by: Marc J. Dunkelman
With the pace of new-business formation on the wane in America, the country faces a crucial question: Can it maintain a dynamic marketplace for new ideas? Or will the game-changing inventions that fueled much of its economic growth in the 20th century become just a cherished memory?
The answer may lie in discerning whether it’s possible to compensate for the subtle shifts that have taken place in the architecture of American communities — changes that have begun to block the pipeline of innovation that once emerged from the routines of everyday life.
As most corporate executives know, good ideas don’t strike like bolts of lightning. Quite the opposite: They are unearthed when existing concepts are shuffled and combined in new ways. Unfortunately, a quiet transformation in how we invest our time and attention is curtailing opportunities Americans once had to stumble on unfamiliar notions.
The corporate world is well versed in the science of innovation. In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner showed how Bell Labs designed its research facilities to ensure that scientists and engineers working on separate projects would bump into each other, sharing their work and discussing their challenges. The idea, as University of Chicago sociologist Ronald Burt argued after an extensive analysis of Raytheon, is that researchers with connections outside their own departments “are at higher risk of having good ideas.”
But American society as a whole has moved in the opposite direction. Among the many planners hoping to lure members of the “creative class” to various locales around the world, the preponderant push is to pack an area with expertise. Many believe that the best way for a region to become a creative hub is to develop a critical mass of knowledge in a particular field. My hometown of Buffalo, New York, has made a major push to establish itself as a center for life sciences, and there’s some evidence that its efforts have begun to pay off.
There are certainly benefits to clustering. It’s easier, for example, for companies surrounded by firms doing similar work to find qualified employees. But those advantages come at a cost.
For most of American history, the rhythms of everyday life served to facilitate intellectual cross-fertilization. From colonial villages to frontier towns, and from urban tenements to first-ring suburbs, American life was long centered uniquely on what Tocqueville and others termed “townships.” Yes, distinctions like race and ethnicity divided society, but while Europeans defined themselves by social class, Americans were much more focused on the neighbors who lived and worked nearby.
Bankers and grocers didn’t just nod hello to each other, they engaged in conversation — in civic meetings, in Saturday afternoon games or sewing circles, in the tavern, and in church. The social boundaries and prejudices that suppressed any impulse Europeans might have had to reach beyond their own peer groups held less sway in the New World. As a result, in America, more-casual interactions wove intellectual dynamism into the routines of everyday life.
The results were profound. People — and ideas — from various corners of society were constantly in touch. Detroit, for example, didn’t become the global motor-vehicle mecca by design. Rather, random interactions among engine designers, ship builders, and carriage manufacturers at the turn of the twentieth century created a mashup of ideas on the shores of the Detroit River, and from that intellectual ferment emerged the mass production of automobiles.
Over the past several decades, Americans have been abandoning these sorts of neighborly relationships for alternatives that are both more intense and less. People today devote more attention to their spouses, kids, and best friends than in the past. Theda Skocpol’s groundbreaking work documenting the diminished role of civic institutions suggests that many Americans now prefer to spend their nonwork time with those they love most.
On the less-intense side, people are in touch with much wider networks of ephemeral contacts, like the elementary-school acquaintances who are Facebook “friends” or the crochet enthusiasts who kibitz in online forums. The web allows professionals to establish working relationships with far-flung peers who share a single common interest — cancer researchers around the world can now keep track of one another’s progress in real time, for instance. In many cases, these collaborators know nothing about their peers except their work on the given topic.
What Americans don’t do as much anymore is maintain relationships with people they know personally, but don’t count as intimates, a trend reflected in data collected through the General Social Survey. When Harvard’s Peter Marsden and Berkeley’s Sameer Srivastava analyzed surveys delineating how Americans were spending their evenings, they uncovered a remarkable trend: Individuals were more likely than in the past to have spent time with family members and friends from outside their immediate surroundings, but less likely to have spent an evening with a neighbor.
It would seem at first glance that the explosion of weak connections would augment our exposure to new thinking. It’s certainly true that ideas entirely different from our own are newly accessible today with a few taps on the screen. But the irony is that broader horizons have served to narrow our focus. Whereas we once had to read a newspaper written to appeal to a whole range of people, we can now burrow down and focus on the little corner of expertise that most suits our fancy. Ed Sullivan was geared toward a mass audience in a way that programs on HGTV are not. The explosion of new media has balkanized the market of ideas.
The unexpected result is that these altered patterns of behavior threaten the nation’s propensity to come up with new and innovative concepts. The transition from “townshipped” to what might be called “networked” community has vastly reduced our participation in non-intimate relationships that might have exposed us to distinct viewpoints. Our horizons have narrowed. So the disappearance of neighborly relationships has made it easier for each individual to avoid those who look on the world with a different lens.
In their quest for innovation, businesses must now compensate for the decline in casual interactions. Already, many firms allow researchers to spend a portion of their time exploring topics beyond the projects at hand. Steve Jobs is famous for having placed the bathrooms at Pixar’s studios in a location that would force employees to interact. And companies that once decamped from urban centers to suburban office parks have begun to migrate back into cities, where the population density and the likelihood of chance interactions are greater.
But micro-sabbaticals and urban settings don’t guarantee that employees will reach outside their comfort zones. Companies should go a step further, abandoning the stampede toward “clustering” and incentivizing employees to spend more time immersed in topics further afield. Managers need to encourage employees to read books, periodicals, and other forms of media that are a step or two beyond what they might select on their own. The determined march toward greater efficiency and productivity can’t be allowed to crowd out the creativity that stems from exposure to novel concepts. Growth is born from innovation, and new ideas depend on whether a business can cultivate ways to expand — and not just deepen — its workforce’s intellectual wanderings.
About the Author
Marc J. Dunkelman is a fellow at Brown University’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. His first book, The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, was published by W.W. Norton & Company in August 2014.
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