Special Report: Creative City

Hamilton Must Become a Learning City

Cities that encourage high levels of education and collaboration are better able to reinvent themselves to a changing world than cities locked into low-skilled labour in monoculture industries.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 11, 2012

A raft of innovative research clearly demonstrates that cities are powerful engines of economic growth and development. By their nature, cities enable a number of urban efficiencies - economies of scale, agglomeration, density, association and extension - that, taken together, vastly multiply the productivity of innovators and entrepreneurs.

It can be difficult to square this economic research with the clear evidence of decline and failure in cities that were among the largest in the world just several decades ago.

However, some cities that tumbled in the latter part of the 20th century have already managed to reverse their fortunes and undergo a dramatic renaissance, while others - like Detroit - have continued their tailspin into astonishing decrepitude.

The big cities of the 19th and 20th centuries were industrial cities, a relatively short-lived product of a particular set of historical circumstances. Industrial cities are characterized by a small number of large industrial employers providing mostly unskilled labour.

As Edward Glaeser argues in his recent book Triumph of the City, industrial economies actually undermine the knowledge generation and sharing that make cities economic engines. Writing about Detroit, Glaeser laments:

By turning a human being into a cog in a vast industrial enterprise [Henry] Ford made it possible to be highly productive without having to know all that much. But if people need to know less, they also have less need for cities that spread knowledge. When a city creates a powerful enough knowledge-destroying idea, it sets itself up for self-destruction.

Other industrial cities, like Boston and New York, reinvented themselves as innovation centres by focusing on widespread education, generation and cross-fertilization of ideas, and a dense ferment of innovative startups.

When their industrial economies declined - Boston's garment, leather and machinery trade and New York's textiles industry - those cities were able to reinvent themselves into knowledge-based economies thanks to an ongoing commitment to education and entrepreneurship.

Post-Industrial Hamilton

In many ways, Hamilton is a classic industrial city, with an economy traditionally based on a small number of big industrial employers providing mostly unskilled jobs. That picture is changing - the health care industry is now the city's single largest employment sector - but our industrial legacy remains a challenge.

If Hamilton wants to enjoy the best prospects of long-term economic vitality, we need to transform ourselves into a learning city. This will require great political courage: a long-term investment that will take a generation to bear fruit.

According to the Hamilton's Vital Signs report, Hamilton's high school non-completion rate improved from 27% in 2000 to just 19.9% in 2010. That's good news, but Hamilton still slightly lags the provincial average.

Worse, the city-wide average hides the fact that non-completion is painfully concentrated in certain areas. In some neighbourhoods, as many as 65% of adults don't have a high school diploma.

That might have been okay when Hamilton was an industrial economy with a wealth of decent-paying unskilled jobs, but today it's a recipe for economic disaster and social despair.

Similarly, Hamilton's post-secondary completion rate of 51.1% slightly lags the provincial average - and again, the middling city-wide number hides the fact that graduates are concentrated in certain areas of the city.

As a necessary prerequisite, we need a higher percentage of high school graduates and a higher percentage of post-secondary graduates if we want to become a city that generates and capitalizes on new ideas.

That doesn't just mean attracting more people with degrees to move to Hamilton. Nor does it merely entail getting more graduates of McMaster and Mohawk to stay here.

More broadly, it means successfully encouraging a lot more Hamiltonians to complete high school and to go on to complete a post-secondary program. That, in turn, means starting in early childhood to set Hamilton's children up for success at school.

It also means McMaster and Mohawk need to do more to reach out to Hamilton's lower-income neighbourhoods and beat a smooth path into post-secondary education.

Building 20: Creative City in Microcosm

Another characteristic of learning cities is that they have a wealth of post-secondary institutions that foster cross-disciplinary research and information spillover and are integrated into the local community and economy.

There are at least 52 universities and colleges in metropolitan Boston, the most famous of which, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has long been a renowned incubator of new inventions, including an impressive swath of seminal information technologies.

One of the most remarkable facilities at MIT was Building 20, a shabby, poorly-built, temporary structure erected during the Second World War that ended up remaining in operation for 55 years.

Because of its temporary designation, Building 20's occupants were highly creative in their use of office and meeting space, taking advantage of its plywood construction to cut holes in ceilings and knock down walls as their needs required.

