Versatilist cities

My IBM colleague,  Dr. Rick Robinson, blogs here as The Urban Technologist where he writes about emergent technology and smarter cities. This particular post from Rick called Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making discusses how encouraging organic growth of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in cities not only helps with the economic revival of some of our run down inner city areas but also means those SMEs are less likely to up roots and move to another area when better tax or other incentives are on offer. As Rick says:

“By building clusters of companies providing related products and services with strong input/output linkages, cities can create economies that are more deeply rooted in their locality.”

Examples include Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter which has a cluster of designers, manufacturers and retailers who also work with Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery and Horology. Linkages with local colleges and universities is another way of reinforcing the locality of SME’s. Of course, just because we classify an enterprise as being ‘small to medium’ or ‘local’ does not mean that, because of the internet, it cannot have a global reach. These days even small, ‘mom and pop’ business can be both local as well as global.

Another example of generating organic growth is the so called Silicon Roundabout area of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street in London which now counts some 3,200 firms and over 48,000 jobs. See here for a Demos report on this called A Tale of Tech City.

Clearly generating growth in our cities, as a way of improving both the economy as well as the general livelihoods of its citizens, should be considered a good thing, especially if that growth can be in new business areas which helps to replace our dying manufacturing industries and reduce our dependency on the somewhat ‘toxic’ financial services industry. However it turns out that encouraging this kind of clustering of people also has a positive feedback effect which means that groups of people together achieve more than just the sum of all the individuals.

Hong Kong Skyline (c) Peter Cripps

In 2007 the British theoretical physicist Geoffrey West and colleagues published a paper called Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities. The paper described the results of an analysis of a huge amount of urban data from cities around the world. Data included everything from the number of coffee shops in urban areas, personal income, number of murders and even the walking speed of pedestrians. West and his team analysed all of this data and discovered that the rhythm of cities could be described by a few simple equations – the equivalent of Newtons laws of motion for cities if you like.  These laws can be taken and used to predict the behavior of our cities. One of the equations that West and his team discovered was around the measurement of socioeconomic variables such as number of patents, per-capita income etc. It turns out that any variable that can be measured in cities scales to an exponent of 1.15. In other words moving to a city of 1 million inhabitants results, on average, 15% more patents, 15% more income etc than a person living in a city of five hundred thousand. This phenomena is referred to as “superlinear scaling” – as cities get bigger, everything starts to accelerate. This applies to any city, anywhere in the world from Manhattan, to London to Hong Kong to Sydney.

Whilst these equations explain what happens when cities grow, in terms of these socioeconomic factors, they do not explain why. In his book Imagine – How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehry talks about the concept of urban friction, that is the necessary and inevitable human interactions that take place in crowded spaces. Whilst some of these interactions may be unpleasant (bumping into the more undesirable elements of society) most are hopefully not and lead to not only more fulfilling lives but the exchange and development of ideas. Lehrer characterises urban planning as “finding a way to minimise people’s distress while maximising their interactions”.

It seems from this then, that if you want to be in a place where ideas and creativity are continuously being generated the place should be a large metropolis  rather than a quiet country cottage with views out over fields and pastures (though see this post for a counter-argument). Cities, with their eclectic mix of industry, culture, art, architecture and nationalities exhibit many of the versatilist characteristics we discuss in this blog and are probably the place to live and work if you want to be able to absorb, refine and adapt new ideas.

Reinvigorating your creativity

Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent a number of years studying genius, creativity and leadership. Some of his research has backed up the theory that creativity tends to peak at a certain, relatively young, age. Simonton has shown, for example, that physicists tend to do their most important work before they are 30 and poets, even earlier. One of the theories about why this is so is that the so called “ignorance of youth” is actually a help rather than a hindrance when it comes to creativity. The ignorance (or innocence) of youth means this age group are more willing to embrace new ideas and less worried about making mistakes. They are also more likely to rebel against the status quo. As Jonah Lehrer says in his book Imagine – How Creativity Works “the young know less. which is why they often invent more”.

So is all lost if you are over 30? Are we on a downward spiral of uncreative toil into senility? More importantly, as far as this blog is concerned, what can you do to ensure your creative, and versatilist, spirit stays alive, whatever your age?

It turns out it’s not all bad and there are ways of affecting your creativity, at any age. We are not biologically programmed to get less creative and can continue to be innovative provided we are prepared to occasionally become outsiders again. According to Jonah Lehrer outsiders are those who have not “become encultured, or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom”.  Conversely insiders are people who begin to repeat themselves and no longer see the need to seek out new challenges. If you can keep finding new challenges then “you can think like a young person even when you’re old and grey”.

