Why cultural diversity—and nurturing a sense of belonging—is key to our region’s future
By Dallas Gislason, Director of Economic Development, SIPP
“Places of genius challenge us. They are difficult. They do not earn their place in history with ethnic restaurants or street festivals, but by provoking us, making demands of us. Crazy, unrealistic, beautiful demands.”
― Eric Weiner, The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley (2016)
In Greater Victoria, diversity (referring to the diversity that newcomers from around the world bring to the region) is an essential ingredient to our region’s future.
This isn’t just my opinion, it is supported by a wide swath of evidence that I’ll outline for you using three areas of impact. The first is the economy: a more diverse population will be required to sustain our region’s economic base moving forward. The second is our region’s culture: more diversity does and will continue to strengthen Greater Victoria’s social fabric for the better. And the third is our health: an increasingly diverse population will be necessary to support our aging population.
Legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs long-ago discovered the link between creativity, bohemian diversity, and vibrant city life. As someone living in a city-region that embraces diversity, I find it so troubling to see rhetoric in Canada that goes against the values of multiculturalism that make our country—and especially our cities—stronger. (1)
Let me explain further.
“Being an immigrant is one of the two most common life experiences of geniuses.”
― Eric Weiner
Diversity in our region is not only good for our regional economy—it is necessary. Here are several reasons why:
Diverse cities are more innovative and productive
Dr. Richard Florida, in his book The Rise the Creative Class (2), introduced three ingredients for vibrant city economies in the 21stcentury: Technology, Talent and Tolerance. The first two are obvious. Cities that are attractive places to live attract talented people, who in turn drive innovation and productivity, not to mention contribute to other creative and social sectors. What occupations do talented people gravitate toward in the 21st century economy? The answer: clean, high-paying jobs like those found in the technology sector. Basically, talented people want to get paid well, but also want to work for companies that are progressive and do not cause damage to the environment or the social fabric of their community. Pretty simple formula. But where does ‘tolerance’ come in?
Though I’m not a fan of the word ‘tolerance’ (because it implies that the majority population of a city will ‘put up with’ the diverse norms and practices of minority cultures rather than embrace and learn from them), I think Florida simply wanted a word that started with “T” for the purpose of simplifying his message. At any rate, Florida’s thesis is that city-regions with more diverse populations have higher rates of economic productivity. Let’s review some findings:
- A study (3) of over 2000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK concluded that firms with a greater share of migrant owners or partners are more likely to introduce new products and processes. In other words, they are more innovative.
- Foreign-born immigrants account for only 13% of US population, but have nearly a third of all patents granted and are 25% of all US Nobel laureates. (4)
- A study (5) by the National Foundation for American Policy found that 55%, or 50 out of 91, of America’s $1 billion start-up companies had at least one immigrant founder. These are companies like We Work, Stripe, Instacart, and of course Slack (founded in the USA by Victoria-raised Stuart Butterfield). They also determined that nearly one-quarter (21 out of 91) of the $1 billion start-up companies had a founder who first came to America as an international student, and three of them were founded by people who came to the USA as refugees.
- The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) identified an immigrant founder in 25% of venture-backed companies that became publicly traded between 1990 and 2005, while a 2013 NVCA study found immigrants started 33% of U.S. venture-backed companies that became publicly traded between 2006 and 2012.
With all this evidence, it’s not hard to determine what the long-term implications of the Trump Administration’s immigration policies might be.
While some social scientists, like Dr. Robert Putnam, have noted that diversity causes people in these diverse neighbourhoods to hunker down, creating mistrust in communities (this can be observed in national discourse in the UK, i.e. Brexit; in the USA, i.e. surging nationalism and hate-crimes; and in many other countries around the world—including here at home), there is overwhelming evidence to support the positive impacts of diversity on city culture. Putnam even suggests that the current effects of multiculturalism are only short-term, “in the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross‐cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.” (6)
Let’s explore some of the reasons why diverse cities are more interesting, more vibrant, and definitely in line with the values of the South Vancouver Island region.
There’s a reason why people who travel a lot are more interesting. Being exposed to diverse experiences or ideas (ones that push us outside the realm of normality) helps us develop what psychologists call “cognitive flexibility”. It shouldn’t be a surprise then to know that the most renowned scientists and thinkers also have diverse interests (a study of Nobel laureates in the sciences found that they were more involved in the arts than non-laureates).
