The Laws of Urban Energy
The world is flatter than ever. But while technology may give us each the tools of creativity, it takes urban proximity and unpredictability to sharpen them.
By Anya Kamenetz published July 1, 2007 - last reviewed on December 20, 2020
John Gordon used to cry tears of frustration on his morning commute. A Web designer in suburban Maryland, he had to drive for an hour to get to the office park where he worked. "You park, you go in, you're at a cubicle," he recalls. "I interacted with five people on a given day." After only a year, Gordon decamped to Astoria, Queens, where he now works. "I'm on my feet more, so I deal directly with people. I've gotten work while standing in line at the store. It's invigorating," he says. "I'm constantly in touch with the best design in the entire world everywhere I go. I get so much inspiration from something like a funky, homemade, misspelled sign for a Cypriot soccer club."
The evidence is mounting that, as in the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, your mental garden buds, blooms, and proliferates when cross-pollinated with the many other flowers and fruits crowding the urban jungle. People come up with more and better ideas and produce more results from those ideas by finding more collaborators as well as critics.
For the past decade or so, a pop-sociology debate has been raging between "Flatworlders" and "creative class" boosters. Flatworlders, so-called after Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat, argue that information technology erases distance, distributing the tools of innovation equally to everyone. Creative class types, like Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class, say nope—there's something unique and special about actually being in a city that gets the intellectual juices flowing. They argue that environments like Gordon's multinational neighborhood provide more avenues for social contact and for creative collaboration and feedback.
Flatworld economists and sociologists look at the growth of telecommuting and instant messaging, e-mailing and videoconferencing, outsourcing and offshoring, and conclude that technology puts creative individuals at all levels, from Boston to Bangladesh, on a level playing field. Increasingly complex tasks in medical, legal, and editorial industries are being outsourced; where you are in the world doesn't matter, because everyone has access to the same tools, technology, and information. As Thomas Friedman put it in a recent interview, "When the world gets this flat, when so many people have this much productivity and this many distributive tools of innovation and collaboration...whatever can be done, will be done." In other words, when people are equipped with the right tools, the result will be creativity and innovation—regardless of locale.
Creative class types, on the other hand, have been documenting the evidence that geography still matters. People around the world may have access to the same tools of information technology, but you're still at a disadvantage if you live in, say, rural Alabama. Cities, they argue, continue to exert a special gravitational pull as centers of creativity and innovation—just as they did in Cicero's Rome and Shakespeare's London. Highly educated people, who have more choice about where to live, are far more concentrated in certain big metropolitan areas than they were 30 years ago. And for every doubling in city size, there's a 14 to 27 percent increase in productivity per worker—meaning that individual workers are far more productive if they live in cities than they would be out in the sticks. As Richard Florida put it in a 2005 speech, "The world is not flat... there are two dozen spiky"—that is, particularly creative—"places in the world that account for 98 percent of innovation." What, then, are the urban boosts to individual creativity?
The it-factors of urbanism are density and diversity. The potential edge that urban dwellers enjoy over their country cousins can be linked to having more and different people to meet, and more meeting places—parks, coffee shops, parties, or simply the sidewalk. Population size isn't the only measure of urbanism, of course—someone who lives and works in a walkable college town like Ithaca, New York, may talk to 30 different people in a day, from neighbors to shopkeepers, while someone who lives in a gated enclave in Los Angeles and drives an hour to work may exchange words only with her spouse and a few office mates.
You may not think of the impatient queue breathing down your neck at the deli as a potential source of cognitive benefits. Yet Judith Olson, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, believes that existing and even future technologies will never replace the advantages of face-to-face interaction. This comparison is the main research focus of her field, called human-computer interaction. "There are a lot of things that 'come for free' when you are co-located," she says, such as body language, gestures, and the nonverbal cues that tell you when to interrupt and when not to.
People learn, understand each other, and trust each other more when they deal in person. The most important effect of being around others at work, Olson says, is simply knowing that others are working too. The scent of stress in the air is crucial for keeping you motivated.
