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Where Good Ideas Come From


A few years ago, in a chapter published in The Small Cities Book, John Bratton and I considered how smaller communities might become incubators of creativity and innovation. We explored the critical mass of cultural activity necessary to attract and sustain a community of knowledge-based investors and professionals; we wanted to know how the creative capital of small cities measures up against that of their larger neighbours. We concluded that the existence of a critical cluster of artists and cultural activity in a small city not only acts as a magnet for attracting investment in knowledge-based ventures and for recruiting and retaining knowledge workers, but it also increases the capacity for sustained engagement in work-based informal learning and innovation.

If not by definition, then certainly by default, “culture” and (increasingly) “creativity” are associated with big city life: big cities are equated commonly with big culture and heightened creativity; small cities with something less. Smaller places are acknowledged typically for nurturing both community involvement and an enhanced quality of life—qualities we were initially surprised to learn that have been negatively associated with creativity. According to the existing literature on large urban centres, the opportunity to establish strong community ties may actually deter some people (read: the creative class) from moving to small communities: deep community involvement is said to be commonly rejected or avoided by itinerant knowledge-sector workers, who characteristically prize personal flexibility and opportunity over community responsibility and commitment.

In his recent book Steven Johnson asks, “What are the spaces that have historically led to unusual rates of creativity and innovation?” Johnson’s wonderfully engaging and important book once again associates creativity with urban scale, claiming that “as cities get bigger, they generate ideas at a faster clip.” The indicators of creativity are important here: Johnson—like Richard Florida and so many others—adds up the number of patents and inventions generated per capita, and finds that “despite all the noise and crowding and distraction, 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.”  Johnson then asks, provocatively, What makes residents of big city environments so much more creative and innovative than residents of smaller places?

The question is a (mis)leading one, however, for it assumes that a tabulation of patents and inventions is the only measure of creativity and innovative potential. As someone who has lived and worked in larger cities, and who now lives in a city of just under a hundred thousand, I noticed no significant diminishment of my personal creative potential or output upon taking up residence in Kamloops. Just the reverse.

There’s not space here to explore how smaller cities narrow the divide between creativity and work, the rural and the urban, the individual and the community—how social proximity affects political realities, including access to productive collaborations, media attention, and active participation in decision making. I remain impressed by the case Johnson and others make for “the city” as a creative space, but after reading Where Good Ideas Come From I’ve come away even more convinced than ever that we need to develop scale-specific indicators of success, including those for quality of life, culture, creativity, and productive innovation.

I’m intrigued, for example, how, on one hand, new technologies are said to make it possible for people to select their work locations based on a variable geometry of geographical, lifestyle, and educational choices; and, on the other hand, many of us seem to cling (at least rhetorically) to the notion that only large urban centres can have a significant purchase on creativity.

P.S.  A recent posting to Wired Magazine talks about how small cities are feeding the knowledge economy.


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