June 24, 2018
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Building a better creative economy

By Todd Gabe, Special to the BDN

State and local policymakers in Maine are fascinated by the concept of using the “creative economy” as a means to promote economic development. Much of this interest stems from Richard Florida’s 2002 book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which suggests that creativity is an important driver of regional prosperity. The creative economy, as defined in Florida’s book, is a collection of occupations including artists, computer programmers, educators, engineers and scientists of all types.

Recognizing the keen interest in the creative economy among policymakers, I have been involved in several University of Maine studies on the effects of creative occupations on U.S. county-level earnings. Our intent was to isolate the exact jobs in the creative economy that are responsible for economic development. We found that many of the benefits attributed to the creative economy actually come from the presence of computer scientists and engineers in a region. So it appears that, as many people have believed for some time, enhancing knowledge about computers and technology is a good way to raise standards of living.

This got me thinking about other types of knowledge that provide economic development benefits, such as increasing the amount of money a person makes and lifting regional productivity. On these topics, I considered knowledge about a wide variety of subjects, ranging from psychology and medicine to sociology and philosophy. My research consistently shows that possessing knowledge related to information technology (e.g., computers and telecommunications) and the provision of business services (e.g., management, law and economics) are keys to a prosperous economy.

So what does this mean for Maine?

Unfortunately, Maine ranks below national averages in terms of knowledge, as utilized by the state’s work force, about information technology and business services. This means that we need to work on beefing up our collective knowledge in these critically important areas. We should emphasize these subjects in our schools, and provide a climate that is attractive to information technology and business service providers.

Or, better yet, business owners throughout the state can help out by enlisting the services of a computer programmer or other information technology specialist. I would be hard pressed to think of any type of business — even very small companies — that could not profit from greater use of technology.

I also believe that it is important for Maine workers, business owners and policymakers to emphasize what people do in their jobs, as much as we think about what people make. Regional economic policy initiatives often focus on a few targeted industries identified for development assistance by government officials. These efforts are geared at what people make, be it a particular type of service or manufactured good.

Shifting the emphasis from targeted industries to occupations allows us to consider more clearly what people do, whether it is using creativity on the job or drawing from a person’s knowledge about a particular subject. This type of approach will help position Maine for greater economic prosperity. No one knows what the “hot” industries will be in 50 years, just like no one knew 50 years ago what they would be today. But it is a safe bet that the regions that deliver products and services — whatever they are — with a highly creative and knowledgeable workforce will have the rosiest economic futures.

Todd Gabe is an associate professor in the School of Economics at the University of Maine. This is the first of four weekly columns on subjects covered in the University of Maine’s Building a Vibrant Maine Economy online conference. To view the conference, visit www.umaine.edu/vme.

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