The hodgepodge of academic disciplines housed there - including acoustics, biotechnology, data processing, electronics, linguistics, medical research and radiation - and a confusing building design that brought lost and wandering researchers into frequent contact with each other created the conditions for a remarkable outpouring of new ideas.

Building 20 was the site of innumerable contributions to human knowledge, including the invention of radar, one of the world's first particle accelerators and groundbreaking work in cognitive science. Collaborations between acoustic and electronic researchers spun off into the Bose Corporation. Noam Chomsky synthesized cutting-edge work across biology and computer science to invent a new model of linguistics. Harold Edgerton combined disciplines to invent both high-speed stroboscopic photography and side-scan sonar technology, among other accomplishments.

Meanwhile, the playful approach taken in Building 20's Tech Model Railroad Club evolved into MIT's famous hacker culture that has underpinned so much of the Internet's development. Richard M. Stallman of MIT Media Lab inaugurated the free software movement with the GNU Project, which not only produced most of the essential software that runs the Linux operating system, but also created the first free software licence that established the legal conditions for a collaborative free and open source software project.

As Jonah Lerner concludes in a recent New Yorker essay:

The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right - enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways - the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant-not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism-that doesn't mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.

Jane Jacobs hit on the same realization in her defence of old buildings as places where people can try out new ideas without huge startup costs - and more broadly in her defence of an urban built environment as an environment in which creative people come into contact and combine their knowledge and ideas to generate innovations.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Riposte (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2012 at 09:19:58

Currently A School of Hard Knocks City.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 11, 2012 at 10:41:12 in reply to Comment 75844

Stuck in the lower grades because it can't seem to learn from its mistakes.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2012 at 10:07:12


We have heard things like this before an personally I think that it is just a load of crap.

"Hamilton's high school non-completion rate improved from 27% in 2000 to just 19.9% in 2010. That's good news, but Hamilton still slightly lags the provincial average."

This will always be the case because Hamilton has cheaper housing stock that can accomodate low income people.

I think the bigger issue is that spending 6 hours per day in the classroom is not something everybody is cut out for. There needs to be a better emphasis on trades and apprentices in the high school level where non-academinc students can gravitate to. I remember when I was in high school there was very little emphasis on trades, it was all college and university. Not one person from some trades council came to speak to us about trade related careers.

Currently we have too many idiot MBAs, and women's studies graduates and not enough people who can fix your car, roof, toilet, or cook you a decent meal.

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By Dave (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2012 at 11:05:33

Richard Florida has written extensively about the transition to creative urban economies. See, for example, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0205.florida.html

Creative workers, including entrepreneurs, software developers, and artists, today require less in the way of industrial infrastructure to launch and grow successful businesses. The keys to attract and retain them are affordability & a vibrant cultural community. Hamilton has the seeds for a renaissance. But it will require careful tending for it to flourish.

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By Finding Nebo (anonymous) | Posted April 13, 2012 at 06:28:57 in reply to Comment 75852

The rub, of course, is that creative people can live anywhere to take advantage of that dynamic. And also that Florida's definition of "creative class" is sufficiently broad as to be almost meaningless. This is only complicated by the acknowledgement that everyone is creative, everyone is entrepreneurial. The city is, as ever, competing against the world. And for all of the charms of Hamilton, there are still a lot of locals travelling east for jobs, making their fortune there because this is predominantly a junior market for many career fields. The fact that so much new employment in the last few years has located in the suburbs is another wrinkle.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:00:55 in reply to Comment 75897

And also that Florida's definition of "creative class" is sufficiently broad as to be almost meaningless.

I beg to differ. His broad definition encompasses the true essence of creativity which has too long been considered the exclusive purview of the arts. At the same time, it recognizes the arts as the economic generators that they are, after being too long considered something 'other' - a frill we can only afford if our 'real' economic generators are healthy.

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By Finding Nebo (anonymous) | Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:08:59 in reply to Comment 75905

Meaningless in terms of revelatory power is what I was going for.

It's a perfectly valid observation that everyone is creative (I made just that point) but its scope is sufficiently broad that it seems to encompass most of the economy. Arts workers are a sliver of the high-value core that drives the creative class model; universities and life sciences (the publicly funded behemoths of Hamilton's economy) would be part of the a meatier portion that includes engineers, architects and possibly public servants, think-tankers, policy analysts etc.

