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The Power of a Plethora of People

The creativity of crowds
  • May 14 2012

Last month, while on a business trip in Mumbai, India, I found a few spare hours between meetings to explore the city. I do this as often as I can when traveling to China or other international destinations. As a newcomer, it became immediately apparent that New York City should concede the title of “The City that Never Sleeps.” The moniker is surely more fitting for Mumbai, Shanghai or Beijing.

These are amazing cities. Their growth and energy invigorate me. Each trip brings exposure to new architecture, new industries and new friends. And a ton of new ideas.

Mumbai, one of the largest cities with one of the greatest population densities on earth (more than 22,000 people per square kilometer), immediately confirmed for me a declaration made by author Jonah Lehrer in his new book Imagine. Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, contributor to The New Yorker, and a key contributing thought leader to our Institute of Decision Making, calls cities “incubators of innovation.”
Lehrer argues that the sheer density of urban life, “the proximity of all those overlapping minds,” forces people to mingle and interact with a diversity of individuals. This, Lehrer insists, “creates exactly the sort of collision of cultures and classes that often yields new ideas.”

While no city in the United States has density levels rivaling Mumbai (New York City’s density is about half Mumbai’s), 2010 Census data shows that America is more and more an urban country, with a growing proportion of the population living in urbanized areas, and a smaller proportion – just 19 percent – residing in rural areas.

And of course the growing diversity of America – with more than half of all babies born today being minorities and an overall “minority majority” projected within 30 years – means that the “overlapping minds” in American cities are likely more culturally diverse than in many other parts of the world, perhaps leading to increasingly valuable collisions.

Beyond how cities can play a major role in the ideas we create, Lehrer maintains that the jostle and serendipity of city life can provide a model for how the Internet might be retooled to accelerate creativity. “Instead of sharing links with just our friends, or commenting anonymously on blogs, or filtering the world with algorithms to fit our interests, we must engage with strangers and strange ideas,” he opines. “The Internet has such creative potential; it’s so ripe with weirdness and originality, so full of people eager to share their work and ideas. What we need now is a virtual world that brings us together for real.”

Those of us playing on the global advertising stage might just learn from cities abroad how to make that happen. Until then, might I suggest seeking out your own city’s most dense areas to see what kind of new ideas it sparks for you.


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