Today ideas can move across society faster than at any time in history. This is an amazing reality that is creating stunning levels of innovation. But it is not enough to be good at simply transmitting ideas. We first need to discover those ideas, to incubate them in the creative spaces of our towns and neighborhoods. Unfortunately, in an increasingly competitive world, most of America's places are not configured for incubating ideas. How much genius could we unleash if we were not so deeply committed to the Suburban Experiment?

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Yesterday it was my good fortune to participate in a TEDx event in Grand Rapids, MN. TED began as a symposium of sorts where people could listen to great speakers talk about Technology, Entertainment and Design, but the amazing content the gatherings produced combined with the ability to stream talks online helped TED evolve into "Ideas worth sharing". The 'x' in the event's title indicates that ours was an independently organized TED event; a gathering drawing on the TED concept but not necessarily affiliated with the official organization.

It is amazing to pause briefly and consider how far we have come as a people. Just a few years ago, TED was distributing their talks through the most efficient medium available at the time: DVD. Just the fact that each of the 17 speakers at this local event will have a professionally-produced video of their presentation shared online is a revolution in communication. The sharing of ideas on this scale was not possible a generation ago.

And this spreading of ideas is making a difference. I myself am an avid consumer of TED talks along with those from FORA.tv. I watch them on my computer or download them and take them with me to listen to in the car. I've had my thinking challenged and, as a result, developed a lot of new concepts and ideas of my own, at least in part from this download of information.

Ideas can be thought of using the analogy of a virus, albeit it a good virus. Ideas, like viruses, spread from person to person, from place to place, depending on a number of factors. How powerful is it? How easy is it to transmit? Will it last or just flame out? The most successful ideas, like the most "successful" viruses, transmit easily, spread like wildfire and pack a lot of power.

I recently saw the movie Contagion -- which was really good -- and, without giving away too much, one of the central issues of the movie was to determine where the virus causing the outbreak originated. Who was the first infected and how did they become infected? This is critical information because a virus is something that is not just created by a mutation or, in the case of Contagion the movie, the blending of two viruses. The virus needs to be incubated. If we are going to rid ourselves of the cause of the outbreak, we need to get rid of the incubator. (See mass and rather indiscriminate culling of animals during the SARS outbreak.)

Let's switch back to ideas and consider the opposite; if we want to incubate ideas that transmit, spread and pack a lot of power, how would we do that? TED and other initiatives like it are fairly good for transmitting well-developed ideas and as time goes on there is no doubt this mechanism will improve. But TED is not the incubator. TED does not provide the original idea that needs to mutate, or the two ideas that need to be fused together, to create something far more powerful. How do we create that incubator?

Richard Florida has probably answered this question better than anyone I've read, most recently in his book The Great Reset but also in his book The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida argues that it is our places. Our cities, towns and neighborhoods. And if you want the most powerful incubator -- you want your ideas to travel from person to person, to mutate, merge and grow -- you have to have more people and they have to be closer together. Ed Glaeser also speaks on this concept in his talk at CNU this past June. 

This runs counter to American culture in the age of the Suburban Experiment, where each family is afforded their own private space so that, with our tremendous wealth, we can all live like faux-European royalty. And where each business has its own corporate campus or little nook in a suburban office park, places we spend hours each day driving to and from, all in isolation. 

In an age of innovation, where we are competing with the world for that next great idea, we have inexplicably created a system of living that stifles innovation. We have separated ourselves from each other in a way that may have made sense at another point in time, but today has to be looked at as a monstrous liability. It is not that we've killed innovation, but we've taken a lot of the creative energy out of our incubator right at the time we need to be pouring more in.

Don't think I'm preaching here because I'm not. I live in an isolated, five-acre lot in the middle of the forest. I make an active effort to engage people, seek out information, read and research and, of course, organize these thoughts by writing. But still, it is isolating.

The reality is, I get more ideas for transforming this country by spending half a day at the annual Congress for the New Urbanism than I get in half a year sitting here. And that is from me, the introverted thinker, just being around other people as they are talking about their ideas.

This TEDx event I participated in yesterday was an information download, so much so that I traveled in relative silence the entire two hours home just letting my brain decompress. What if we lived in this environment every day? What if we were surrounded by innovative people, and what if running into them was commonplace? What if we had an idea and there were people right there to bounce it off of? Give you feedback? Refine? What if we recognized the faces of the people in our community, not just their cars? Would we be more likely, as individuals, to get to know them and learn their ideas? Could they add to our ideas?

We are all surrounded by so much genius. So much brilliance. Some of it is the PhD type. Some of it is the common sense type. Some is the deeply practical. Some the highly emotional. We would be so much more productive as a people if we had not arranged ourselves to be so remote from all of this energy. Our incubator could be so much more powerful.

China is the current country that our inferiority paranoia is focused on, so let's take a final lesson from their culture. Sun Tzu, in the Art of War, describes how to position armies and think strategically so as to turn the strength of an enemy into their weakness. As we leave the American Century behind and enter a new era, will we have the foresight and flexibility to abandon the engine of our recent prosperity -- the Suburban Experiment -- before it becomes a weakness we cannot overcome?

Do we have the courage to start building Strong Towns?

 

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