Duncan Watts, who studies social networks at Columbia University, points out that talking face to face trumps communicating in bits and bytes, especially as tasks become more complicated. While simple tasks with clear instructions and clear outcomes can be outsourced, he says, we still have disarmament summits, not disarmament teleconferences. "When you're talking about innovation and really intense collaboration—negotiating an arms control treaty—it's helpful to be in the same room," says Watts. "That's one reason why we still have to congregate in geographically clustered areas."
One of Watts' colleagues, sociologist David Stark, studied how financial traders work; his research illustrates some of the limits of Flatworld theory, demonstrating that although some work can be outsourced or decentralized, there's still an irreducible benefit to being face to face. With the advent of Bloomberg terminals and other computerized trading tools, and especially after 9/11, some large investment banks moved their back offices from Wall Street to the New Jersey and Connecticut suburbs. But traders in close proximity of others still did better.
Through ethnographic observation and focus group interviews, Stark found that proximity provided a rich stream of real-time, unsolicited information—things like the tone of voice of others in the room—which traders use to pick up when "buy" turns to "sell." The globalization of markets and trading is making the world flatter. Yet all over the world, from Ghana to Karachi, people are setting up crowded trading floors just like on Wall Street so they can make deals side by side.
Likewise, in one of Olson's studies, programmers who were stuck together in a single "war room" to complete a project produced twice as much code as the average for a given company.
Being packed together like a bunch of farm hens can definitely help you produce. But urban life also provides creative benefits far outside the setting of a pressure-cooker office. City dwellers have more places to hang out, and they tend to know more people. Meredith Rolfe, a political sociologist at Oxford, studies social networks through large-sample surveys. While there are only small variations in the numbers of close friends people report having, she's found that "acquaintance networks"—the so-called "weak ties" that are most helpful in finding a job or stock tip—range wildly in size, from 500 to 10,000, depending in part on methodology and in part on whether a person lives in a city.
"The friendships and acquaintanceships people form depend mostly on where people spend time," she says. "These social spaces"—such as parks, churches, sidewalks, and stores—"vary both on the types of people they attract and the likelihood of getting involved in a conversation."
It's not enough, then, that people happen to be thrown together in a space. The space has to offer reasons for them to talk to each other, as certain urban spaces do. One study found people are 10 times more likely to have a conversation while shopping at a farmer's market than at a supermarket. With a relaxed pace and farmers ready to tell stories about unfamiliar vegetables, the market is a social setting.
The neighborhood park is another urban space that gets people talking. In a study of three local parks, one of Rolfe's students found that mothers at the parks got more than half their close social support from women they met there. In suburbia, where people put in long hours in the car and private backyards are the norm, moms—and others—simply spend less time in public spaces. This has an amplifying effect for the network: Even if you spend a lot of time at the park, it doesn't do much good creatively with no one else around.
Density is what puts the fizz in New York's champagne, says Elizabeth Currid, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California. Her first book, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City, demonstrates that New York City doesn't top the nation in finance professionals, lawyers, or CEOs. Rather, the city's economic edge is predominantly due to its concentration of art, fashion, design, film, and other creative types. And these tastemaking professionals must go to restaurants, bars, and parties in order to meet each other, meet opinion makers, get ideas, and get their goods produced. "Whether it's an art opening or a music release party, that is where people meet the gatekeepers who will write their reviews or curate their shows or give them jobs," says Currid. "The social spillover is the mechanism for people's careers. It's feeding the creativity."
The density allows artistic scenes to overlap more easily than in a car-dependent city like Los Angeles. "If you run into people, say, by having offices within 30 meters, you're more likely to collaborate," Olson says. "If it's any distance beyond that, you might as well be in another city."
