Creative Collisions in the City


June 13, 2012, Washington, DC: There's a chapter called "Urban Friction" in Jonah Lehrer's book Imagine: How Creativity Works that focuses on the innovation and great ideas that spring up from the interactions so common in our cities. In it, Talking Heads singer David Byrne describes his bicycle rides around New York City as a means of collecting an urban soundtrack full of sounds that don't traditionally go together. Lehrer explores how companies can act more like cities by encouraging conversation and the sharing of knowledge. He considers why collaboration across company lines led to the success of Silicon Valley while the promise of a technology boom along Boston's Rte. 128 died on the vine due in part to nondisclosure agreements and tight lips. A powerhouse in Israel's tech sector named Yossi Vardi illustrates how more innovation comes from people with many weak ties than from people with fewer stronger ones -- whether those weak ties are cultivated during mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces or on the sidewalk of a city street. Physicists Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt recount collecting urban data on everything from heightened productivity and walking speed to patent production, concluding, as Lehrer explains, that "the most creative cities are the ones with the most collisions." Lehrer is among several social scientists asserting that spontaneous interactions within finite spaces force small conversations that lead to big ideas. In his book Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser calls cities "the nodes that connect our increasingly globalized world." In For the Love of Cities, author Peter Kageyama addresses the physicality of urban landscapes, saying, "Public space means very little when you are in your car at 45 mph. It means far more when you are walking through it." Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, examines the relationship between location and creativity, declaring, "Perhaps the greatest of all the New Economy myths is that geography is dead."

I read Lehrer's chapter in Imagine last week just before heading out the door to an event called Saving Places at a DC art gallery. I'd been invited to the event by a "weak tie", someone I'd met just recently due to his involvement in his neighborhood. To my surprise, the room was full of weak ties -- acquaintances I'd collided with during the course of a year spent exploring the city and several others who they'd bumped into along the way. While I'd expected a stodgy, older crowd at the celebration of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 25 anniversary, the gallery was filled with anything but. A whiteboard wall with a map drawn in magic marker invited guests to pinpoint what they loved most about their neighborhoods. The room was overpowered by young, energetic and creative types who were eager to connect.

I was brimming with new ideas about the power of place by the time I left. I was thinking about how David Byrne must feel as he pedals the streets of New York, listening to the music of the city.

"In a vibrant city, you can get just as much from going to the barbershop, or walking down a crowded street, as you can from going to a museum," Byrne told Lehrer. "It's about paying attention and listening to everything that's happening. It's about letting all that stuff in, so the city can change you."

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