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Urban Myths of Innovation: Density and Serendipity

• October 19, 2013 • 5:51 PM

San Francisco's Financial District from the Bay Bridge. (PHOTO: JOSHUALEVERBURG1/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

In a city, serendipity isn’t a given. Two ships may pass in the night and that’s it.

America has so many problems. walkability solves most of them.” Geography is the study of human irrationality. We use cognitive bias to make mental maps of our world. A geographer thinks slowly about how people think fast when trying to relate to their environment. A review of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

And frowning — as one learns on Page 152 of this book — activates the skeptic within us: what Kahneman calls “System 2.” Just putting on a frown, experiments show, works to reduce overconfidence; it causes us to be more analytical, more vigilant in our thinking; to question stories that we would otherwise unreflectively accept as true because they are facile and coherent. And that is why I frowningly gave this extraordinarily interesting book the most skeptical reading I could.

System 2, in Kahneman’s scheme, is our slow, deliberate, analytical and consciously effortful mode of reasoning about the world. System 1, by contrast, is our fast, automatic, intuitive and largely unconscious mode. It is System 1 that detects hostility in a voice and effortlessly completes the phrase “bread and…. ” It is System 2 that swings into action when we have to fill out a tax form or park a car in a narrow space. (As Kahneman and others have found, there is an easy way to tell how engaged a person’s System 2 is during a task: just look into his or her eyes and note how dilated the pupils are.)

More generally, System 1 uses association and metaphor to produce a quick and dirty draft of reality, which System 2 draws on to arrive at explicit beliefs and reasoned choices. System 1 proposes, System 2 disposes. So System 2 would seem to be the boss, right? In principle, yes. But System 2, in addition to being more deliberate and rational, is also lazy. And it tires easily. (The vogue term for this is “ego depletion.”) Too often, instead of slowing things down and analyzing them, System 2 is content to accept the easy but unreliable story about the world that System 1 feeds to it. “Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is,” Kahneman writes, “the automatic System 1 is the hero of this book.” System 2 is especially quiescent, it seems, when your mood is a happy one.

Emphasis added. When I read about how dense cities will promote innovation, I frown. Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley smile:

It is no secret that Philadelphia needs to do a better job of turning ideas into new companies and new products. A 2011 study by Select Greater Philadelphia ranks the region as a top-five research and development center nationally, yet, in measures of commercialization, the city doesn’t perform as highly. It falls to 11th in total venture capital, and is 12th in patent production, behind not only San Francisco and Boston, but also Detroit. Its rate of patents per worker is very low: 71.

But Philadelphia has an underappreciated advantage – not just a wealth of advanced research institutions and consortia, but also their proximity to each other. This density can create an environment – an innovation district – in which investors, inventors, entrepreneurs, and workers can interact spontaneously and frequently with each other.

Innovation districts, unlike the exurban science parks of the last century, cluster anchor institutions and cutting-edge companies alongside smaller entrepreneurial firms, mixed-use housing, office, retail, and 21st-century amenities and transportation. These districts reflect the growing penchant for firms to practice “open innovation” and work closely with networks of firms, universities, and supporting institutions. These districts also provide what talented workers increasingly want in the places they live and work: livability, walkability, and transit connectivity.

Emphasis added. Katz and Bradley work for the Brookings Institution. Their book, The Metropolitan Revolution, thinks fast about the emerging economic geography of the United States. It’s intuitively appealing. Cities are good. Sprawling suburbs are bad. Yep, Richard Florida is smiling too:

Startups and venture capital are shifting toward urban areas because of what they have offered all along—the economic advantages of agglomeration, clustering, and human interaction, combination, and recombination. Cities have the diversity of talent and industry, the density and interactive streetscapes, and the openness to new ideas and fast-paced urban metabolisms that enable innovation and new enterprises to thrive. Suburbs like Silicon Valley and other nerdistans have to replicate and mimic these functions—cities have them intrinsically. Great cities are wide open places, filled with creative and entrepreneurial activity, and are cauldrons of free expression, discovery, and innovation—places where, as author Matt Ridley famously put it, “ideas come to have sex.” The results of those couplings have long been books, paintings, music, and other creative pursuits, but they are also new technologies, new products, new businesses, and whole new industries. As New York City venture capitalist Fred Wilson puts it in his foreword to Tech and the City, “the story of NYC is a story of entrepreneurship, evolution, and energy.”