New challenges can come in many forms: travel outside your normal living and working space, especially to different cultures, changing jobs or seeking out new people and influences that take a different world view to you. If you can seek out new challenges all the time then you are less likely to follow the path of the red curve in the graph below but will be more able to follow that of the green one.

The definition we have given to versatilists as those “individuals who expand the edges of maps and find new territories” clearly fits in with this approach. Stepping out of your comfort zone occasionally will help in the path to versatilism and hopefully keep you creative well into your old age.

An interesting corollary to this can be found in this post from the Washington Post blog on how baby boomers  are becoming the new innovators. There are probably many reasons for this, not least of which is the relatively higher, disposable income of people in the 55+ age bracket. This extra income not only enables the baby boomers to enjoy more life changing events that keep their creative juices flowing it also gives them more of a cushion if they fail in one of their new ventures.

Ideas as global currency

We live in troubled times, but then haven’t we always? This time around it is fears of  a global meltdown of the banking system, whole countries going bankrupt and the abject failure of capitalism. At times like these it is difficult to be optimistic about the future and even more difficult to know where to invest your hard earned cash to keep you in your old age. But what if financial investments are not the only way of investing in our futures? As Ralph Ardill has said:

“The future will fascinate. A place where experience becomes more important than information, truth more important than technology, and ideas the only global currency.”

If ideas are the “only global currency” then we should be finding ways of creating ideas for our, and the worlds, future rather than relying on traditional ways of investing. As a recent post on this blog has suggested, we often get bogged down in day to day trivia, thinking we are doing work when actually all we are doing is oiling the machine. Seth Godin goes as far as saying we should all be obliged to carve out some time in our days for the big work. Doing the big work does not have to be done during the traditional 9 to 5 working day of course. Big work can be done at all times and in unexpected places (walking the dog, cooking a meal or even while you’re asleep) and is really about freeing your inner Genie. Doing big work is also about making use of the cognitive surplus most of us now enjoy. In his book of the same name Clay Shirky does a back of the envelope calculation that estimates the entire content of Wikipedia has taken 100 million hours of human effort to create. This sounds like a lot until you realise Americans watch two hundred billion hours of television every year. In other words the entire content of Wikipedia could be created two thousand times per year in the time (just) Americans spend watching TV. Even just watching one hour of TV less per week would free up almost a whole working day which could be used for creative rather than consumptive activities to make better use of that cognitive surplus. During this time you could even start creating something for your future ideas investment pot.

What’s your territory?

In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield asks the above question. According to Pressfield we are inclined towards one of two orientations: hierarchical and territorial. If you are operating hierarchically you tend to seek the approval of others, either to ask permission or get reassurance you are doing the right thing. However if you are territorial by nature you are doing work for its own sake regardless of what others think of you or of your work. By definition if you are creating something that is truly new you must be territorial, it is unlikely you will get the approval of others because to them what you wish to create is not something they are familiar with.

Being territorial is hard. It means we are outside our comfort zone and cannot expect to get reassurance from our relatives, friends or work colleagues. In fact, we might meet with downright hostility and may ultimately be wrong and we all fear making mistakes, right?

As a way of deciding if you are hierarchical or territorial, Pressfield suggests the following test.

“Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?”

If you are alone on the planet being hierarchical is pointless, like it or not there will be no one to give you reassurance or to impress. However, if you still do that activity you are doing it for yourself, you are being territorial.

My instinct tells me that versatilists should be more territorial than hierarchical. They need to be interested in the work for its own sake rather than whether or not it impresses someone. Versatilists need to pursue their passion and their art without first getting approval from others. An ex-colleague of mine was fond of saying “it’s better to seek forgiveness than permission” (usually with reference to the company we both worked in, but that’s another story). This is not an easy thing to do, especially if you work in an establishment that penalises mistakes and tends to work by the rule book. Trying to do this occasionally is one step on the way to being territorial and freeing yourself from the hierarchies too many of us live to please. It’s also one step on the way to becoming a versatilist.

What’s you number?

