Bright Lights, Big Ideas

Here’s one way in which all that talk about big-city glamor may be backed up by fact. Statistically, large cities yield a far higher number of patents and inventions than towns or suburbs. At first glance, there may seem to be an obvious reason: a higher headcount means a higher total output. Surely, the two would increase proportionally. However, according to theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, the truth is more complicated—and more interesting.

According to Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From, West’s research showed “the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand.” In other words, it wasn’t just an overall rise in creativity, but a rise among individuals as well.

So, what’s going on? Researchers from MIT Media Laboratory’s Human Dynamics Lab think they know the answer. Their work indicates that greater population density leads to higher rates of face-to-face interaction. And face-to-face interaction means a greater chance of good ideas becoming contagious.

When novel thinkers congregate in one area, they have the possibility of trading, spreading, and acquiring new ideas every time they make a morning coffee run. They could encounter a colleague. They could encounter a rival. They could encounter a friend of a friend, working in a somewhat adjacent field, whose observations could spark an entirely new train of thought.

When we talk about creativity in the abstract, it can sound almost like witchcraft. On some level, it might feel anticlimactic to learn that everything could come down to something as simple as conversations. But when you consider how often innovation lies at the surprising intersection of two seemingly disparate ideas, you being to understand the potential power of face-to-face interaction.

What is the future of this approach? As smartphone use continues to rise, will those one-on-one moments erode? The long-term effect on creativity is yet to be understood. For now, it seems that if you want to work on big ideas, a city zip code might give you a leg up.