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Attracting talent is no longer the easy option

Amsterdam has always prided itself on being an open, tolerant, welcoming city. It has long attracted talent from elsewhere to develop the economy, the arts and the fabric of the city. But now it seems that attracting external talent, one of the important urban development indicators advocated by Pier Luigi Sacco and his collaborators, has become extremely difficult.

According to, the University of Amsterdam has told international students not to come to the city if they do not have accommodation by August 15. There are only 2,416 spaces available for the 5,000 first year international students signed up to the university’s accommodation service. Attracting people from elsewhere adds considerable extra complexity to an already overstretched housing system in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities. It is not just international students that want to come to Amsterdam – young people from elsewhere in the Netherlands are also keen to settle there – predictions. The Netherlands is also coping with the housing needs of migrants and refugees, ranging from up-market ex-pats to refugees fleeing persecution. The main refugee reception centre in the Netherlands at Ter Apel has seen up to 150 people sleeping outside in recent weeks. The individualisation of society also means there are more single households, adding to the overall demand for housing.

This underlines the fact that talent attraction strategies are highly dependent on the ability of cities to meet the needs of their existing populations. If there is no housing, it is very difficult to attract new talent. For years Amsterdam has relied on a series of temporary solutions to cater for newcomers, including the use of shipping containers as ‘tiny houses’ and a certain toleration of squatting.

Simpler times: when Amsterdam still did marketing (photo Greg Richards)

In the future it is likely that Amsterdam and other cities will need to tackle basic housing issues to be able to attract external talent. The recipes put forward by Richard Florida to attract the ‘creative class’ in order to stimulate development are unlikely to work when there is simply not enough room to accommodation people. A large part of the problem lies with the financialisation of housing, which has turned houses from a place to live into investment vehicles. Far more active public intervention in housing markets will be needed to tackle this issue.

If that proves too difficult, then cities will need to think about alternatives, such as developing endogenous talent through capacity building. This is likely to be a more sustainable option than relying on the global creative class in any case.

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