Sex, (ideas) and the city

Where are you most likely to have a good idea? On the train to work in the morning, or during slide 30 of your boss’s quarterly strategy update? 

Perhaps you are at your most creative while doing the ironing or cleaning out your shed.

What does the data say? It says you’re more likely to have a good idea if you live in Auckland rather than Wellington, Sydney rather than Auckland or Tokyo rather Sydney.       

Physicists Geoffrey West and Luis Bettancourt have studied cities across the US and Europe and found that cities are the modern engines of creativity - and the bigger the city, the more innovative its citizens.

They have looked at the things that go into a city, from wiring to plumbing to roads, and at the things that come out, from patents and products to crime statistics.

While every city has its own mix of strengths and weaknesses, West and Bettancourt find that cities obey quite general mathematical laws that relate many of their characteristics directly to their size.

You might not be surprised to hear the pace of life in big cities is faster, but these mathematical laws tell us by just how much.

If you double the size of the city, West and Bettancourt’s laws show that the numbers of patents per person, the number of crimes per capita and even the speed at which people walk, increases by about 10 per cent.

When it comes to patents, my team at Callaghan Innovation has found that similar laws hold in Australasian cities.

Sydney, with its population of over four million, has about a third more patents per person than Auckland, while Auckland has about a quarter more patents per person than Wellington.     

Why is this? Large cities support a greater degree of industrial specialisation and a higher level of diversity. Specialisation generates knowhow that few others have, while the diversity of the city mixes this knowledge together in unique ways. 

It is in cities that ideas meet, recombine and go on to germinate new firms and innovations.

The exchange of knowledge and ideas is a very human process. We know that this works best through face-to-face contact.

It is mainly through our networks of friends and colleagues that ideas spread. Our social networks are really just a dating service for ideas.

What does this mean for New Zealand? Auckland is our largest and most innovative city, yet it lacks the scale of Sydney or Tokyo.

If Kiwis are to beat West and Bettencourt’s mathematical laws, we will need to find ways to build national networks of innovators that span the diversity of our expertise. 

Technology will play a role, but this will be as much about building trust and openness as it is about rolling out broadband.

Kiwis need to become more comfortable with the open exchange of knowledge and ideas. However, we do it, we need to transform New Zealand into a city of four million people.

Shaun Hendy is a professor of computational physics at Victoria University of Wellington and an outreach fellow for Callaghan Innovation.