Cultures can be more creative, or less so. To meet the challenges we now face, our culture must be more creative. (More)

Imagine, Part III: Creative Cultures

This week Morning Feature discusses Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Thursday we considered how individuals find and develop new ideas. Yesterday we examined why some creative groups excel and others fall short. Today we conclude with the characteristics of creative communities and cultures.

Jonah Lehrer graduated from Columbia University with a degree in neuroscience, then studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He is a contributing editor at Wired, Scientific American Mind, National Public Radio’s Radiolab, and has written for major newspapers including the New York Times and Washington Post. Imagine is Lehrer’s third book, following Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2007) and How We Decide (2010).

The Surprise of Cities

Cities are crowded, dirty, noisy, often confusing, sometimes dangerous. Few have enough open land to grow enough food to feed their residents. Diseases can spread quickly. Thomas Malthus looked at the growth of London in the 18th century and concluded that, sooner or later, London and other big cities would inevitably collapse from famine and disease. His argument seems to make sense.

Yet in the early 21st century, over half of the world’s population are city dwellers. In industrialized nations, that percentage is higher still. Despite Sarah Palin’s 2008 homages to “real Americans” in small towns, now echoed by Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, in fact more than eight in ten Americans live in or next to cities. The problems Malthus identified are real, yet cities continue to grow and flourish. Why was he wrong?

The simple answer is that Malthus did not consider the benefits of city life. Some were apparent, even in Malthus’ time. Businesses in cities are closer to suppliers, either within the city or at port facilities. People in cities are closer to jobs, shops, schools, and hospitals. City life is less comfortable, but more convenient. That convenience helps make city dwellers more productive than their urban counterparts. But cities hold more surprises that Malthus could not have seen.

The Science of the Sidewalk Ballet

But convenience is not cities’ only advantage. The density of cities fosters creativity and productivity through what writer Jane Jacobs called a sidewalk “ballet,” a “mingling of diversity” that caused “knowledge spillovers.” People in cities meet new people in casual encounters far more often than people in small towns. A cab driver stopping at the market after work might meet a songwriter, or a professor. A lawyer having a drink in a pub might sit next to a postal worker, or a janitor. Most of these casual encounters will be little more than exchanged nods or brief hellos. But others will spark the “outsider” insights we discussed yesterday.

Physicists Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt left their field and spent two years studying the science of cities. They gathered reams of data on cities all over the world: from gross measures like population density and personal income to details of utility systems, gas stations, crimes, coffee shops, and how fast pedestrians walk. West and Bettencourt looked for mathematical patterns and the equations they derived supported Jacobs’ sidewalk ballet. As West told Lehrer:

One of my favorite compliments is when people come up to me and and say, ‘You have done what Jane Jacobs would have done, if only she could do mathematics.’ What the numbers clearly show, and what she was clever enough to anticipate, is that when people come together they become much more productive per capita. They exchange more ideas and generate more innovations. What’s truly amazing is how predictable this is. It happens automatically, in city after city.

They found that every socioeconomic variable they measured – including creativity – scaled exponentially to population. A songwriter in a city of one million will write 15% more songs than a songwriter in a city half that size. A novelist will write 15% more novels. A scientist will write 15% more journal articles. An inventor will register 15% more patents. Likewise for teachers, lawyers, and janitors.

It’s not that the most talented people move to larger cities. Instead, West and Bettencourt found, the more active sidewalk ballet of larger cities brings out more of their residents’ talents. Cities are, West says, “an inexhaustible source of ideas.”

The Sound of Silence

But not every city. Cities with a tiny core surrounded by sprawling subdivisions give up the sidewalk ballet for the comparative silence of single-family homes. These are more comfortable, by many Americans’ reckoning. But less jostling also means fewer “knowledge spillovers” and less productivity and creativity. Sprawling Phoenix has below-average personal income and ranks 146th among American cities in patents-per-capita. Compact San Jose ranked near the top in per-capita patents, even before the high-tech boom.

In 1955, Business Week called Route 128 around Boston “the Magic Semicircle. Forbes called it “America’s Technology Highway.” By the 1970s, the 128 corridor was home to six of the world’s largest high-tech firms, giants like Digital Equipment, Wang, and Raytheon. Many of those giants are now of business. Others left town. Why?

The difference, Lehrer argues, was part corporate culture and part state law. The firms along Route 128 had strict rules about corporate secrecy and non-compete clauses, and Massachusetts law enforced those agreements. Their employees could not dance in Boston’s sidewalk ballet. But California non-compete laws favor workers over their employers, and San Jose firms were less worried about secrecy. Employees could dance in San Jose’s sidewalk ballet – sharing ideas in computer clubs or over drinks at local restaurants – and move from one company to another. More ideas were “stolen,” but even more were improved. Within 40 years, Silicon Valley was booming … and the Magic Semicircle was almost silent.

Why Creativity Matters

You may wonder what this has to do with you. Sure, artists will make more art in creative communities, and the sidewalk ballet of Silicon Valley gives us more gadgets. But we can’t eat art, and most of those gadgets are manufactured in Asia. Americans have more pressing problems: a still-sluggish job market, a fraying social safety net, rising economic and political polarization, peak oil, water, and other resources, all set against a global climate teetering at the brink. Art and gadgets won’t solve all that.

Those challenges are severe, for the U.S. and for the entire world. The problems of the 21st Century are more complex and interconnected than any in recorded history. Almost none of those problems have simple solutions. Their solutions will require more creative collaboration than ever before. That change is evident in the development of scientific ideas. Lehrer cites studies of scientific journals showing that articles written by teams are six times more likely to be “home runs” – cited by 1000 or more other articles – than those written by lone scientists. Solitary geniuses stumbling onto ideas are no longer enough. As Lehrer writes, “the low-hanging fruit is already gone.”

Companies are already noticing. Many now turn to crowd-sourcing platforms like InnoCentive, inviting outsiders to solve problems that have stumped their experts. But cultures and governments play vital roles as well.

Lehrer argues that we must make education more widely accessible, so no would-be innovator must fall through the cracks. He says we must revise notions of intellectual property, accepting that while more ideas will be “stolen,” even more will be improved. We must rethink urban planning, encouraging Jacobs’ sidewalk ballet with denser cities that allow more public “third spaces” where creative sparks are struck. We must learn and teach organizational structures that flatten hierarchies, welcome dissent, and encourage collaboration.

In short, we must stop seeing creativity and innovation as the work of privileged geniuses, and recognize that every human being was once a creative child, and every human being can participate in the creative sidewalk ballet as an adult.

We can walk alone into the sunset of history. Or we can dance together to create a brighter sunrise. Let’s imagine that future. Let’s dance.


Happy Saturday!