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Steven Johnson: Genius of Place

One cool thing (among many) about the Global Metro Summit we are putting on in Chicago on December 8 with the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society (free registration here) is that the night before Steven Johnson is speaking at a private dinner we’re hosting.

I’m particularly excited about this because Johnson is one of my favorite writers and because his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is about one of my favorite topics: innovation.

What’s great about the new book is that something latent in many of Johnson’s past books, whether on the London cholera epidemic of 1854 or the “invention” of air, has emerged front and center now. This is the fact that breakthrough creativity and innovation doesn’t just happen anywhere, but happens in places and spaces, and that cities and metropolitan places are some of the most fertile environments of all.

For metropolitan people this is obviously a congenial conclusion, given our endless yammering about regional innovation clusters, discovery-innovation hubs, and metros’ broader economic centrality.

But what’s really worth checking out in Where Good Ideas Come From is the cogent, elegant, and precise way Johnson hones in on the specific properties of urban and other productive spaces, and gets at the specific mechanics of creativity there--not just the vague association of space and innovation. Along these lines, Johnson talks about the way cities provide a place for dense “liquid networks” to come together and then allow billion of people to live inside them.

These networks gravitate toward the edge of chaos but not into it. They string people and ideas together through the “fertile zone of between too much order and too much anarchy,” allowing for and augmenting what economists call, using an appropriately liquid metaphor, “information spillovers.” And so Johnson notes that with the rise of cities after 10,000 B.C. human beings “invented a whole new way of inventing” based on good ideas getting into “circulation,” more minds being recruited into the “collective project” of exploring, more ideas from one field being “borrowed” by another, more productive “collisions” occurring as people and fields of expertise “converge in some shared physical or intellectual space.”

And then there is this wonderful summation of what vibrantly creative in metropolitan area: Cities, writes Johnson, are “environments that compulsively connect and remix that most valuable of resources: information. Like the Web, the city is a platform that makes private commerce possible but which is itself outside of the marketplace. You do business in the big city, but the city itself belongs to everyone. (“City air is free air,” as the old saying goes.) Ideas collide, emerge, recombine; new enterprises find homes in the shells abandoned by earlier hosts; informal hubs allow different disciplines to borrow from one other. These are the spaces that have long supported innovation, from those first Mesopotamian settlements eight thousands years ago to the invisible layers of software that support today’s Web.”

In short, Steven Johnson--technology guru, writer on brain science, Charles Darwin, and video games--is also one of the most profound urbanists writing today. His message: If we want to build a truly innovative economy we’d better consider how to build environments and institutions--whether they be research enterprises, corporations, federal programs, or metropolitan areas--that generate good ideas to the maximum extent possible.