The vigorous debate over Minnesota's future in a high tech world has featured a variety of prescriptions for prosperity - like using taxpayer dollars to invest in Minnesota start-ups, and spending more state money on high tech research. Now, some controversial new research from Carnegie Mellon University suggests cities that want to promote high tech industry should make themselves attractive to gay men.
A sign of a strong high-tech economy? A researcher at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that communities with a relatively large gay population also have more success attracting and retaining high technology companies. (MPR Photo/Bill Catlin)
THE IDEA OF A LINK BETWEEN GAYS AND HIGH TECH
has its roots in a common lament of the internet age - the difficulty of keeping promising high tech firms from leaving for the talent or capital available on the coasts. One case caught the attention of Richard Florida, a regional economic development professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"We do $350 million a year in research and development, which puts us as a top ten research and development city. We invent things like crazy. And I was pondering the fact that Lycos - which friends of mine at Carnegie Mellon started and which was incubated in our technology transfer office - relocated to Boston. Because, it said, talent was more available there," says Florida.
The Twin Cities has lost firms under similar circumstances.
Florida says he began to wonder if the key to economic development was not where companies decide to locate, but where people choose to live. He compared a list of powerhouse high tech cities assembled by the Milken Institute in California, with the gay index - a list of cities with disproportionately large gay populations - compiled by another researcher looking at similar questions.
"And lo and behold, the lists looked the same," Florida says.
At the top: San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Washington D.C. Some of the same names appeared at the bottom of both lists, as well, including Cleveland, Rochester, and Las Vegas. The Twin Cities ranked 17th on the gay index, 19th as a technology center, among the 50 largest metropolitan areas. The research is being released by the Brookings Institution this week.
Florida says the gay index was the strongest indicator of high tech success of any factor he looked at. He also talked to young, highly-skilled people in several cities, and found they looked for places where it's easy to fit in.
"And if you think about technology-based people, or the kinds of people who go to a place like Carnegie Mellon or MIT and study electrical and computer engineering, computer science - they tend to sometimes describe themselves as 'geeks,'" says Florida. "And geeks tend to be the kind of people who were not necessarily the all-American, homecoming queen, or turkey king in their high school. They tend to be people who were always unique and different."
Florida also found that metro areas with high concentrations of people in the arts, and foreign-born residents, ranked high as technology centers.
" It's not that gays and diversity equal high technology. But if your culture is not such that it can accept difference, and uniqueness and oddity and eccentricity, you will not get high tech industry."
- Economist Richard Florida
Florida says there's no cause-and-effect relationship between a gay population and high tech. He says the gay population is simply a marker for a diverse environment that fosters creativity and innovation - key ingredients for success in high technology. He says a story he heard from venture capitalist Don Valentine, one of the original investors in Apple Computer, illustrates the economic importance of a tolerant culture.
"Steven Jobs came into his office wearing flip flops and patched blue jeans, and a beard and long hair, and he said, 'I didn't care what he looked like. I was going to fund this guy because he had a great idea.' Try that in Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Rochester, or maybe even Minneapolis or Chicago," says Florida. "Those people couldn't have gotten in the door. It's not that gays and diversity equal high technology. That's not the point. But if your culture is not such that it can accept difference, and uniqueness and oddity and eccentricity, you will not get high tech industry."
Some dismiss the theory, but skepticism is far from universal.
"I'm a cross-dresser. A drag queen, cross-dresser, weird, whatever," says Larry, a patron at the Gay 90s, a Minneapolis gay bar.
Larry's not in full regalia, but he is sporting a lacy undershirt and silver nail polish. Larry, who doesn't want to give his last name, says he agrees with the notion that a tolerant culture, open to different ideas, may provide an economic advantage.
"The more inventive you get, the more ideas you come up with, which then can spill over into different businesses, different products, different services," he says.
"Entrepreneurship is about deviant behavior," according to economist Joe Cortright. Cortright is a Portland consultant, who's studied high tech cities. He gave one of the major addresses at the University of Minnesota Economic Summit last fall.
"Concrete examples like Fed Ex - started by Fred Smith, Apple Computer and others, show that really pathbreaking ideas come from people who are viewing an industry entirely differently, and doing things that other people not only didn't think were possible, but didn't even imagine," Cortright says.
Richard Florida, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says his research suggests a correlation between successful high-technology cities and the size of their gay population.
Read his report. (PDF format)
At Techies.com, a Twin Cities-based Internet job service for technology workers, staffer Mark Wilkie is explaining some programming to a colleague. Asked about where he feels comfortable, Wilkie expresses a clear preference for employers that don't mind shorts and jeans.
"Every, especially web-development company I've been at, nobody really cares what you wear. If I can come in and do my job well, and don't cause other people problems, I don't think anybody cares. If I code well, I can smell bad - that's the equation, right?" says Wilkie.
That preference for an informal environment is fairly typical, says company co-founder and chief techie Doug Berg. But Berg is skeptical of the gay index theory. He agrees technology workers generally prefer an environment open to new ideas, and look beyond the eccentricities of capable colleagues. But he says that's a function of a typically intense focus on their work, not any larger devotion to tolerance.
"I don't think they're going to be diversity champions. But they've already become productivity champions, who look for accomplishment and challenge. They look way beyond, I think, what our personality styles and our personal habits are," Berg says.
Others take issue with the gay index theory as well. Ann Markusen is director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. She says some high tech workers are attracted to places that are not diverse.
"I think I could steer you to a lot of large-scale suburban enclaves - with high tech activities going on in them - which are very white and very conventional and even very male. It's where the diversity that's a part of higher-density urban living, gay neighbors and so on, would not be considered to be a positive attribute," says Markusen.
Dallas and Phoenix, for example, are two of the top 10 tech cities in Florida's adjusted version of the Milken rankings. They ranked 19th and 22nd on the gay index and are both in staunchly conservative states. But Markusen and Florida agree that regional economic development efforts should re-orient from chasing corporations to drawing talent. Markusen puts it this way.
"Workers are less committed to employers, and employers are less committed to workers than ever before. So subsidizing a company or an industry is not necessarily going to result in long term employment growth and employment committment," she says.
Richard Florida says companies increasingly go where they can find enough talent, because ideas and creativity are key to a firm's or even a region's economic growth.
"The point is that those who have the people will have the ability to attract and generate the companies, and populate those companies," says Florida. "So the real key is understanding that people are the name of the game. And building cities that are attractive to people will put you in a position to compete and win in this new economic development game."
The gay index is likely to remain controversial. But Florida is just one of a number of voices in economic development policy circles who contend that a community's ability to attract and produce talent is increasingly important, even in an era of telecommuting.