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Creativity Is True Capital: the “Three D’s” That Drive It and the Teachings of Moretti

“Creativity is true capital,” said Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, in an article for the Corriere della Sera supplement La Lettura. Writing about the future of work, he tells of a world in which traditional manufacturers are disappearing (e.g. Kodak, an extraordinary example of high tech until a couple of decades ago and now in apparent free fall) as new ones are arising that feature an original blend of product and service, of research and the constant transformation of innovative cultures. “Knowledge and talent are what generate wealth,” Moretti continues. Just a few years ago, his book The New Geography of Jobs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) described how radically the economy of the western world is changing, supporting his account with facts and numbers and documenting how one high-tech job effectively gives rise to five other positions, including in more traditional industries. He continues today to reiterate the fact that global competition centres around the ability to attract both human capital and innovative business. The number and strength of a nation’s hubs of innovation will determine whether that nation prospers or declines. Areas in which physical products are being made will continue to lose importance, while cities populated by creative, interconnected workers will become the factories of the future.

These challenging, original views of Moretti’s take full account of the context that is transforming a US economy in which a variety of factors are beginning to converge, including reshoring, the return of the automotive industry and, at the same time, the booming digital economy, led by Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft and featuring innovative services, creative start-ups, and digital manufacturing, proof that, as Moretti says, “knowledge and talent are what generate wealth”.

Even the largest corporation with deep roots in manufacturing are aware of it. Take General Electric, as just one intriguing example, a company which recently moved their headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut, to the Boston area, a hotbed of knowledge, creativity, and innovative businesses, a place where publishing houses, think tanks, and laboratories for the arts grow right along side institutes of education, innovation and excellence such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

But if creativity is true capital, what drives it and makes it thrive? Eric Weiner, a talented journalist, writes, in his book The Geography of Genius (Simon & Schuster), of “the Four D’s”: diversity of ideas; discernment; disorder, because out of chaos always comes positive flows of information; and deprivation, the creative drive born out of necessity. Weiner found these ingredients in ancient Athens, in Florence during the Renaissance (a model of innovation better than what is now the Silicon Valley), in Shakespeare’s London, and in Vienna in the time of Mozart and Beethoven, and he emphasises the connection between needs and the environment, between intelligence and the height of the obstacles to be overcome. He also talks about the concept of the comfortable chair, saying—in an interview with Viviana Devoto for Corriere della Sera (31 January)—that the softer and more comfortable the chair, the worse it is. Without limits, we are lost, because it is tension that leads to invention—which is analogous to the “stay hungry, stay foolish” of Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford speech.

So much can be learned from the US example, but what about Italy, and the rest of Europe, where manufacturing is still of great importance? Here, it is still the best in manufacturing that is the cornerstone of renewal. A brilliant Italian sociologist and keen observer of innovation, Aldo Bonomi talks about the hybridisation of production and research, about creativity and design applied to engineering, and about medium- and high-tech industry competing internationally, yet constantly seeking to improve. In Italy, the hub of it all is Milan, a metropolitan area encompassing Brianza and Lodi in which manufacturing accounts for 29% of GDP (as compared to a national average of 18%) and where there is a high concentration of manufacturing, universities, service firms, culture and research. And for the future, the trend is towards a “creative Milan”, guided by Assolombarda’s version of the acronym “STEAM”, which they have changed to “Science, Technology, Education, Arts and Manufacturing” (in place of “Mathematics”), and by the area’s “polytechnic culture”. Indeed, Italians and Italian industrialists have long been masters of creativity and of keeping a keen eye on the future.