One of the most enduring themes of creativity is that it clusters. Think Elizabethan England, ancient Athens, Silicon Valley, and Renaissance-era Florence. People with good ideas are attracted to each other.
In a 2005 interview with Dan Pink, Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, argued that “Several technological and political forces have converged, and that has produced a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration without regard to geography or distance – or soon, even language.” Yet at least with respect to collaboration, Friedman has it backward. The world is not getting flatter—we’re clustering.
Consider this. In 2010, Isaac Kohane and colleagues discovered a correlation between the quality of academic papers (as measured by the number of citations it had) and the geographic location of the authors. The closer together the co-authors lived, the better the research. A recent paper by Stefan Hennemann and two collaborators who examined scientific collaboration likewise found that across “six distinct scientific fields… intra-country collaboration is about 10–50 times more likely to occur than international collaboration.” As Edward Glaeser notes in his book Triumph of the City, “Cities speed innovation by connecting their smart inhabitants to each other… proximity makes it easier to exchange ideas or goods.”
Years ago—around the time The World is Flat was published—commentators were predicting the demise of cities as cheap communication was flourishing. With Skype, why would anyone need to commute? Yet at no other point in the history of the United States have more people flocked to cities. For the creative class, at least, the ideating mind craves collaboration and abhors the suburban and rural vacuum. And as the cost of living in a city like New York or London increases, the barriers to entry are strengthening, not crumbling.