28 May 2014

Why Crowded Cities Provide the Space for Creativity

One reason that women migrate into cities is because they are more free to create their own lifestyle. At the extreme, you can think of the girl raised in a Taliban village who would be free to choose whether to wear a veil or jeans and t-shirt if she moved into the anonymity of a big city in the West. To a lesser extent, even moving from a small rural area where people don't just know you but also know your grandparents will make it easier for a young girl raised Amish, say, to pursue a career and buy a BMW without accusation of being pretentious.

Curiously, this freedom leads to innovation, both technological and social. It's not just personal lives that get invented within the anonymity of a city: a handful of cities generate more patents than the rest of the country combined. 

20 cities generate 63% of all patents in the US.

The research universities that are within these regions help to provoke a great deal of the innovation. They also tend to cultivate a spirit of openness and tolerance for new ideas and dis-respect for authority that fosters innovation. People in these innovative cities are more likely to be individualistic and are less family oriented than folks in less innovative cities. Innovation isn't something that gets neatly contained to work.

When you socialize with folks you know well -and who know you well - you are less likely to encounter new ideas. Job leads tend to come from folks outside of your immediate circle of friends. More than that, loose acquaintances are people with whom we're free to try on new ideas and new ways of being. Someone from a  small town who knows that you get your half grin from your grandpa are less likely to let you become someone new than an acquaintance in a city who barely knows you. This freedom not only lets the Amish girl wear lipstick but it lets the inventor explore new ideas The more varied our interactions, the more potential for novelty.

I have spent considerable time in 6 of the top 10 cities in the list above. They are characterized by what I'd call personality. Santa Cruz, Boulder, and Austin share a very similar vibe and the folks living there certainly don't match the description conservatives would give of capitalists. These are places that aren't merely tolerant of diversity: they celebrate it. The 6 cities I know lean left - to a considerable degree. They are places that are more likely to support people than judge them, less likely to require drug testing for welfare recipients than to legalize pot. It is in these milieus from which creativity emerges. It's not just that conservatives have very little support among creative types in the arts; conservative cities and rural areas have very little patent activity. When I lived in Santa Cruz in the early 1980s, it was the only city in the US with an openly gay, communist mayor. Austin has a campaign to "Keep Austin Weird." Yesterday I ate in Native Foods in Boulder, a place that more traditional communities might chuckle at for its unabashed embrace of organic, vegan food. It's little wonder that these communities are cradles to new ideas. It is, to me, no coincidence that 3 of the top ten cities in this list are in California's Bay Area, a place where people seemingly feel little compunction about conformity - whether in thought, dress, or lifestyle - a home to the Free Speech Movement that helped to usher in "the 60s." 

All cities - and some more than others - provide space for the individual to step outside of tradition. Unsurprisingly, being open to novelty is a package deal: whether you first open the door to social invention or technological invention, the disrespect for tradition is likely to spill into all walks of life. 

Graphs are from a Brookings report here. Claims about how people in different cities poll on topics like family or individualistic tendencies come from p. 143 of Bill Bishop's The Big Sort.

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