Public funding of those sectors is not inconsiderable. And beyond that, in the realm of "creative professionals," I see things as murkier still. If a city attracts greater numbers of high-tech firms, CEOs, lawyers, bankers, doctors, engineers, architects, professors, etc and the city's standard of living goes up, that doesn't strike me as much of a a "aha" moment. His positioning of creativity as a commodity/consumer good is more intriguing to me but it's maybe a little loaded if the public come to regard it as the lone value. Maybe I'm off-base (this was been in vogue locally since the DiIanni years), but Florida himself eventually came to acknowledge the limits of these interventions, and the recognition that "Different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody."

So again, it's down to the question voiced at the outset: What are we to be?

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 11, 2012 at 15:14:11

I'm wholeheartedly with Capitalist on this one: I haven't seen any compelling evidence that universal or near-universal post-secondary education is either productive or desirable.

The shift to an industrial model of PSE delivery has stripped much of the intangible value from schooling: classes are much too big now to let students engage with professors, and professors are increasingly low-wage sessionals who are themselves students; evaluating students relies primarily on easily-graded assignments or multiple-choice tests in lieu of writing challenging essays, and; there is a growing mismatch between the types of degrees offered by schools, desired by students, and those required by the job market.

Saddling an increasing number of young people with tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary debt (average post-secondary debt in Ontario hovers around $25,000 upon grad) is great for guys like McMaster's Peter George, Hamilton's own half-million-dollar-man, because for these guys, growth pads their enormous paycheques.

But maybe we should start asking ourselves if we've reached a natural limit on the number of young people enrolled in tertiary education, and consider the social trade-offs (prolonged adolescence, increased debt at key life-stages, delayed parenthood, delayed/evaporated retirement, job-skills mismatches, etc.).

If some of the training offered by PSE institutions is so important, I think we would be better off finding a way to work it into secondary curricula than expanding a credential system that has transferred the cost of employee training from employers on to students and taxpayers.

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By iamjoe (anonymous) | Posted April 13, 2012 at 00:10:39 in reply to Comment 75864

"Saddling an increasing number of young people with tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary debt (average post-secondary debt in Ontario hovers around $25,000 upon grad) is great for guys like McMaster's Peter George, Hamilton's own half-million-dollar-man, because for these guys, growth pads their enormous paycheques."

Right, and this is why we need more "investment" in post-secondary schools. Hah!

Let the universities have the nice, shiny buildings while the rest of the townsfolk live in holes.

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By Fraser (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2012 at 10:30:32

Ryan, nice post. I too recently read Triumph of the City and came away with similar thoughts. I think it's important for the city to collectively accept that the notion of the industrial city is dead. While hard to accept, once we come to terms with it we'll be in a better position to plan and implement policy that can help shape a strong future for the city.

Ongoing eduction and/or training is important. As is supporting the new type of industries that will flourish in a knowledge economy.

Thanks for the insightful read.

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By bob (registered) | Posted April 12, 2012 at 14:44:42

my vision for this city is to create a greener atmosphere in the heart of downtown by eliminating some of the parking lots and replace with parks, grass, trees, flowers, etc. while this may seem very simplistic, it would in fact make trolling downtown more inviting. (also return the one way streets as our city was designed for this.)

on the economical side, i truly agree, we must encourage our kids all over the city to use whatever spurs their passion to use as a tool for choosing and developing a career. Academic is only one area of expertise, we need more skilled plumbers, electricians, etc to meet the needs of the population. young people can make a very decent and rewarding (both monetary and self satisfaction) lifestyle and have a job they truly enjoy fulfilling. our education system has never changed the format of teaching, public education should be successful in teaching all learners.

re-invite manufacturing back to this city

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted April 12, 2012 at 20:33:43 in reply to Comment 75884

What does this mean? '...it would in fact make trolling downtown more inviting.'

And what the blazes does this mean? '...also return the one way streets as our city was designed for this.'

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By we ARE smrt! (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2012 at 18:01:45

But Hamilton's already a Learning City--we got the Spectator. Why, just yesterday--Wed.--the Spec's Dreschel told us all about why ward boundary revision may be a good thing for citizens to pay attention to. Of course, CATCH already did this recently twice--on Feb.23 & March 6--maybe the Spec missed that--Dresch just catching up on his reading of citizen media, probably. And as reported in CATCH on Feb.23, "When [the matter] appeared on the agenda of the general issues committee, Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson immediately moved to put it off to a future meeting."--That's RTH's good friend Lloyd Ferguson, praised recently by an RTH publisher and editor, last week. Old Lloyd ain't exactly a buddy of citizen initiatives.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 13, 2012 at 13:08:29

So again, it's down to the question voiced at the outset: What are we to be?

