Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Splendid Isolation: Geography of Innovation

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

Ideological geographies are stubborn things. Once a stereotype takes hold, the myth persists decades after reality gave up the ghost. The ghost is Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida the torchbearer of her myth. Alfred Marshall and all that, urban density begets innovation. Something in the air makes ideas have sex. Somehow, "something in the air" has become a social science maxim.

Turn out, that something in the air is decidedly suburban. And suburban can be rural or urban. Compare and contrast Apple (rural) and Amazon (urban):

Amazon and Apple aren’t all that different. As Amazon has grown, the famously unflashy company has started to build things in South Lake Union that are as monumental and futuristic as Apple’s infinite loop, including a set of spectacular “biospheres” now under construction that will be at the center of a new urban campus with more than three million square feet of office space. Slated to open in 2017, the giant domes of glass and steel promise the same security and privacy as Apple’s Cupertino retreat. They are in the city, but not of the city.

Urban Amazon isn't a sidewalk ballet. Ideas have sex as in a brothel, not in public space or a third space. Sure, proximity matters the same way it does in the sprawl of Cupertino. The monastic campus operates in the same way in Palo Alto as it does in downtown San Francisco. Wherever the spaceship lands, the results are the same. Innovation.

The common thread is crowded isolation. High-functioning introverts (default social invalids) live, work, and play in new and old buildings walled off from reality. It's a bubble in more than one sense of the term. The Silicon Valley bubble is, first and foremost, a fishbowl.

The fishbowl doesn't work so well without exotics. Rural is as good as urban given proximity and diversity. Guard against inbreeding homophily.  Innovation doesn't require a city. Innovation demands migration.

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