Innovation calls for face to face contact

Research strongly suggests that physical proximity in cities contributes to innovation and creativity

We generate ideas and campaigns by crowdsourcing via the web. We discover, “borrow” and mash-up content and perspectives from places like SlideShare. We build communities of collaborators, or at least sources of content, via Twitter and Skype.

But if you project the findings from a recent proximity study conducted by Harvard and the Boston medical community, none of the technologies that make it effortless and inexpensive to collaborate with people around the world matter as much as location when it comes to creativity and innovation.

The Boston study, a 10-year analysis of the Harvard biomedical research collaborations (published in PLoS ONE), argues that physical proximity is the most important predictor of the impact of collaboration.

The study found that the closer the offices of key research partners, the more influential their joint papers were likely to be. As the Boston Globe reported, “It mattered whether collaborators were riding the same elevators in a building in Longwood, or working in labs on opposite banks of the Charles.”

You can find evidence of this hypothesis in plenty of places other than medical research.  In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson concludes that innovation needs eco-systems that foster contact and collisions, citing numerous examples, from the coffee houses of 18th and 19th century England to the density that defines most modern cities.

Edward Glaeser, in a recent Atlantic article, also attributes creativity and innovation to proximity and location. Writing about the advantages of skyscrapers he notes the early impact of Elisha Otis’s elevator – the vertical conveyor enabled more people to work in urban centers and more importantly invited greater economic diversity by lowering the cost of real estate – and concludes that globalization and new technologies “only make urban proximity more valuable—young workers gain many of the skills they need in a competitive global marketplace by watching the people around them. Those tall buildings enable the human interactions that are at the heart of economic innovation, and of progress itself.”

It’s become awfully easy to do all of our communication and interaction via email, social networks, and video conferencing.  Wi Fi and the web let us telecommute and stay connected from anywhere. But if there’s any truth in the findings of the proximity study we may all want to get out of our offices and cubicles and even our buildings and enjoy more face time, eye contact and human interaction with the people who can make our ideas better.

If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, definitely read the Atlantic article and the Boston Globe piece. And if you have any other examples of how face-to-face collaboration drives innovation, please share them.

Image from: PLoS ONE

 

 

 

 

21 comments
joebertino
joebertino

Great post Edward. The Atlantic also just ran an article titled "The World's 26 Best Cities for Business, Life and Innovation." (http://bit.ly/iXBDB2) I think the top 5 are great examples of cities with exciting and diverse eco-systems that foster an elevated level of human interaction. I'm a little surprised that Boston didn't make the list, I'm sure you will be too, but even still it is evident that proximity and location play a major role in the development of innovation and creativity.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

This is true stuff. It is why Silicon Valley has such an advantage and why every city wishes they could be them. More smart people, investors, talent, and innovators in one place than anywhere in the US. When firms that have R&D as a key driver they tend to like to be located where a base of talent exists to feed off of and vice versa.

EricWilliamson
EricWilliamson

Edward,

Great post. I agree completely that Face2Face is superior to Remote for most innovation, but I think there are definitely some exceptions to the rule. For example - OpenSource development initiatives like Mozilla Firefox and the remote workforce that contributes to that. In cases like that, there is actually a fairly regimented organizational structure & process which helps to manage things since all the contributors are remote and working in different time zones, etc.

It would be interesting to see if the Face2Face rule applies to the creative part of innovation (Idea, Vision, etc), but is not as applicable to the development/build and maintenance side of innovation.

Thanks for all the great thinking you share on your blog. It is one of my favorites.

Regards,

Eric

HunterTerrito
HunterTerrito

Great Post Edward. It reminded me of an article that Malcolm Gladwell wrote in 2000 about how you may want your office to be more like Greenwich Village. The layout of the neighborhood brought people out of their homes and forced them to interact spontaneously. It's a great read, here is the link:

http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_12_11_a_working.html

bradnoble
bradnoble

Agree. If you're just punching through things, fine. Remote works. But if you're making something where there was nothing, better to be working the ingredients together. On a small team. With clear accountability. And, perhaps surprisingly, a minimal number of meetings.

PhilAdams
PhilAdams

At the risk of repeating myself... comment posted earlier seems to have disappeared. 2nd time lucky...

I haven't read "Who's Your City?" but I'm going to. It sounds like it's directly relevant to this post Edward.

"It's a mantra of the age of globalization that where we live doesn't matter. We can work as efficiently from a ski chalet in Aspen or a country house in Provence as from an office in Silicon Valley. It doesn't make a difference as long as we have wireless and a cell phone. It's a compelling notion, but it's wrong.

More detail on the book on the Technium blog - http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2011/05/whos_your_city.php

PhilAdams
PhilAdams

Edward. The Technium blog drew my attention to "Who's Your City?", which I haven't read yet but am definitely going to buy.

"It's a mantra of the age of globalization that where we live doesn't matter. We can work as efficiently from a ski chalet in Aspen or a country house in Provence as from an office in Silicon Valley. It doesn't make a difference as long as we have wireless and a cell phone. It's a compelling notion, but it's wrong."

More details here - http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2011/05/whos_your_city.php?

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

Totally agree. One of my favorite philosophers, Eric Hoffer, argued long ago that cities were where ideas take shape, not villages or cabins in the woods.

As for me, my best example stems from music. The guitarist I work with, Tim Young, lives in LA and I'm in SF. Normally we work via phone and it's pretty good, but every now and then we get to work face-to-face. Last time this happened we worked through 13 songs in 2 days; normally we're lucky to get a song done a month.

LAdvertising
LAdvertising

gr8 post Edward - I agree that physical proximity is the most important predictor of the impact of collaboration. if we are two blocks away from each other, guess what? it's easier for us to meet for lunch/dinner or coffee/drinks. however, if we are talking about creativity and innovation I must say I disagree. as the matter of fact, crowdsourcing can help your R&D to innovation in realtime and be very cost-efficient. The same goes to creativity as well.

Epirot Ludvik Nekaj

@lplus

robsheard
robsheard

I think it works both ways proximity also fosters "copy cat-itus". Take a look at awards ceremonies such as the James Beard Awards in New York or Academy Awards in LA where voting takes place in a bubble amongst a very tight knit set of folk who influence each other about the "next big thing" and it some how becomes it.

wagnerwrites
wagnerwrites

Great post. I love to brainstorm in person. Now research backs me up. Thx for sharing this.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@joebertino Shocked, shocked to hear that Boston is not on the list. Thanks for the link. On it now.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@EricWilliamson Well thanks for reading and for saying so. Re the creative vs the building, you may be right, but more and more there is overlap in time and initiative as things get conceived and build in harmony. At least to some degree.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@bradnoble I think you just nailed the formula. Small, accountable, work don't meet.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@PhilAdams Phil, Thanks for that link. Not familiar with the book, but have heard the concept. Will definitely pick up a copy.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@JeffShattuck A perfect example. And a reason why we should bring an end to email collaboration.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@LAdvertising @lplus Not condemning crowdsourcing at all. Am a big fan of it. Simply advocating the other side, human contact.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@robsheard In that case, I assume you are condemning the insularity. Certainly a problem in many cases. Why a lot of companies go down and don't change fast enough (Digital, Data General, Wang, et al.)