Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Innovation and the City

I’m looking for a connection.

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:

  • There are more “spare parts” lying around — Johnson points out that most new ideas are created by combining — or connecting — existing ideas. Existing ideas are “spare parts” that an enterprising “mechanic” can assemble in new ways. (In an earlier post, I referred to this as mashup thinking. Click here.) Cities have more of everything, including more spare parts to fool around with.
  • More information spillover — I know a lot about information science. If I keep it to myself, it doesn’t do a lot of good. If I share it with, say some sociologists, we might just come up with something useful. My information spills over to them and vice versa.  In Johnson’s terms, the information I share becomes spare parts that the sociologists can plug into their framework. The question is: how likely am I to meet up with a bunch of sociologists? It’s much more likely in a big city than a small town.
  • Not only are there more connections, the connections are more varied — if I mainly talk to people who are like me, the chances of something innovative happening are fairly low. It’s when I talk across boundaries — to people who aren’t like me — that interesting ideas begin to emerge. It may happen when I bump into a random sect of sociologists. But if it doesn’t happen then, well… maybe it will happen when I encounter an enclave of entomologists. Or maybe I’ll bump into a bevy of brewers who need to know about information science. In a big city, I’m likely to interact with many more disciplines, opinions, experts, and enthusiasts than I am in a small town.

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.


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