co-founder of AOL.” Though registration for the event is now closed (it reached audience capacity), you can live stream the programming online.

Ahead of Start-Up City: Miami, I met with Florida, author of several influential books, including 2002’s The Rise Of The Creative Class, to discuss what Miami needs to do to transcend the (outdated) fun-and-sun stereotype and become a global ideas capital. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

To start, put the term “start-up” in context. Are you talking about a Silicon Valley-style tech industry?

Florida: When I wrote The Rise of the Creative Class and I identified these three Ts — technology, talent, and tolerance — I said cities that did all three had an economic edge. And I said that’s Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston, Seattle, on and on. And I used Pittsburg as an example of a city that had great technology but lacked tolerance and talent. And I used Miami, in that book, as an example of a city that was tolerant in lifestyle but lacked technology.

So I think technology’s been the missing piece of the puzzle here. And the idea was, and I think still is, could we leverage the ongoing, now very advanced urban transformation of not only South Beach, which is quite mature, but also the Design District, Wynwood, Midtown — that urban strip along Biscayne Boulevard — could we leverage those ongoing trends to incubate technology along two dimensions? One, my own work suggested that technology start-ups have always and increasingly are gravitating away from suburban office parks to funky urban districts that have artistic and musical innovation. And, two, Jane Jacobs’ notion that new ideas require old buildings.

So the idea was, could we stimulate this environment both by drawing in people from that environment but also by bringing in really interesting people like Steve Case, Tony Hsieh, the folks from the Center for an Urban Future [in New York], the folks from the London School of Economics, Brad Feld, venture capitalist from Boulder, Colorado, who wrote this book Startup Communities — could we put those pieces together and engage a conversation about, does Miami have what it takes to be [a start-up city]?

My interest … is to make Miami part of a global conversation about city building, placemaking, technology-based urban development. I think a great city needs to be part of that conversation. You know, we have this great airport that get you anywhere in Europe, Latin America, connects you to the world. We have these great art galleries and art festivals that bring people here. But in terms of ideas, we’re just not on the map.

In Miami, we talk a lot about the “brain drain”, where we lose talented people to places like New York and Los Angeles —

Florida: The overriding concept I like is “brain circulation”. It’s not brain drain, it’s not brain gain, it’s brain circulation. So what I think Miami should do is bring people in and send people out. The more people who go out and say, “Miami is this amazing laboratory for urban transformation, and I thought it was fabulous,” the better for Miami. My hope would be that some of those people figure out a way to incubate start-ups [in Miami]. Not just high-tech start-ups — social innovation, social enterprise, urban transformation, arts and cultural organizations.

I like the Aspen model … They were able to transform a tourist town and a skiing town into an intellectual place [through the Aspen Ideas Festival]. They were able to take a music and ideas festival and create an intellectual ambiance around it. Not all of the fellows or participants stay there all year — some come for a week, some stay there for three months. But it creates an intellectual vibrancy that magnifies. And I thought, that’s what we can do in Miami.

I think there’s a lot to build on in Miami. The question then is, how do we build those idea-capital institutions. Miami did it with arts and culture, they did it with museums, they’ve done it with [food] — the one place we haven’t done it is in the realm of ideas. So I just think it takes a little bit of a catalyst. I don’t want to run this, I don’t want to own this, I want to be part of it. And I think once it gets catalyzed, it will come together pretty quickly. And I think it should be multinational with an eye on Latin and South America. I don’t think it should be Latin and South America exclusive. The fact that we have so many Europeans, so many Russians, so many people from the Middle East and Russia now here — I think it can become a place that is a reflection of the new global multi-dimensional economy, focused around real estate, focused around development, focused around arts and culture.

The concept of brain circulation is very interesting because we tend to harp on the “drain” part of the cycle.

Florida: I just look at the people I know that are choosing to live here. The net in is better than the net out. So I think Miami is winning. It’s really quite amazing, our ability to do brain circulation, and I think we minimize that. We look at every young person who leaves as a big loss, instead of saying, “They’re going out, they’re getting skills, they’re learning the world, and we’re attracting a lot of people.” There are very few regions in the world that have this net in that we do.

It’s clear that you have strong faith in Miami’s ability to become an ideas capital, but what challenges lie ahead?

Florida: We have a very small knowledge-based professional creative class. Not only are we a canonical post-industrial metropolis, but we don’t have a big working class of mid-skill jobs. When I look at Washington, D.C., it has almost 50 percent of its workforce in the creative class and about 40 percent in the service class. We’re the opposite. Miami has about 60 percent in the service class and about 25 percent in the creative class. So on the one hand we have to boost up our knowledge/professional/technical/creative class. No doubt.

