I’m at the Living Cities 20th Anniversary today, liveblogging on the discussions that panelists are having here. This post, a little out of the vein of the topics we typically talk about at Market Urbanism, originally appeared at Next American City.
Steven Johnson and Paula Ellis, of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, discussed some of the themes in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, including the unique environment for innovation that cities provide. Johnson draws on the work of Jane Jacobs and Geoffrey West to demonstrate that innovation is most likely to happen in places where humans are densely clustered because entrepreneurs rely on the work of others. Both to see through the uncertainties of the future to realize profitable ideas, and to overcome the challenges of product development, entrepreneurs need to live in urban areas.
Johnson began his conversation explaining that many of the ideals that emerged in the Scottish Enlightenment came out of coffeehouses, through the spontaneous conversations that many brilliant men had, and the evolution of their ideas in this urban space. Looking back to these Enlightenment ideals, we can see that Adam Smith, perhaps one of the original urbanists, explained that the division of labor is limited by the size of the market. Continued urban growth provides individuals with growing opportunities to specialize, as both the consumers and technological developments that fuel the market process are consolidated in the same place.
In West’s work that Johnson referenced, he explains that, unlike firms that become increasingly bureaucratic and inefficient as they grow, cities continue to become more productive as they grow in size and density. As Johnson explained, cities have a “liquid property because they have the convergence of diverse people sharing a space. This is an incredible asset.” West demonstrates that the relationship between city size and innovation is exponential. “What the data clearly shows, and what [Jacobs] was clever enough to anticipate, is that when people come together, they become much more productive.” Smith demonstrated that wealth grows through the exchange that urban environments make possible. Urban scholars from Jacobs to West to Johnson have placed his insight into the context of modern cities, where the size of the market is continually growing. While it’s often easy to fall into critiques of urban policies and focus on the challenges facing individuals in cities, this afternoon’s conversation struck a happily optimistic note.