I'm not so eager to ditch Hamilton's industrial past, and upon thinking about this for a couple of days since reading Ryan's great article, I'm not sure the vision of Hamilton as a post-industrial learning city is one I share.

Not that it wouldn't be great to be Toronto-lite, but despite globalization shifting the location of industrial work to low-wage, low-regulation jurisdictions, there are still goods that need to be made and resources to be processed. This isn't creative economy stuff, and it's usually low-margin, but I think Hamilton is well-positioned to be the centre of that work.

Southern Ontario has a post-industrial megapolis, and I think Toronto's sort of cornered that market in this region. But with our port, affordable housing, and central location, Hamilton has the opportunity to provide Southern Ontarians who aren't lawyers, I-Bankers, or ad-execs with a great, yet modest standard of living, and offer companies a relatively low-cost/low-risk place to invest (despite our council).

I always think to myself that if I were mayor, I'd try to sell Hamilton as "Ontario's Second City" (face it, Ottawa & the NCR is like D.C.: a quasi-independent federal zone).

Like Chicago, the industrial gateway to the West, Hamilton is a perfect transportation hub, and can be to Toronto what the Windy City is to New York's world-class financial and entertainment Mecca. There's no shame in knowing your place, and I think aspiring to Boston or New York isn't bad, but they are regional titans, and there are perhaps better models to emulate.

Y'know, the unheralded cities that toil out of the spotlight, but are indispensable to regional and national economies: like Osaka or Nagoya to Tokyo; Stuttgart's auto-manufacturing zone to Munich's financial hub; Nanjing's industrial zones to Shanghai's skyscrapers...you get the picture. Like that unforgettable Kathleen Edwards song: "You're the Great One, I'm Marty McSorley/You're the Concord, I'm economy/I make the dough, you get the glory."

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By Education smeduaction (anonymous) | Posted April 13, 2012 at 18:48:28

Formal education. Well, you can't beat it. If one can afford it. However, I come from a LONG line of high-school ALMOST graduates, entrepreneurs, leaders in business, inventors, patent holders, two of which are millionaires. If that is "one" measure of success. Even in the creative arts, NO formal university education, yet, another family member a professor of music performance at an Ivy League university states side. Time to get off the elitist roller coaster.

Henry Ford didn't go to college. Neither did Steven Spielberg. John D. Rockefeller. Mark Zuckerberg never finished. I could list 100 more very well known people. One thing you’ll notice is that there seem to be two types of people who make it big without going to college – those involved in the entertainment industry and those who start their own business. These college-dropouts and no-shows took risks and weren’t afraid to put their traditional plans on hold to pursue a dream. And, for them, it was a very profitable decision.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted April 13, 2012 at 23:28:32 in reply to Comment 75933

It's easy to point out the exceptions to the rule but the fact still remains: an educated city is a successful city. Full stop.

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By Arnie (anonymous) | Posted April 13, 2012 at 18:53:35

insult spam deleted

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By jacob (registered) | Posted April 13, 2012 at 19:08:13

"Industrial cities are characterized by a small number of large industrial employers providing mostly unskilled labour."

I'm sceptical of this and the Glaeser quotes for similar reasons as Borrelli.

I question the idea that someone in the operational side of a factory is any less creative than someone operating within a business process at a bank or ad agency.

I'm also skeptical about the argument that industry caused Detroit's decline. Seems to me that Detroit's decline is perfectly explained by looking at Ann Arbour or Troy Michigan, and the particular US phenomenon of letting cities deamalgamate on their own vote.

Furthermore are knowledge based industries safe from the same pressures that I see as responsible for industry's decline? I believe it's already happening that Indian radiologists can check your x-rays. I'm sure we're very close to the point where everything not tied to jurisdiction will be sourced to cheaper labour markets. A Malaysian PR consultant would no doubt have done a better job than Peggy Chapman. In that world it may be that our resource wealth, and the support industries that go with it, will be in increasing demand.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted April 14, 2012 at 11:02:42

It sounds like history repeating when we fear education. I've heard the argument that you will need a university education to be a janitor. I think it creates a false value system. Being educated doesn't equal value as a person, but it does enhance it.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted April 15, 2012 at 11:53:00


Please read this: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/7a39bdc4-7940-...