But the big challenge is … our service workers do not make a lot of money. They’re falling further and further behind economically. So what I challenge people here is … to really upgrade our service class. And with the hotels and the restaurants — with the service infrastructure we have here, I think this is a very powerful laboratory for creatifying, adding knowledge, professionalizing, and creating better career cycles in the service class.

And the other missing piece of the puzzle is, we are so far behind on transit. I mean, the level of car dependence in this region is mind bending. My own research suggests that you can get away with that at two-and-a-half million people. You can get away with it at three million people. Once you get past three-and-a-half million — and now we’re at five million — you need to have a transit infrastructure. Part of that is bike and pedestrian friendliness. I see so many people riding bikes, and you’re taking your life in your hands. So many people on scooters, but it’s still treacherous. We need a transit infrastructure.

But I think it’s easy. It’s easy to put in the bike lane infrastructure. We have to tame the cars. We have to condition people that they have to treat cyclists like human beings. That’s a project for our country. When you go to Copenhagen or Amsterdam, you see how it works, that it can work. I’ll tell you though: I think Toronto is less bike-friendly than Miami, and New York is not a biker’s paradise. I just think with our weather and the number of cyclists and bike activists, we can do it.

But more than that [the bike infrastructure], we need the transit. If you imagine the region 20 years from now, with high-speed rail connecting our major metro centers and transit [throughout Miami], it would be a different place.

To improve our transit system, we need the local government to get on board — do you see that happening?

Florida: Look, we need a commitment to city building, and that has to leverage not just the mayor and the county — it has to leverage public-private partnerships. One of the great things about America, which I learned living in Canada, is that what makes our cities great is the public-private partnerships.

So I think we need a commitment to city building, and that’s why I like the idea of an ideas center, working with this urban laboratory. We need real experts, professionals, amateur city builders articulating a vision of the city. Not a vision of Miami with a casino next to a museum without transit with an airport disconnected from the city. We need a strategy that’s economic development, spurring competitive advantage, and putting the pieces of transit, infrastructure, and placemaking together. I think this is the great challenge of our time: How do we develop tools, best practices, information systems, technologies that enable better city building and city leadership? And we need to do some of that here, and I think we should do it.

Is our traditional focus on tourism a problem?

Florida: No, tourism is a huge asset because it gives you flux, it gives you people, it gives you a market. It lets you borrow size. Tourism gives you this other market that you otherwise wouldn’t have, for restaurants and all sorts of arts and cultural activities. We need a strategy that leverages tourism and residents and second-home owners and makes a better region for everybody.

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8 Comments on “Brain Circulation and Miami’s future as a Start-Up City”

  1. 1 ksprague said at 9:35 am on February 11th, 2013:

    We’re bringing our brains, technology and talent to Miami from MA because we see a city on the rise that puts a focus on the role that creativity, art and experimentation has in making opportunity and ideas happen. So far its a tough nut to crack – the places where innovation and people gather to work together are still a bit few and far between but there are a lot of good meet ups and events going on. What we might need here is a catalyzing event – perhaps a google office or similar foundation element to drive stablility in the brain force.

  2. 2 CB said at 12:40 pm on February 11th, 2013:

    The brain drain is to San Fran/the Bay area. We’ve had two good programmers leave for there.

    And if it wasn’t for FIU’s comp sci dept, we’d be really hurting for talent.

  3. 3 MiamiHoo said at 1:49 pm on February 11th, 2013:

    I’m definitely a bona fide participant in the ‘brain circulation’ that Richard speaks of. I was born and raised in Miami and had the pleasure of attending its finest secondary school before decamping for university. I actually returned for my first job out of college only to leave again to pursue other opportunities.
    As it currently stands, I want to eventually return to Miami (and not as a snowbird or retiree), but I’m convinced that I will have to do so as an entrepreneur. This is actually an increasingly appealing proposition however, since I feel that there is so much opportunity in Miami (that really doesn’t exist elsewhere), and this interview has worked to confirm that.
    Miami is a vibrant subtropical city that is (successfully) enduring the growing pains of becoming a world class metropolis. We often forget how young we are and the challenges and travails that cities like New York, London, et al have faced (and still face) on their way to becoming their esteemable present selves.

  4. 4 Kevin said at 3:02 pm on February 11th, 2013:

    With over 50,000 students, FIU holds the key to our future. As FIU has jumped in rankings and gotten more prestigious, the quality of graduates who have FIU degrees and start their careers in Miami is transforming our city. It can’t be understated.

