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The Innovative Power of Cities

One of the themes of this blog is the idea that ‘Everything is a remix’ or, to put it another way, all ideas have parents; products or offerings that combine to create something new. To continue this biological metaphor, it also means that the greater the diversity in the ‘gene pool’ the (exponentially) greater number of combinations there can be, the more varied the ideas are likely to be and therefore better ideas are likely to emerge. Which brings us to cities.

As the world has become more connected and the internet has made it possible for us to be productive wherever we are, one might have expected innovative activity to spread more evenly around the world. Yet while innovation could happen anywhere, the fact is that it’s becoming increasingly (not decreasingly) concentrated in relatively few places. As Richard Florida puts it in his article the world is not flat, ‘The World is Spiky‘ and cities dominate: they dominate in terms of economic activity (New York has an economy the size of Russia or Brazil) and population (50% of the worlds population live in urban areas), but most dramatically of all they dominate in terms of innovation.

Most of the world’s innovations are produced in just a few places; Florida argues, based on patent data, that “Perhaps a few dozen places worldwide really compete at the cutting edge [of global innovation]”. And all of those places are cities.

To return to biology, Keliber’s law states that for the vast majority of living organisms their metabolic rate scales to the ¾ power of the animal’s mass (known as negative quarter-power scaling). In layman’s terms this means that as life gets bigger it slows down, so flies live for days and elephants for decades. This is a law that has been extended right down to bacteria and plants, and amazingly it applies to cities where it governs aspects of city living like energy and transport growth. Even the creative aspects of city life – from patents, to R&D, to inventors – follows the quarter power scaling. But that relationship is positive, not negative. In other words a city doesn’t get less innovative the bigger it gets, it gets more innovative; and not just relative to its scale – it is exponential: a city 50 times bigger than a neighbour is not 50 times more innovative, it is 130 times more innovative. If you break this down, it means that every resident in that city is actually more than twice as creative as someone living in that smaller town.

So, as Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “great cities are not like towns only larger”. There is something fundamentally different about these cities that can offer us real answers as to how to drive creativity and innovation in our personal and organisational lives. Four principles struck us as key to the creative power cities hold and applicable beyond:

  • ExpertiseAs Matt Ridley points out in his excellent TED talk ‘When Ideas have Sex‘, King Louis XIV of France had 498 people preparing his dinner every night. But anyone living in a major city today has far more – you can choose from any number of excellent restaurants specialising in most of the world’s cuisines.  Indeed, cities encourage specialisation – rather than having to be jack of all trades, they allow us to focus on developing a greater depth of knowledge in our chosen area
  • Variety: Cities are incredibly diverse places because they are large enough to support a wide range of variety and choices (it’s a living example of the ‘Long Tail’): so whilst suburbs and small towns might find a large supermarket quickly kills off local competition, in cities they can exist alongside butchers and bakers, delicatessens, “the standard with the strange, the large with the small” as Jacobs puts it. In conjunction with the expertise they engender this range means  a genuine specialist in just about anything you care to mention is probably living within a few miles of someone living in one of these metropolises
  • Connectivity: But a diverse range of experts all living within a short distance of one another is not enough – new connections are not just the catalysts of innovation, they are innovation, or to go back to our initial point, existing ideas must combine to create new ideas. Of course cities are packed with opportunities for connection – from coffee shops to universities, from art exhibitions to nightclubs. But it is the chance encounters that are often the most creative and this is where busy neighbourhoods and start-up businesses packed together in cool parts of town help create what Steven Johnson describes as a “liquid network where information can leak out… and influence their neighbors in surprising ways.” These new – often random – connections between people and businesses are the seeds of new approaches, fresh thinking and innovative ideas
  • Competition: Cities are highly competitive environments and, as any evolutionary biologist will tell you, competition is not so much survival of the fittest as the weeding out of the weak. So whilst the scale of cities offers great opportunities to succeed, they are also a hostile environment where those products or services that aren’t strong enough are quickly killed off or better versions come in to replace them. In a city where there are lots of ideas, products and services competiting for limited capital, the weak will struggle to survive

So how can we apply these principles to innovation challenges we might be facing? Seek out experts with a depth of knowledge or different perspective; ensure you speak to people from a variety of different fields (not just the one you’re focusing on); and maximise your connections and chance encounters by going to new places, mixing with new people (even simply talking to someone in a department you tend not to work with). All this will help you uncover truly innovative ways of tackling the problem or opportunity you are facing. Then ensure that you encourage real competition to weed out the weak ideas early: too much innovation time and money is spent nursing lame ducks through internal processes when a more competitive environment would have quickly allowed resources to be focused on those ideas with a real chance of success.

And don’t underestimate the inspiration that can be drawn by simply exploring these great cities for yourself. Get out from behind that desk, take an open mind and head off to conduct your very own ‘Trend Safari‘ of these innovation hothouses – you are sure to come back enlightened and inspired!

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