Let’s say that the city of Groverton has 100,000 residents and produces X number of innovations per year. Down the road, the city of Pecaville has 1,000,000 residents. Since Pecaville has ten times more residents than Groverton, it should produce 10X innovations per year, correct?
Actually, no. Other things being equal, Pecaville should produce far more than 10X innovations. In predicting innovation capacity, it’s not the number of people (or nodes) that counts, it’s the number of connections. The million residents of Pecaville have more than ten times the connection opportunities of the residents of sleepy little Groverton. Therefore, they should produce much more than ten times the number of innovations.
In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson makes the point that connections are the fundamental unit of innovation. The more connections you can make, the more likely you are to create good ideas. Scale doesn’t matter — more connections are better at a very small scale or a very large scale. This is where cities come in. In terms of innovation, larger cities have multiple advantage over smaller cities, including:
Does this work in real life? Johnson provides some very interesting anecdotes. More recently, last Friday’s New York Times had an article (click here) on manufacturing and innovation. The article argues that more innovation happens when designers are close to the manufacturing floor. Why? Because of information spillover. Researchers claim that offshore manufacturing reduces our ability to innovate precisely because it reduces information spillover. Connectivity seems to work on the manufacturing floor as much as it does in big cities. Scale doesn’t matter. Bottom line: if you want to be more innovative, get connected.