Gentrification of the Workplace-A case study of the “innovation university"

Project: Externally funded project

Project Details


In today’s ‘creative age’, the creativity gospel is eagerly reproduced and diffused in various academic disciplines, ranging from urban theory to economic geography and to management and organization studies (cf. Hartley 2004; Landry 2000; Scott 2000). At centre stage of the diffusion of creative capitalism stand the writings of academic-cum-consultant Richard Florida. Florida’s texts (2002; 2004; 2005) relay the essence of the creativity discourse: the (Western) world is in the midst of a revolutionary economic transformation, as we are moving away from the uninspiring practices of a service economy towards a cool and caring creative economy, one that generates wealth by harnessing intellectual labour, intangible goods and human creative capabilities. Policymakers are increasingly looking towards creativity for regeneration, employment opportunities, and most importantly, competitive advantages. A recent report commissioned by the European Commission states that ‘there is a competitive race to attract talent and creators (“the creative class”) to localised environments supporting the clustering of creativity and innovation skills’ (The Economy of Culture in Europe 2006: 8). While it is easy to initially feel sympathetic to the promises of a creative economy, there are pervasive reasons for research to critically analyse the celebratory discourse they are (re)producing, the emerging tensions and the unexplored silences. In this paper, we will focus on a Finnish case, the ongoing huippuyliopisto (‘super-university’) project, which we feel illustrates very well the dominant creativity discourse and its likely impacts on academia – including the work conditions therein and a possible phenomenon of ‘workplace gentrification’. The core of the envisioned Finnish creative industries is similar to Florida‘s (2002b: 8) conceptual core of the ‘creative class’: those in society who function socially to ‘create economic or cultural value from [creativity]’ (Hartley 2005: 28) . The manifestations of creativity, be they technological, economic or cultural, are considered inseparable (Florida 2002b). In the almost all-inclusive definition of ‘creative industries’, the broad emphasis on content production erases some of the borders between the cultural industry and the ICT industry – e.g. through aesthetic design of various ICT products. An example of practices born out of such thinking is the establishment of an Innovation University in Helsinki: the huippuyliopisto. Supported by the Ministry of Education and the Finnish government, the plan is to develop this ‘super-university’ consolidation through merging the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration and the Helsinki University of Art and Design in order ‘to meet the challenges set by globalization’ (Sailas 2007). The aim is to set up a creative hotspot that could compete with other international ‘super-universities’ in terms of innovation by ideally integrating the stages of design, technology and commercialization. In our view, this project, framed in terms of competitiveness as it is, is likely to marginalize a number of disciplines and actors from the three universities. Even though the academic diversity that the latter offer is claimed to be an asset that should be promoted and drawn from, it is chiefly in order to enhance the innovation potential in the Helsinki region. We believe that such a focus on economic competitiveness will lead to the following dynamics at work. First, those disciplines that are deemed less central to innovation and competitiveness – and perhaps ‘less creative’ – are likely to be marginalized. Discussions with colleagues from one of the three universities suggest that in those disciplines that are not conceptualized as core or ‘centres of excellence’, there is much fear to end up excluded from the high-profile conglomerate. Second, even within the bigger disciplines, those faculty members whose research and teaching interests are not easily translateable into innovation-enhancing processes also will run the risk of being made redundant. Third, the ‘artists’ from the university of art and design will most likely experience different fortunes. The most ‘competitive’ are meant to be co-opted into the giant innovation-producing machine, while many others will no doubt dwell in the margins, forced or not. We believe that labelling these processes ‘workplace gentrification’ can make sense in two main ways. First, the exclusion of the marginal disciplines due to processes of refocusing on (‘creativity-intensive’) core competencies can be likened to processes of ‘radical surgery’ taking place in all types of organizations today. Second, the ‘use’ of artists as agents of change and improvement through creativity, as proposed in the huippuyliopisto project, is very reminiscent of the role of artists in urban gentrification: once the artists have brought the buzz – and thus added value – to a neighbourhood or a particular creative industry, they can be displaced by a new artist subject – the creative class with its new creative ethos – removed of all subversive elements. We will conclude the paper with a discussion of the important differences we see between this type of process in academic workplaces and the traditional notion of gentrification, more focused on class differences in economic terms.
Effective start/end date01.02.200801.12.2008