Richard Florida on Public Intellectuals

I recently was browsing Richard Florida’s blog and found this provocative post about the decline of the public intellectual:

…just when we need scholars and the academy to generate the large scale ideas and public debate to facilitate and accelerate this “matching” of institutional arrangements to economic, technological and social trends, academe is focusing far too [few] resources on these issues and problems.

More after the jump…

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The Academia-Public Engagement Gap

Much attention has been paid to the importance of university research, venture capital and entrepreneurship and the linkages between them, which together drive commercialization success in successful innovation clusters. At the recent Global Connect, there was much discussion about these interfaces and where there appear to be serious institutional and market failures. Tech transfer policies were highlighted by the VC community as a serious problem. And in the hurried chase for large-scale tech commercialization, institutional and social innovations are neglected altogether as not relevant to the global science-based innovation race. However, as Florida recalls for us:

Stanford University’s Paul Romer, one of our leading students of economic growth, paraphrasing Keynes a great public intellectual himself, always says that what really powers economic and social advance are meta-ideas. If academe is not producing enough public intellectuals: where will these meta-ideas come from?

Florida states that the vacuum is being filled by journalists in the non-fiction aisle, but is worried about their limitations. He offers some interesting possible solutions within academia, including rewarding public engagement, create nimble institutes that cross disciplines and funding meta-ideas. I offer what follows as a method to get from here to there:

Scholars, Social Media and Transformers

What is the role of the culture and social structures of academia? The proprietary, closed and competitive culture of academe appears well entrenched. Meanwhile, a new innovation mode is evolving outside the ivory tower, a culture that is open, participatory and collaborative, enabled by social media and collaboration technologies.

I applaud Florida and other public intellectuals who embrace the blogging ethos of transparency, authenticity and conversation. Academics have a public role, and by embracing that role, they create opportunities for entrepreneurial transformers to engage with them and find applications for their discoveries. Social media tools provide new, easy and cheap methods for engagement, given the appropriate incentives to do so.

I would love to see academic researchers and scholars blogging incessantly, seeding the public domain with rich artifacts and clues to be mined by the social and economic transformers out in the wider community. Who are these scholars? What are their passions? Tell us what you’re working on, and how it might change the world. We’d love to know more. And you should hear from us, about how your passions connect with ours.

Such a rich discourse in the public domain would provide the social and economic transformers of ideas with raw material. These social and economic entrepreneurs employ that raw material of ideas to find solutions to real-world problems.

A way forward, perhaps, but with major barriers to adoption. Competitiveness among academic peers is notorious, and disclosure is risky. Learning how to communicate in a social media space is a skill that may not come easily to most academics. Or I could be proven wrong. It would be an interesting experiment.

2 thoughts on “Richard Florida on Public Intellectuals”

  1. Blogging has proven popular with quite a few academics. Because of its immediacy and its quality of reaching everyone who can use Google, it’s the best way to publish something before anyone else does.

    There is the problem that blogging doesn’t count as a “publication” towards one’s publish-or-perish quota. Those with tenure don’t care, however. And journals unwilling to publish papers whose elements have previously been blogged about by the author might find themselves losing out to other journals that are more forgiving.

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