Cities, Creativity, and Why the World Will Never Be Flat

by | Feb 12, 2013 | Writing About History

How have cities thrived and spread for the last five thousand years when they labor under such heavy burdens? In historic societies, city-dwellers lived shorter, less healthy lives than country-folk and produced too few children to maintain urban populations, requiring a flow of immigrants from the country. That’s because urban crowding produces filth, disease, and stress. Many modern cities have solved the hygiene problem (though some haven’t), but they still suffer from traffic, noise pollution, high rents, crime, and awful schools, leading millions to flee to the suburbs.  Many in the 1990’s thought the Internet would be the death of cities, as virtual commuting freed workers to live among the trees and flowers. Instead, cities have continued the expansion they’ve enjoyed since ancient Sumer.

Dense, artistic Florence

Dense, artistic Florence

The explanation for urban power seems to be that cities foster creativity—more than any other institution. According to urban researcher Geoffrey West, city-dwellers produce more patents per person than their rural counterparts. In fact, the city’s advantage in patents per capita increases by 15% every time the population doubles, leading to exponential jumps as urban populations get really big. That data squares with less measurable evidence that city-dwellers produce more art, literature, and technology per capita than country-folk. What’s the source of this advantage? Crowding. The more we interact with other people, the more their practices, cultures, and off-beat ideas lead us to creative leaps. And the better a city is at fostering idea-exchanges across networks, the greater its creative output. That networking effect explains why some cities stand out above their peers, like Classical Athens for philosophy, Hellenistic Alexandria for science, Renaissance Florence for art and architecture, Elizabethan London for literature, Belle Époque Paris for the arts, and today’s Silicon Valley (a tightly connected uber-metropolis) for information technology.

The result of all this creativity? Cities get rich, despite all their disadvantages. That wealth and cities’ creative energy draw immigrants from the country.

If you’ve read much ancient history, that explanation probably resonates. The moment cities appear in places like Sumer, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica, you get explosions of technology, architecture, governance, literature, and art—and innovations like writing systems, number systems, wheels, sailboats, bureaucracy, ziggurats, pyramids, palaces, statuary, epic mythology, tomb painting, business records, and much more.

I think urban creativity has implications for the future, too. Creativity research suggests the urban advantage requires in-person interactions, not virtual connections. One study, for instance, found that teammates working together in person solve problems faster than teams connected via the Internet. Another found that the most influential scientific papers tend to be written by researchers located close together. If in-person interaction does carry a major advantage, there’s a flaw in widely discussed predictions of a grim future for Western economies. In his 2005 book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman argues that technology is flattening the world—that the Internet and other communications systems make location unimportant. So jobs will continue to flee wealthy countries like the U.S. to lower-cost workers in India and other developing countries, connected to distant centers of innovation via the Internet. But if creativity thrives where innovators connect in person—in cities—the world will never be flat. The best jobs and the greatest productivity will remain in the creative cities that power the world economy, including Western centers of innovation like New York, the Silicon Valley, London, and Munich. Perhaps Americans and other Westerners should worry about competition from cities overseas. But we don’t need to worry quite so much about foreign workers taking the best jobs produced by our cities. Creativity requires frequent, regular in person interaction—just as much in the Twenty-First Century as during distant antiquity, when cities began their march across the globe.




© 2013 by David Carthage.


  1. Neanderthal man likes good fud from fancy restaurants

    But what happens if communications tools rapidly evolve and improve consequentially over the state-of-the-art today? Perhaps then cities will lose their advantage?

    I think you miss an important point… People want great restaurants. I don’t see how technology will ever make those available in the country. And what about museums and cultural events? Creative people tend to want to be around ’em.

    • David Carthage

      Thanks, Neanderthal Man. Yes, it would be silly to assume we’ve seen or can imagine the limits of technology. It’s possible communications tools will evolve to dramatically change the nature of remote interactions. But no communications system I’ve seen in practice or in development–any nothing discussed in The World is Flat–remotely replaces in-person interaction. And the predictions of a location-irrelevant workforce depend on foreseeable systems and predictable development of the Internet, rather than black swan revolutions in communications. None of those existing or foreseeable systems replaces walking down the street and getting inspired by a new art form, or hanging out with colleagues in the break room and exchanging ideas. Even a virtual workplace where our avatars meet in cyber offices probably couldn’t compete with the power of in-person random, undirected hanging out, which plays such a central role in creativity.

      Agreed re restaurants, museums, and cultural events. Every time my wife and I go to the country–or to a paradise like Hawaii–we fantasize about living far from the city. But deep down we know we want the restaurants and the buzz …


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