The Creative Class and Northern Ireland

As part of NICVA’s series of masterclasses from its Centre for Economic Empowerment project, there was a morning seminar on the topic of the “creative class” (as popularised by Richard Florida) and its applicability to Northern Ireland.

The agenda was to:

  • Explain Richard Florida’s idea of the “creative class” and the link between economic outcomes and the ability of a region to facilitate creativity and diversity
  • Explore the link between a successful economy and social issues, such as community division, crime and income inequality
  • Examine how Northern Ireland fares as a place that facilitates creativity and diversity, and what actions could improve its performance


In introducing the concepts and guest speakers, Lisa McIlheron (Head of Public Affairs, NICVA) highlighted some statistics in relation to tolerance, e.g. racist comments by co-workers and managers at migrant workers, homophobic comments at schools.

In regards to the costs of segregation in Northern Ireland, McIlheron highlighted that the siting of investment goes to the “neutral hinterlands”, areas that are politically acceptable and practically viable, such as Sprucefield, the Titanic Quarter and the Odyssey. She argued that this is because “we can’t get over the line of community division and its impact on the economy”.


Dr Nick Clifton is a Reader in Economic Geography and Regional Development, and the first guest speaker. His interest is in how firms use networks to acquire knowledge and innovate, and the factors that influence the location choices of creative individuals.

Clifton gave an overview of the creative class theory, including the argument that whereas in the Industrial Age people followed jobs, in the contemporary Knowledge Economy jobs follow people (who move to “talent pools” or “creative cities”).

His research applied the creative class model of Richard Florida to European cities. One interesting result was that social diversity on its own is not a determinate factor for creativity (which includes bohemian artists but extends to those who develop creative knowledge, such as industrial patents). Clifton gave the specific comparative example of English cities Leicester and Camden, where Camden is notably a more creative city with the same level of division as Leicester.

In discussing the Northern Ireland picture, Clifton displayed some data provided by the British Council’s Open Cities project. Among British cities, Belfast does less well in: (1) openness; (2) migration; (3) quality of living; and (4) education.

Of interest to me is comparing other cities that have, like Belfast, experienced deep societal divisions. I produced the following graph, comparing Belfast with Barcelona, Bilbao and Cape Town (see link for definition of indicators):

So, in this set of cities Belfast performs better in areas of openness, freedom, barriers of entry, infrastructure, quality of living and standard of living; and worse in migration, international events, international presence, international flows and education.


Tony Macauley (now famous for his book and imminent film, Paper Boy) was the next guest speaker. He wants to know how Northern Ireland will address its divisions within its economic policies.

Macauley said that evidence of prejudice in Northern Ireland is not surprising, as it is a feature demonstrated in other societies in a post-conflict/transformative situation — discrimination towards the “other” group gets easily transferred to any “other” group in its society, what he called a “dynamic of prejudice”. He gave an example of his research experience in the Balkans, where surveyed individuals responded in a similar way towards “others” as in Northern Ireland.

He went further, and described how Northern Ireland’s complicity in “an acceptable level of intolerance” led to a policy drift in community relations policy over the past ten years. That is, while there has been progress in good relations policy, there hasn’t been much at all in areas of service provision.

Hard-to-reach individuals/neighbourhoods/communities are an example. Macauley prefers to use the term “low peace impact area”, and he believes there is significant untapped talent in such areas, citing his own personal experience growing up in one and how education helped him to develop his skills and talents.

Macauley argues that the Northern Ireland Executive’s currnet Programme for Government has the wrong relationship between a strong economy and societal tolerance and stability, i.e. instead of the former leading to the latter, proactive policies addressing the latter will help produce the former.

He was concerned with the long term viability of present shared education initiatives, as they are currently funded by philanthropies such as the International Fund for Ireland and Atlantic Philanthropies, with significantly less funding by Executive agencies.

Macauley also noted the Executive’s draft Economic Strategy makes no mention of social diversity, and on matters of migration, only in terms of dealing with problems it presents, not as opportunities it creates.

He concluded by saying that the Executive’s community relations policy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, needs to be ambitious and seen as a driver for economic growth. This provoked a participant to ask whether there was a risk of convincing politicians to support good relations not on intrinsic values. “Hypocrisy matters,” replied Macauley, but added that in political terms, it was worth doing whatever it took to get the right policies into place. I sensed some in the room weren’t entirely comfortable with this more pragmatic (if not Machiavellian) perspective. Yet this masterclass is part of a concerted effort by NICVA to better inform its clients of the decision making process, especially on policies that affect them in the voluntary and community sector. It is a professional approach, and I hope everyone in the room will apply the day’s lessons well.

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