Why City Life Boosts Creativity And Startup Success
This post originally appeared in Forbes.
Update 9/16/2014: I’ve now completed nearly 25 of these dinners and I can say that I am still keen to the concepts here more than ever. Seeing things from new perspectives and building empathy will be powerful concepts moving forward. On an event management note, the key to managing an event like this is to manage expectations. I’m not going to give away too many of my tricks but I’d love to hear from those that have been what they think of the format and of the company.
What happens when you invite 10 people that work in different industries to dinner? We get smarter, more creative, and sometimes magic happens.
While debate about which city is better continues, everyone agrees that cities are expensive. As more people move to cities, prices will increase. This trend is not slowing down anytime soon. Projections show that within 40 years 70% of us will be living in cities. While opportunity in cities is limitless and cities account for 90% of US GDP, studies have shown the mathematics of cities and by doubling density city productivity increase by 2% to 4%. These increases can be explained by economies of agglomeration and how it is much easier to meet likeminded people. There are more “meetups” clustered around urban areas.
However, as Richard Florida, the Creative Class author argues, “This rush to density, this idea that density creates economic growth is wrong. It’s the creation of real, walkable urban environments that stir the human spirit.” Notice the most expensive cities and you’ll also notice that they are some of the most creative cities out there. These same cities are also the ones in which you can walk (San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington D.C.). Jonah Lehrer’s notes how urban areas are responsible for most of the creativity in the world, due to the easy exchange of ideas from encounters with “loose” or “weak” ties. Dense urban areas allow you to bump into people on the street and have small talk interactions with a variety of people.
Corporations have tried to harness this idea of serendipity by having their own “village green” where various departments can share ideas and learn from each other. Companies like Pixar, Bloomberg (right), and Google have “congregating areas” to encourage random conversations can lead to interesting ways to solve problems. However, the oft-referred-to “serendipitous encounters” that supposedly drive the engine of innovation tend to happen only with others who work for the same company.The silo of ideas leads to groupthink. Everyone starts to believe that the way the company operates is the only way leading to the beginning of creative death.
In the tech community, Google or Facebook changing their algorithm or a new startup that helps people with too many credit cards is big news. In the entertainment community, controversial stars and opening weekend box office dominate the conversation. In finance, the only news is about the Fed’s next move and what the Dow closed at. In early 17th century Netherlands, tulips were valued at ten times a skilled craftsman’s annual income. Industry is exciting, but bubbles form. Groupthink happens. How do we teach old dogs new tricks?
Every industry has their bubbles, but we obtain a new perspective when we cross-pollinate. Dan Wieden, founder of advertising agency, Wieden+Kennedy, drew a blank trying to come up with a slogan for early client Nike, until he bumped into someone that struck up a conversation about Norman Mailer, which led to a thought about serial killer Gary Gilmore’s last words, “Let’s do it,” eventually evolving into the iconic “Just do it.” Many of today’s entrepreneurial ideas come from the cross entanglement of ideas: Old solutions being repurposed to solve new problems. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey was inspired by a police scanner’s short messages and ubiquity of mobile phones. Google took the model of academic research footnotes and applied it to web pages. Today’s startup hybrids include: LeasePass brings software as a service to real estate, TopShelf applies machine learning to fashion and FitBark brings together wearable fitness with your dog. Even my chemist father repurposed the Avon lady’s Skin So Soft to be a natural bug repellant while he was out doing yard work. Today, many moons later, Skin So Soft has rebranded as such.
High tech problem solving site Innocentive notices that most of their problems are solved by people that are not close to the problem, i.e. physics problems are solved by chemists, biology problems solved by engineers and so on. These problem solvers are experts in their own fields, and view the ancillary, yet parallel, disciplines with a new, fresh perspective. Varying perspective is what keeps us fresh. Richard Florida notes that the most creative cities are those where “non standard people [are] welcome here.”
Recently, I ran into a friend who is the co-founder of a healthcare company that provides RFID tags to hospital pharmacies. Although he’s based in Washington, D.C., the serendipity of New York had me bump into him walking down my street. We stopped to chat and he told me how the idea came about when his partner was having a random cocktail with a friend of a friend that is a pharmacist and then the light bulb went off. Prior to this, he was the founder of a travel kit and a few different non health care related sites. This really demonstrates the power of weak ties, serendipity and creativity to me.
Diversity is extremely important. If you can get varying viewpoints on the same topic from loud, boisterous people, the result could be amazing. So: What happens when you invite 10 people that work in different industries to dinner? With no agenda, there are a variety of outcomes: sometimes serendipity, other times arguments, but never boring and we leave the more enriched, inspired, and a bit more creative than when we entered.
Our business was inspired by public relations folks that found it to be a pain to continue to reach out to blog after blog after blog. Soon, another startup founder chimed in, and soon the idea for Cooperatize.com, a long tail network that seeds advertisers in the sponsored posts of publishers, was born. In trying to solve our friends’ problems, we would eventually take them on to become our own.
A variety of ideas, collaborations, and friendships have emerged thus far, and while no Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr-type companies have emerged, we have been picking off seemingly smaller problems left and right. Yet the more we create, the more we discuss, the more we cross-pollinate, the more likely we’ll stumble onto something other than dessert.