We’re drawn to the challenge of remaking places that are more durable, more competitive, and more attractive for people who live there. If we systematically rethink street width, the basis of land and property tax, and the high-risk design we’ve adopted for many American communities, we’ll have more resources to invest in our real assets – people and their skills. Our interest at Strong Towns is to change physical layout as a way to restore order to our financial house, and to reduce the risk we bear to national and global trends such as climate and energy instability.

Tight budgets on the state and federal level – surely promising to get tighter still, as our previous post described – are helping focus attention on more deliberate and intense use of existing infrastructure. Whether we’re talking about the High Line, stormwater management at the Gophers football stadium, or the Complete Streets discussion, policy is increasingly structured around the search for multiuse infrastructure. In each case, literally doing more with less translates to more a productive system.

And while it may be impolitic in some quarters to say so, together we represent another key form of infrastructure: Developers and traders of ideas. Innovators in every sector are connected through “liquid networks,” says entrepreneur and author Steven Johnson, in his new book “Where Good Ideas Come From.” Approaching innovation from a historical perspective, drawing on brain research and sociological literature, Johnson makes a case that won’t surprise all the people who make up the Strong Towns forum: How we design places and use land directly impacts how innovative is the activity taking place within it.

Building design can form rich environments that encourage the fermentation and exchange of ideas, Johnson notes. Built in 1943 as a temporary structure, Building 20 at MIT housed faculty and student research in an open plan easily reconfigured for new projects. Over fifty years of adaptation, Building 20 produced significant research across fields including IT, linguistics and acoustics.

Inspired by models like Building 20, Microsoft in 2007 built a headquarters for its research division designed explicitly to cross pollinate employees’ ideas. Apparently also inspired by its generic moniker, Microsoft named their facility Building 99. “Building 99 – like Building 20 before it – is a space that sees information spillover as a feature, not a flaw,” writes Johnson. “It is designed to leak.” Walls feature surfaces for writing and erasing. Work spaces are all modular and can be built and rebuilt as the project or day inspires. Research confirms that active horizontal, diverse social networks are multiple times more innovative than uniform, vertical ones. Leaking is valuable.

Cities do best when they leak, too. That’s one of the themes revisited through economic geographer Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City,” released early this year. Glaeser documents the rise of single-industry marketplaces – whose collapse is now epitomized by conditions in Detroit – which, through sheer dominance, eroded the quality of information spillover among workers. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press by combining use of winemaking tools from his native Rhineland, his metallurgy background, and existing Chinese printing methods. Dialogue led to tinkering, tinkering led to more dialogue, and innovation emerged. On a modern scale, the same process takes place every day, and it’s much more likely to take place in physical environments that connect people in consistently unexpected ways – cities.

Cities themselves aren’t the source of innovation, and Glaeser warns of the error of “confusing a city, which is really a mass of connected humanity, with its structures.” Still, our structures and our physical layout can serve to intensify idea exchange, or inhibit it. A compelling public and private interest exists to support the leakiest land use and urban design we can devise.

 

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