When he’s home, Landry works from the busy kitchen office of a rambling 17th-century farmhouse set amid well-designed gardens. But he has spent most of the 30 years since he founded Comedia on the road:lecturing, persuading, informing, researching, hustling up work, spinning value from the thin air of original thought. Working with all manner of public and private enterprises — infrastructure providers, civic groups, mall developers, and design firms — he has found many novel ways to pursue his central quest of helping to identify and develop the infrastructures that enable creative people to put the best of what they imagine into practice.
And so one year finds him taking up the post of thinker in residence in Adelaide, Australia, helping the city address the talent leakage that has traditionally plagued it, by positioning itself as an incubator for innovative ventures in the wine trade. The next year he’s working with a Japanese retailer trying to inject a sense of life into a massive new shopping and residential complex in Seoul by attracting the sort of one-of-a-kind shops that typically avoid such developments. Then he’s on to Dubai to host a session aimed at bringing together the highly compartmentalized baronies that control life in that city-state, provoking controversy as he demonstrates how the physical and civic infrastructures they have put in place are choking the possibility of creative development.
Landry’s work is often identified with the creative cities movement, which is perhaps best known through the work of Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Tampa and author of The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (Basic Books, 2002). Yet Landry differs from many colleagues in that field because he defines creativity more broadly. Creative cities proponents have tended to advocate strengthening urban and regional centers by attracting artists, designers, filmmakers, writers, and performers. The operative assumption is that those groups constitute a kind of advance guard whose mere presence acts as a spur to enterprise.
Landry sees the focus on a specific “creative class” as a manifestation of industrial-era thinking — an outdated, siloed approach to evaluating human assets that misunderstands the comprehensive role talent plays in today’s economy. He notes that creativity is needed at every point in the value chain, because fast product cycles and global competition vest ever-greater value in innovation. He defines creativity as “imagination allied to tangible expression.” Imagination that remains unexpressed is sterile, he argues, while expression devoid of imagination is lifeless and dull. And so instead of distinguishing specific professions or subgroups as creative, he advocates cultivating conditions that enable people to express imagination even in occupations that have traditionally been considered mundane.
Landry’s conviction that creativity must be broadly vested was influenced by Comedia’s involvement throughout the 1980s in helping European cities such as Helsinki and Glasgow reinvent themselves as cultural centers. Glasgow, for example, had been known for its rotting industrial base, desolate stretches of abandoned housing, and persistent talent flight; then, in the late 1980s, it secured status as a European City of Culture, an official E.U. designation. Comedia was hired to help the city attract arts festivals, but Landry’s work on the project convinced him that a vibrant entrepreneurial base was the key to maintaining a sustainable cultural environment. If this base were to develop, political and commercial interests had to be engaged.
“Glasgow showed me that you can’t support creativity just by supporting creative professions,” Landry says. “People in the arts provide content, of course, but content is just one aspect of what makes a place attractive and prosperous. The right infrastructures are the real key.” Landry notes that this kind of infrastructure is rarely controlled by people who have what is conventionally defined as creative talent. “If content is to have any effect, you need creative logistics analysts, creative engineers, creative educators. Above all, you need creative bureaucrats.”