Like it or not we live in a world ruled by numbers. At school and college we have target grades, at work we have sales numbers, utilisation targets,  productivity percentages and in our everyday lives we are meant to not consume too many calories/alcohol units or exercise a certain number of times a week. In short, everyone has a number. But…

…the temptation is to think the number is an end in its own right. The problem with numbers is we may think that because we have achieved them we have somehow done our work but make no mistake we haven’t. Numbers just mask or inhibit our creativity and prevent us from becoming great. Numbers just mean we have achieved a target and have therefore done good enough in the eyes of the number setter. Good enough is not the same as great however and “achieving our number” may prevent us from being great. As Jessica Hagy says here:

“If we don’t know how to make something great, we simply won’t. If we don’t know that greatness is possible, we won’t bother attempting it. All too often, we literally do not know any better than good enough.”

Numbers appeal to our logical, left-brained way of thinking. They are neat and tidy and give us a target at which to aim. By definition though creativity cannot be achieved by meeting a target. The creativity of an artist not only means not having the comfort of a number to achieve, it means you probably know  diddly squat about the thing you are trying to achieve, at least at the outset. You are starting with either a literal or metaphorical blank canvas. As a child we probably all had at least one of those books where, if we joined up the numbers, we created a picture. True artists don’t do their art by joining up numbers however, they start with a blank canvas and create something new and original.

Versatilism is about the intersection of logic (numbers) and creativity (art) and so the versatilist is comfortable with both numbers and art. The versatilist might be the person who creates the painting by numbers book, thus using numbers to facilitate the creation of art, or is comfortable with using the technology of a digital camera to create original photographs. What is your art, and how can numbers be in service of your art?

What do we do for a living?

What do we do for a living?  That’s the question that Seth Godin asked in one of his TED talks.

What do the people that actually read (and write) this blog do for a living?

We might say that we write software, or design products, or create media, or sell solutions, but I want to take up Seth’s argument – that NO, we don’t do any of these things, we all do the same thing:

We try to change everything

Yes, everything.  We find a bit of the status-quo, the same-old same-old, something that isn’t quite right, doesn’t quite fit, something we don’t like and we change it, we try to make big permanent important change.


Try these three questions, share them, spread them, write them on a card, apply them every day:

  • Who exactly are you upsetting?
  • Who are you connecting?
  • Who are you leading?

If our primary job is to challenge the status-quo then we must be upsetting someone – someone who wants to maintain the status quo… why, what’s in it for them? Try and understand, try and get them on board with the ‘new’ status-quo you are proposing.

Yes you have an idea, but who are you connecting around the idea?   How are you connecting them, how are you making a tribe?

Who are you leading – the Beatles didn’t create teenagers, they were all ready there, waiting to be led,  who is your ‘teenager’ tribe?

Or abbreviate and try the three C’s, which I think this summarises versatilism beautifully:

Challenge, Connect, Commit

And one more thing…

I’m guessing that by now most people (at least most people who follow the world of tech) will be fairly saturated with what Steve Jobs supposedly bought to the world and you either buy into the hype of how he created a “dent in the universe” and changed several industries or you don’t (I do by the way).  However, in the spirit of Steve Jobs presentations when launching new products, I read “one more thing” that caught my eye this week.

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs biographer, was at IBM’s Impact customer conference in Las Vegas last week and was interviewed by Tod Watson here. Isaacson is working on a new book on the information revolution and was asked by Watson to share some of the themes of his upcoming book. Isaacson’s reply could have almost been tailor made for what we are trying to do with our ideas behind versatilism. Here is what he says:

“One major theme, which is the theme of the Steve Jobs book and everything else I’ve written, which is innovation comes where there’s an intersection between the arts and the sciences. When there’s an intersection between poetry and microprocessors. Where a great feel for beauty and design is connected with a great feel for technology and engineering.”

This is soooo nice, it sums up exactly what this blog is about and what we think versatilism is. Steve Jobs himself, in one of Apple’s product launches, stood in front of a screen with a picture of a signpost showing the intersection of “technology” and the “liberal arts”, something he believed in passionately and which he strove to follow throughout his life.

Another nice illustration of this idea is  this drawing by Hugh Macleod from his gapingvoid blog.

He calls it “the processor as an expression of human potential” and it is this nice combination of the processor as a piece of abstract art that really resonates. As Isaacson goes on to say in the interview:

“The computer and the Internet are the two most important inventions of the modern era. And yet most people don’t know how poetic, ingenious, and creative the people who invented those things were.”

Versatilism is about unlocking the innate creativity we all have within us and using it to create art for ourselves and for others. It’s interesting of course that the very things Isaacson mentions (the computer and the Internet) have also given us both the means and the medium for expressing and disseminating this creativity like never before.