Some industries depend much more on face-to-face knowledge than others. In quantitative analysis of economic data, for example, the relevant knowledge can be printed in a manual, meaning firms and skilled workers can be located anywhere, according to economists Michael Storper and Anthony Venables. But being on the scene is important when it comes to buzz industries—"culture, politics, arts, academia, new technologies, and advanced finance"—in other words, everything people discuss in a wine bar in Tribeca on a Saturday night.
So urban density can lead to more creativity and collaboration. But what about the benefits of urban diversity? "In access to information, the volume of ties is less important than the diversity of those ties," explains Rolfe. "A smaller number of ties which lead off to different types of information would be more useful than a larger number of ties with redundant paths to the same information." So if you want to know who's going to win the Democratic nomination, it's more useful to call pollster John Zogby and the editor of Washington gossip blog Wonkette—the one plugged into insider rumors, the other into mass opinion—than to ask 20 guys down at the barbershop.
Scott Page, a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan, concentrates on the intellectual benefits of diversity in his book The Difference. To him, "diversity" means not necessarily ethnicity, race, or religion, but a range of perspectives and skill sets that intersect to create what he calls "superadditivity"—problem-solving power that is more than the sum of its parts. The great advantage of cities is your access to a full-bore spectrum of minds, from Nobel Prize winners to that guy muttering to himself on the subway. Page doesn't believe in the myth of the lone intellectual. "It's really nice to think of yourself living in some cabin in the woods and thinking deep thoughts," he says. "But there are only so many neurons in the pumpkin." In short, you're better off in the city, where other people are bombarding you with ideas to add to your own limited supply.
Also, if you're alone in that cabin in the woods, there's no one to challenge you. "In an aggressive city like New York, there are more people telling me whether my ideas are full of crap," say Page. "So there are more ideas, and the ideas get subject to some sort of selection." That's the task of the tastemakers: editors, curators, critics, and other arbiters of cultural value, who cluster in cities so they can track—and declare—what's new, what's hot, and what's not.
In order to get the intellectual benefits of diversity, you first have to actually talk to a wide variety of people. Cities are good for challenging people's natural preference to stick with their own kind (a fairly universal social tendency known as "homophily"). Scott Simpson, who runs Take Root Consulting, relies on the diversity of his Washington, D.C., neighborhood to figure out how to connect with a range of audiences. On a typical day, Simpson might bring his laptop to the Ethiopian coffee shop, work his shift at a gay bar, and buy some fruit from the Salvadoran guys on the corner. When working on an AIDS awareness campaign, Simpson put a nonprofit in touch with some local Ethiopian, Nigerian, and Ghanaian activists. The nonprofit learned how the local groups used blunt language and national pride to connect with their communities, helping it to be more effective in its own messaging.
The Flatworld camp has it that tools such as e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking sites are increasingly important ways for people to communicate and expand their roster of social and professional contacts. And these technologies do indeed offer the opportunity to connect more easily, perhaps strengthening weak ties. But researchers like Duncan Watts and economist Edward Glaeser have shown that online networking tools tend to be complements to—or representations of—your real-world network, rather than substitutes for it. So city dwellers may actually find these technologies more useful than do people in suburban areas.
B.L. Ochman is a blogger with an audience of 100,000. Yet one of her strongest avenues for socializing and networking is Central Park, where she takes her chocolate Labradoodle every morning.
"I have been introduced to more than one very major client through people I met in Central Park," she says. "If I need a lawyer, doctors, a printer, I ask people at the park." Rolfe would say that the diversity of this group, meeting every morning at the park by chance, makes a more useful set of "weak ties" because the people there know others that Ochman doesn't already know. Olson would say that Ochman probably relies on her park contacts for this kind of advice because of the trust produced by knowing them face to face. And they're both right.
Every year, more and more complex jobs—legal work, journalism, product design—are outsourced around the world. As richer online communication tools like videoconferencing become more widely available, we'll all be dancing on the wires—new types of collaboration will be possible. But since those technology tools will be available to city, rural, and suburban dwellers alike, the playing field will never truly be leveled. If creativity and innovation are your goals, the advantages of joining in the bustle of a city crowd will probably endure.