by Linda Lees*
Instability, creative tension, and entrepreneurial people on society’s margins are some of the qualities that have always been the hallmarks of dynamic and creative cities. So said Professor Sir Peter Hall in the probing book he wrote in 1998, Cities and Civilization. With his characteristic insight and erudition Mr. Hall, who sadly passed away in July, told the stories of “great cities in their golden ages.” He asked the question: “What makes a particular city at a particular time, suddenly become immensely creative, exceptionally innovative?” and answered with an in-depth exploration of the historical, cultural, and social factors that influenced cities from antiquity to the modern age. How did individual inspiration intersect with economic, political and social conditions to propel Athens, Florence, Rome, Glasgow, Manchester, London, and New York to the highest levels of achievement in their glory days.
As he noted the particular triumphs of a city, London with theatre, Vienna with music, Paris with fine art, he was especially sensitive to the social transformations occuring at the same time both undergirding and then eventually undermining the achievements of these cities as their moment of greatness waned. He ranges over his subject matter by theme beginning with the “city as cultural crucible” and moving on to the “city as innovative milieu” as industry and technology come into play. Other factors like social transformation, creative tension, social and economic instability in various combinations and different degrees remain constants.
Hall’s Cities is not a linear story of progress nor a chronology of great cities. And the last themed “book” is about the establishment of urban order, which he says is “more than a merely physical order; it is also, even more importantly, a social and moral order.” While the advent of the information highway, the digital and multimedia revolutions radically changed the world for the better for many, their positive effect might not reach or repair some aspects of economic inequality for others, he predicted. Hall was a huge proponent of the capacity of cities to renew themselves but he also saw clearly the implications of the technological shift and how these marvelous tools for some might exacerbate poverty and unemployment for others, widening the gap between “the information-rich and the information-poor,” and finally producing “a total polarization” of society. He was always as concerned with the individual life within the city as the life of the city itself.
How individual inspiration and the City interact is also at the heart of Elizabeth Winkler’s New Republic article “The Innovation Myth”. She challenges the case a recent Brookings Institution report makes on innovation districts, which turn up these days in forms of all kinds from incubators to start ups and corporations, and the nearly utopian promise that Brookings says they hold for cities, “a clear path forward”. Winkler rightly sees folly on two scores, that they can deliver on the promise for cities in general, that innovation is “the crucial element of a more-perfect society”, and that they are the best environments for creative people, “is crowding a bunch of people into a few city blocks really the way to make creative sparks fly?”
Susan Cain, whose book Quiet Winkler references, had already laid the groundwork for a serious rethink of the “New Groupthink.” Knocking holes in the inherited wisdom taught by Harvard Business School and others and adopted that the corporate model of enforced intimacy thrust upon people by teams, open office plan organization, and other such group dynamic strategies would deliver brilliant and creative results. These suit the extrovert personality but would have left introverts like Steve Wozniak and Warren Buffett out in the cold. While this planning model may be good for the extroverts among us, for the introvert personality they can be instruments of torture. She traces the general acceptance of this model to a logical but misguided extrapolation from our interaction with the Internet. If there are no barriers between us online and we are creative, doesn’t it follow that if we have no barriers in real physical space the same thing will happen? It appears from the multitude of information Cain provides that a combination of solitude and interaction leads to greatest productivity along with the individual freedom to make choices about the balance between the two.
While Winkler sees embedded in the Brookings report the assumption that all of us can and want to work in this “clustered” way, their breathless support of what is yet another top down approach feels familiar on another level, an extension of the argument for importing a “creative class” to your city. Richard Florida, in his best-selling book of 2002, made the case for revitalizing cities by making them “cool” and thereby attracting young creatives. Although he has since softened some of his prescriptions, the hangover remains. From the Brookings report: “Innovation districts constitute the ultimate mash up of entrepreneuers and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments–all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.”
Read part 2 of the blog post tomorrow
* Dr. Linda Lees is founder and director of Creative Cities International (CCI). CCI developed the Vitality Index™ (VI) which was greatly influenced by the work of Peter Hall. She has spoken on behalf of CCI and the (VI) at international conferences in Copenhagen, Berlin, London, Istanbul, Doha, and Campinas (Brazil). She first wrote about the VI concept (Creativity in the City: The New Measure) in 2010 in the refereed UNESCO e-journal. Her talk in Singapore, “Culture Counts”, is included in Vital Speeches. She holds a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.