Isenberg School of Management
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Creative Community Co-Construction
Tooling around Nantucket over New Year’s weekend, I was struck by the sense of place evident in the care given to the landscape, not to mention our host’s keen interest in birding – a demonstrably popular island activity. Twin ethics of conservation and continuation, combined with a robust sense of humor, reminded me of the work of Dr Arturo Osorio, whose dissertation defense explored the intersection of economic geography, economic sociology, and strategic management as a town re-creates itself as a community of and for artists, composed of members who utilize local resources to co-construct themselves as a creative class.
Looking at a place (Easthampton, MA) through an integrated analytical lens, Dr Osorio applied a collaborative multi-firm network theory in which relationships are interdependent with the environment (conceived broadly) and the environment (including the embedded and implicit relationships) is inseparable from any given company, firm, or business. This fluid and dynamic model disallows sharp divisions between, for instance, “the company” and “the market,” or “employees” and “residents” and those whose physical residence is beyond town lines but whose livelihood is firmly founded within the community. While organizations are purpose-driven, the core economic transactions are deeply social – interpersonal, cognitive, cultural, and political. All of the activities of a company and the community that hosts it are intricately intertwined.
Dr Arturo Osorio refines Florida’s popular “creative class” model from its static premises, turning the notion of a creative class from a thing (an aggregation of people who fit required characteristics and are rather singularly motivated) to an on-going, interactive, socially-dynamic “process whose potential emergence may or may not be sustained over time.” Osorio pulled an audience of seventeen on a late fall day to listen to him tell a tale of a town where personal actions and associations coalesced into creative class organizing that generated a range of positive consequences for the community that continues, today, to feed back into organizing and interpersonal/professional community ties.
Choosing to contribute to a place
The most interesting point that I found in Dr Arturo Osorio’s dissertation defense was a question his results raised about why people may tend to identify themselves more on the basis of language than of the place where they live. Such as speaking Spanish, for instance, rather than English. The matter came up in relation to limits on extending Dr Osorio’s findings to more urban, mixed areas, although it caused me to wonder about rates of bi- and multilingualism in/around Easthampton. Language fluency is a separate indicator than skills – Easthampton has above average concentrations of people with skills that are recognized as creative regardless of industry, as well as an above average concentration of people with skills that are used in industries recognized as cultural or creative. I wonder if diversity of language can contribute to creativity? What Dr Osorio studied are the interrelationships of skilled people who consciously grew a creative culture by recognizing and validating the various skills everyone had to contribute, and interweaving them into a strong and vibrant economic community.
Dr Osorio supplements Florida’s depiction of the creative class, which has come in for its own share of criticism. Florida describes the creative class through a lens akin to the hard sciences, as a concrete thing composed of particular elements which, if put together according to the right equation will reliably reproduce the desired end result. Osorio’s view is more nuanced, recognizing the role of variation and emergence in modes of self-organization when elements catalyze in ways that are not necessarily predictable. Because Osorio is focused on the combination of social factors along with economic factors, he is able to highlight the ways in which individuals can cohere positive socioeconomic changes in specific civic locations over measurable spans of time.
“It takes a community to build a creative class”
~ Dr Arturo Osorio
Dr Osorio conducted an extensive participatory ethnography and a complex social network analysis to demonstrate the relationships among narrowly-defined cultural groupings and broadly-defined socioeconomic structures. The sociality is not always visible, but operates nonetheless. While the generic public is presented with the closed doors of artists at work, the artists themselves engage each other vigorously on all manner of concerns, including finding common cause and mutual gain with other community groups, such as persons with disabilities. As one might expect, the closest relationships are formed on the basis of homophily – emotional affinities, shared values and perspectives on issues of mutual concern, and enjoyment of similar kinds of people and events.
But, a crucial element in generating a creative class, artists in Easthampton reached out beyond these most comforting relationships to learn about the needs and concerns of different artists and other community members in diverse affinity groups. Then they all consciously used this knowledge to proactively strike up alliances and strategize agreements to satisfy everyone’s desire to live/work in a community that promotes their individual, independent ability to be a certain kind of person. One of the novel discoveries of Dr Osorio’s work is that the key question in Easthampton’s successful transformation from an old mill town to a thriving artistic community is that the key question motivating collaboration was not “Where do we want to go,” but rather, “Who do we want to be?”
The process was not free of conflict or contradiction, however the influence of the artists (a widely-inclusive category in Osorio’s frame) on the economy and standard-of-living in Easthampton is proving to be resilient and sustainable, because – as an organizational process – it was always ground-up, involving multiple instances of grassroots, indigenous effort that culminated in a process that, in retrospect, can be identified by normal science. Dr Osorio calls it “a fragile plural phenomenon” in order to emphasize both the inherent organic quality of self-organization as well as the necessity of continuous nurturance and commitment if the collective benefits are to be retained over the long term. This can conceivably happen if town planners traditionalize the collaborative approach to problem-solving that has characterized the rise of Easthampton’s creative class to date.
Well, it is a small town in Western Massachusetts rather than a massive urban area. “The Planning Dept is two people,” explains Osorio, who are “doing mediation not planning.” They accomplish so much, so effectively, “not through dictating policies but by addressing specific problems and issues as they arise and working them through collaboratively – which [is what] generates policy.” Can this model be extended? I guess those are the experiments we all are waiting for. Dr Osorio affirms, “…[creative class] cohesion can only be reached, not by dictatorship but by communication.” An important question is the extent to which western Massachusetts is unique: few other places will meet similar contextual criteria that define this region (such as the proximity of several elite colleges, museums, historical/traditional work in the arts, etc).
As the committee hurled questions at Dr Osorio, it became apparent how momentous is the potential in his work. His chair commented on “the open-endness of what you’re doing” – a comment clarified by Daphne, another Management graduate student: “The ‘creative class’ is an empty signifier, you can fill it up in different ways.” This rather blows Richard Florida out of the water (IMHO). Instead of a precise configuration of ascribed statuses available mainly to the elite and those brilliant few from historically disenfranchised groups who manage to thread the needle and arrive in the top ranks, Osorio brings membership in the creative class within reach of all of us. We just have to decide to begin working with each other, in specific and targeted ways that are rooted, anchored, and otherwise defined by a real physical place. This may mean facing down racial antagonisms and divisions constituted by language/identity difference and infrastructural oppression. Dr Osorio’s dissertation research suggests the bridge is to build value and meaning into the physical, geographic place where you live or work.
 Richard Florida, 2007 also Gibson & Kong, 2005:542
 Miles, Snow & Miles 2005