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