It is a lengthy article but well worth the effort. Here is an excerpt:

" ... On the charts they show up as service jobs, which economists instinctively treat as superior to jobs that involve making things. Much like the shift from farming to manufacturing a century ago, America is now climbing up the value-added chain to the more cerebral world of service industries. Brain power is America’s future.

It doesn’t always appear too cerebral in practice. Too large a share of the new service jobs are dead-end and enforced part-time positions that enable the employer to wriggle out of providing healthcare insurance. In the past decade, the number of Americans insured by their employers has fallen from two-thirds to barely half. Only the senior managerial slots offer any real security and they are mostly taken by outsiders. Much the same could be said of the armies of food preparers, domestic carers and data-entry workers who account for so many of the new service jobs America is creating."

Today, in Canada, the largest industrial sector employer is retail. Retail is part of a service economy.

When we speak of knowledge economies, information economies, creative cities, and now learning cities, we are really speaking of the same thing: service economies. Whether the service is providing education and skills, or innovative solutions, or transportation, or office cleaning, they are all services.

What gets left out of the equation in almost every breathless endorsement of the latest incarnation of the service economy is that a service economy by its definition must be in service to something. And what is that? A productive economy--in Hamilton, that former manufacturing base that employed so many and now is so easily dismissed as a rusting relic of a by-gone era.

Knowledge, innovation, information, skills, etc ... are only valuable when they can be applied to something and the only something to which they can be applied and provide added value is the production of useful things in an economy that needs or can benefit from them.

A service economy without a productive economy is ultimately a failed economy.

Comment edited by ViennaCafe on 2012-04-15 11:54:41

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted April 16, 2012 at 01:26:40 in reply to Comment 75955

In reference to:

"Knowledge, innovation, information, skills, etc. are only valuable when they can be applied to something and the only something to which they can be applied and provide added value is the production of useful things in an economy that needs or can benefit from them." ~ ViennaCafe

Here is an example of "Gross Value Added (GVA) per job" in UK:

How The Knowledge Economy Varies by Region

The interactive chart at above link - shows how the different regions and nations of the UK have developed their knowledge economies over the last 15 years. It presents the proportion of knowledge workers (both public and private sector) on the horizontal axis, with Gross Value Added (GVA – a measure of economic output) per job on the vertical axis. The size of each bubble shows the total size of each region’s economy.

The data highlights a few simple, but important, points about how the UK economy is changing:

  • The economy has been getting more knowledge-intensive in all parts of the UK. Both the proportion of knowledge workers and the value of each job have risen in every region of the UK.

  • London is a more knowledge-intensive and high-value economy than any other part of the UK, with the South East consistently second, but still some way behind. Over the last 15 years many of the other regions have caught up with London in terms of the share of knowledge workers, but London has continued to leave the rest behind in terms of value per job.

  • Places with more knowledge workers tend to have higher GVA per job. This is an obvious point, but it is important: if towns and cities want to boost prospects for both knowledge and non-knowledge workers, then they need to grow the innovative, knowledge-based parts of their economies.

The Big Innovation Centre will be doing more work on the regional innovation gap under our Markets, place and networks theme. At the same time, The Work Foundation’s Cities 2020 programme is doing excellent work looking at how innovation works in British cities.

In Hamilton, we are confusing the so called hip, liberally defined "creative industry" with the "knowledge economy".

The parameters and research methodology used to generate data-sets for defining Hamilton's creative industry will not give us a true picture of our knowledge economy. In fact, we continue to be under the impression that what we are seeing as the re-birth of certain areas on account of a thrust on the arts, is our knowledge economy. It is not, it simply cannot turn into a knowledge economy.

Hamilton's EcDev Dept needs to seriously look at measures such as what Vienna Cafe speaks off above - and which are being used in the UK as seen here, to begin to truly understand where Hamilton is on the growth curve of an Knowledge Economy.

But for this, first we need to outgrow the media hype surrounding the 'creative industry' - and realign our community level economic development efforts around the imperative of creating added value in the production of useful things.

Mahesh P. Butani

ps: Three Productive Anchors of The UK Economy

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2012-04-16 02:14:27

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