Emphasis added. “System 1 uses association and metaphor to produce a quick and dirty draft of reality.” Maps are a metaphor, a quick and dirty draft of reality. Cities have lots of people. Surely they cannot help but slam into each other and cure cancer. Sweet serendipity, on steroids in the urban core, will save the day:

Much of my work is focused on engineering serendipity at Science House. Two people bumping into each other isn’t enough, unless they both belong to the same culture and they know exactly how an encounter is expected to unfold in their world. Meaningful serendipity requires a strong focus on cognitive diversity. There’s a particular potency in connecting two people who would never have meaningfully interacted even if they did bump into each other because there was no way into an initial interaction.

Back in the 1970’s artists probably didn’t interact much with the people they perceived as working stiffs. As result, few artists developed the business acumen necessary to make a living. Artists bumping into other artists or business people bumping into other business people or Mormons bumping into other Mormons, etc., isn’t real serendipity. Bringing two people together and creating a culture in which they can create unexpected common ground is where its at today. There’s business value in it, and there’s creative value, as well as the potential to create, and even sell, powerful art that illuminates some aspect of the human condition.

Byrne recalls the explosion of the art scene back in the 1970’s, when he moved to New York. The scene exploding today is different. It’s built around entrepreneurship. And while Byrne argues that business hubs are no way to live, what I think he means is “areas permeated by office buildings and people who slavishly follow cultural norms like zombies tend to be sterile.” If we want a city to live in, we have to work for someone else or become entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is a form of art. It requires improvisation, vulnerability, an exchange of ideas, a willingness to take risks, possible failure, and, yes, potential hardship.

Emphasis added. Wait, what did she write? Blasphemy. Having the same culture is the opposite of greater diversity. “Cities have the diversity of talent and industry, the density and interactive streetscapes, and the openness to new ideas and fast-paced urban metabolisms that enable innovation and new enterprises to thrive.”

Cities are places of redoubtable innovation. Cities are cosmopolitan. Cities are dense. Cities are lots of things. Not all urban characteristics spur innovation. Philadelphia doesn’t need an innovation district. It needs Peter’s Café:

When I saw this place for the first time, I realized that the serene environment of the café actually concealed a chaotic universe. The café was filled with ideas and viewpoints from all corners of the world, and these ideas were intermingling and colliding with each other.

“Get this, they don’t use hooks when fishing for marlin in Cuba,” one visitor says.

“So what do they use?” another asks.

“Rags. The lure is covered in rags. When the fish strikes the rag, it wraps around the fish bill and won’t let go because of the friction. The fish don’t get hurt and can be released, no problem.”

“That’s pretty neat. Maybe we could use something like that….”

The people here participate in what seems like an almost random combination of ideas. One conversation leads into another, and it is difficult to guess what idea will come up next. Peter’s Café is a nexus point in the world, one of the most extreme I have ever seen.

There is density. Check. There is diversity. Check. There is innovation. Checkmate. Why am I still frowning?

When I was younger, a college dropout, I worked on boats. I was a deckhand on a ferry. Later, I would literally work on boats in Gig Harbor, Washington. I did engine repair. I refinished brightwork. I sanded teak decks, which was brutal. I’ve got a lot in common with seafarers all over the world. Point being, I could hold my own in Peter’s Café. I could transfer knowledge because I belonged to the same culture. The magic of Peter’s Café is migration, bringing together knowledge from different parts of the world.

Your Knowledge Is Nothing If No One Else Knows You Know It.” The greatest density in the world can’t make people interact. Relatively greater density may inhibit interaction and serendipity.  The city can be a lonely place, isolation among millions. Urbanity is a form of solitude. You commute. You work. You commute. You sleep alone. No one cares where you are from, whether you stay or go. You will take your wisdom to your grave regardless of what you leave on your Facebook page.

Ask a professional writer. Transferring knowledge is hard. How well do you know your audience? The printing press exponentially increases the number of people you can reach. Innovation is sure to follow. And then it doesn’t.

In a city, serendipity isn’t a given. Two ships may pass in the night and that’s it. Two ships may pass on a covered bridge in rural Iowa and you’ve got one helluva best seller. Rare in a small town is the interaction between two people who are outsiders. Outsiders interact with strangers all the time. Bowling with strangers is a culture. The best place to bowl with strangers is in a global city. Ipso facto, walkability solves most problems.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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