Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cities and Creativity

Edward Glaeser argues that cities foster creativity.
Glaeser: I think the most important thing cities do today is to allow the creation of new ideas. Chains of collaborative brilliance have always been responsible for human kind’s greatest hits. We have seen this in cities for millennia – Socrates and Plato bickered on an Athenian street corner; we saw it again in Florence with the ideas that went from Brunelleschi to Donatello to Masaccio to Filippino Lippi and to the Florentine Renaissance. It helps us to know each other, learn from each other and to collectively create something great. In some sense, cities are making us more human.
Our greatest asset as a species is the ability to learn from the people around us. We come out of the womb with this remarkable ability to take in information from those people – parents, peers, teachers – that are near us. Cities enable us to get smart by being around other smart people. I think this explains why cities have not become obsolete over the past thirty years.
Of course, just being in a city isn't enough. You also have to get out of the house, and you have to hang out in the right places at the right time.

Which only raises the question: where are the right places? This differs from city to city, of course. And among cities. What is it about ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, interwar Paris, and modern-day New York that make them intellectual centers? (And if it is no longer New York, where is it?)


  1. I always wondered about those "clusters" of smart people in history, like the Athens of Plato and Renaissance Florence. I would add the founding fathers of the US (not sure if there is a specific city for them though) and Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries. I also think Silicon valley and thereabouts has a higher modern claim to it than New York.

    Interesting to think it may have just been the perfect environments to spawn the great people, rather than the other way around.

  2. Perhaps the cities attract great people, who are made greater by the higher concentration of great people in cities -- a complex feedback loop, in other words.