Creatives like cities, engineers like suburbs

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

It’s a phrase that I somehow picked up in fifth grade or thereabouts and went around repeating it as a mark of erudition without any comprehension. It’s a concept, now discredited, that implies that an organism’s path from embryo to adult replicates all of its evolutionary forms.

Never mind. It’s just that it came to me as I found a reference to a recent study about urban form.

That study found a pattern of differences in the location choices of creative organizations and science-based organizations. Looking at company location data for three of Canada’s largest metropolitan areas, the research showed that creative firms like urban locations and science-based firms like suburban locations.

The data presented show that firms in ‘creative’ industries tend to be located in dense, mixed-use neighborhoods near the city core, while ‘science-based’ industries tend to be concentrated in low-density, single-use neighborhoods in the suburbs.

The differences are actually quite striking across multiple characteristics.

The authors of the study speculate that communication patterns and characteristics may be at the root of these choices –

It is argued that these spatial patterns are related to the fact that inter-firm networks are more important in the ‘creative’ industries, while ‘science-based’ industries rely more heavily on intra-firm interactions and learning.

What we found interesting from our work is how the workplace choices that these cultural types make are aligned with their location choices. It also seems not too far of a stretch to find an alignment in the recent conversation about extroverts and introverts.

The creative organizations we work with seem to like high-density, high-interaction working spaces interspersed with a mix of social and meeting spaces with different characteristics and services. Creative organizations have cultures that are naturally more collaborative and social. For example, creative work includes frequent “pin-ups” where work is openly discussed and evaluated. People tend to be more extroverted.

Engineering or science organizations seem to have cultures that are mostly introverted. Innovative work at these organizations has traditionally been individually authored and created in isolated or closed spaces intended to preserve focus for writing or for work on critical calculations. The engineering organizations we work with seem to cling to a hierarchical distribution of larger offices and formal conference rooms with closed service areas where one can get a cup of coffee but rarely stay to converse.

It appears that perhaps at every scale — from office to neighborhood to city to region — the characteristics of organizational cultures defined by their communications patterns describe the form of the places they choose or develop to do their work.