For example, did you know that Einstein was an accomplished violinist? Or that Freud was fascinated with archeology and also collected over 3000 pieces of art over his lifetime? Even Galileo was able to discern the moons of Jupiter partly because of this training as an artist (by identifying very subtle shading from the moon’s shadow).
Think about this in the context of a great city or neighbourhood. When diverse food, art, music, and event options are plentiful, the place comes alive for the better. If these are things we like about South Vancouver Island, then the only way for these aspects of the city to exist is if we embrace people who are different than the dominant population.
For example, we have to look past our need for short-term property values and our misplaced fears about density, and look toward the future of our region. This means being open to new, more dense housing models and more mixed-use buildings. New forms of housing will attract more people and help create more diverse neighbourhoods.
Though I’m focused on diversity from a ‘newcomer’ perspective, there are many kinds of diversity that we should embrace. Dr. Florida talks about the Gay Index that he uses as a proxy for tolerance. He also proved that neighbourhoods with more gay people had stronger and more resilient property values. Who knew?
“It’s amazing how consistently people have misconstrued what my colleagues and I have had to say about the connection between gays and economic growth. They miss the point. A strong and vibrant gay community is a solid leading indicator of a place that is open to many different kinds of people.” (7)
— Dr. Richard Florida, economic geographer, University of Toronto
Learning and cross-pollination of ideas
When my family first moved to Greater Victoria almost 10 years ago, we were living in family housing at UVic. This environment created a diverse micro-culture in which to raise our two boys. Our son Noah quickly made friends from several different countries—from Eastern Europe to South America. Our community potlucks were enriching experiences that involved unique food, exposure to different languages, and stories of travel, hardship, and resilience from all over the world. International students contribute much more to our region than just their dollars. And their dollars add up to a lot: $30,000+ per student per year on the local economy, not including indirect economic impact.
Believe it or not, cities with diverse people living closer together actually have higher economic outputs (per capita) than suburbs, rural areas, or regions with lower populations (i.e. the top 40 mega-cities in the world produce 85% of global innovation). It is believed that this is because ‘cross-pollination’ (ideas and people colliding!) is easier in dense cities and thus innovation is accelerated. Historical records show that periods of sustained economic output are associated with diversity (a study of 500 years of Japanese history found that their best economic periods were associated with relaxed immigration policy; the Aristotle era of ancient Athens was notably welcoming of newcomers; even modern-day Silicon Valley—the world’s most innovative region—is an open culture that welcomes diverse people from anywhere on earth). (8)
“[Cities] are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Diversity is even essential to our health. Why is that?
It all comes down to demographics. According to BC’s labour market forecasts, the healthcare sector in Greater Victoria is already facing near-zero percent unemployment rates. This means that everyone seeking a job in healthcare already has a job. Our region’s population is aging (in the 2011 census there were 18.4% of people in Greater Victoria over the age of 65. By the 2016 census it was 21.1%), and as these baby boomers age there will be more demand for healthcare services in a region that can barely find workers now. Cities across Canada are facing the same—though not quite as acute—issues, which means poaching their workers will be a tough proposition, especially given our housing costs; see above comment about density. Attracting immigrant healthcare workers is not only our best option, it is our only option. A diverse, welcoming city-region is the way to go—even if you disagree, do it for grandma and her health!
When I tell people that I moved to south Vancouver Island from the prairies, they assume it was because of the weather. They assume that because the winters are cold in Saskatchewan, I couldn’t wait to move to the temperate climate that the island has to offer. Though that’s certainly a bonus, the real reason why I left was to escape the ‘mono-culture’. I wanted to raise my kids in a place that could expose them to diverse ideas and people and ways of being—from relationship structures to ethnicity to the political spectrum. I felt that the prairies didn’t offer that. In Saskatchewan you are either a white, conservative, married, hetero-sexual person who played hockey as a youth (but switched to curling when your knees started to ache), or you are “the other”. And don’t get me wrong, there are “others” there too, but my point is that a city should not be a place with a majority population who “accommodate” a bunch of minorities—it should be a place made up of diverse people. Period.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
1 Jacobs makes this observation in several of her famous works, most notably in the 1961 urban planning classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_and_Life_of_Great_American_Cities
4 This is referenced in Eric Weiner’s 2016 book The Geography of Genius: https://www.ericweinerbooks.com/books/the-geography-of-genius/description/
8 I do realize that there are many companies there that need to deal with their gender equality issues!