    We’re only as good as our universities. We need to make sure that top graduates from FIU, UMiami, Barry, Nova, etc., all can find good jobs in Miami. That said, we also need to provide jobs to the experts who’ve been in the field 10, 20, 30 years. They provide the foundation for the future as well. Good jobs.

  5. 5 Pod said at 6:49 pm on February 14th, 2013:

    The one thing this article ignores is that a lot of these technology and “idea” jobs don’t really require physical workspaces. For example, amongst my ventures, I work part-time for a web application development company which builds software for the hospitality and entertainment industry. In other words, 100% of our work involves the internet in some way. We have an “office” out in Vegas only in the sense that our investor is located there, and so is our sales guy. The office is for our investor’s other businesses, and our sales guy chooses to work out of there, though as of late he works from home three or four days a week. As for the rest of us, we have no office. I work from home and on-the-go, and our lead developer works from his condo on South Beach. His assistant works from a beachside bungalow in Playa del Carmen. Another developer is somewhere in Connecticut. Our Canadian rep works out of his fantastic loft apartment in Old MontrĂ©al. We have a collaboration system in place for when we need it, but most of our correspondence is via Skype chat or email.

    I’m not saying it is “the” way, but it is a very viable mode of working for a lot of jobs, in and out of the technology sector. I understand that in some of the “inspirational” texts a lot of CEO-types like to read place a big value on face-to-face interaction, but the reality of all that is, that it is mostly a big waste of time and resources. Office space isn’t cheap, and the ancillary services (internet, etc) incur a cost as well. Nevermind the employees’ fuel consumption and so on. The the office environment becomes “Office Space”, wherein the workers do maybe an hour or so of real work per day depending on their tasks. The rest of the time is just office gossip, soaking up the bandwidth, and staring at the radiation from the overhead fluorescent tubes all day.

    A lot of people go like “Oh well, we ‘brainstorm’ better together” or some such nonsense, but if that’s the case, it’s easier to meet somewhere like a temporary meeting room, or last time I checked, all the major chat services supported multiway video chat and sharing. Technology is grand, it’s about time we really took the big step of embracing it in our work habits.

  6. 6 RobRoy said at 8:49 am on February 15th, 2013:

    What all of this discussion ignores are the deep, endemic, ingrained lack of work ethic, adherence to the rule of law and no real desire on the part of Miamians to be honest, address the issues and make changes. As a former Chicagoan, the contrast between the two is shocking, ongoing and easily explains the differences in the vibrancy of the two respective economies.

  7. 7 Leah said at 7:50 am on February 16th, 2013:

    I think Miami is really on the brink of something big, in terms of startup culture and entrepreneurship.

    What I think Florida doesn’t mention (at least in this interview) regarding transit here are two things that go beyond infrastructure:

    (1) Driving culture. I don’t agree with the above commenter on everything, but there really is no respect for the rule of law on the road. We need to shift the pervasive selfishness that makes Florida’s roads the deadliest in the United States for pedestrians.

    (2) Corruption and lack of civic engagement. Our civic institutions are completely rotten from the inside. Considering so much of our leadership claims to hate communism, it is curious that they have also brought the absolute worst of communism to the region. The most well-paid jobs outside the professional class are all for government work. Every day we see a new story about nepotism, about someone stealing money from the city, or from some too-cozy relationship between our government and private developers. At the same time, we have the worst levels of civic engagement in the country so that this corruption continues without opposition, save for the occasional news story or discrete act of protest.

  8. 8 Mike Moskos said at 1:29 am on February 17th, 2013:

    I like Richard Florida’s work, but I have issues with a few things. As someone who gave up his car 5 years ago, I think he’s off the mark when he says Miami lacks a transit infrastructure. It has a great transit infrastructure. What it lacks are short headways outside of rush hours. That is, it takes a long time to get to places on a bus/rail if you must use multi buses to get home. The transit system doesn’t have–and probably never will have–the budget for short headways all the time. I see the solution as more private companies taking up the slack–we have at least 3 now; we need many more.

    Secondly, he’s focused on the needs of the middle/upper middle class and Reagan’s cronies were wrong: it doesn’t trickle down much. We need to find a way to raise the income of the poor–perhaps by making it easier for them to start their own businesses–or wide swathes of the county will remain scary, treeless ghettos and the creative class will be heavily taxed to support them, wiping out whatever gains they make from their own rising incomes.

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