Casual Collisions, Spontaneous Meetings & Serendipity

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”  Steve Jobs

Our mission at Boundlss is to help people be awesome, particularly in regards to meaningful productive activity. When you dig into some of the latest research into creativity, innovation clusters and gazelles you find that community and social denisty is more influential than the tools, technologies or techniques: it’s the spontaneous conversations, interaction and engagement of people with the many minds and hearts around them.

Richard Florida’s research on innovation hubs shows the importance of vibrant, dense, urban environments in fostering innovation and creativity. In his book the Rise of the Creative Class he presents compelling analysis on an often overlooked economic drive:

“Place is supplanting the industrial corporation as the key economic and social organizing unit of capitalism. Density, the clustering of creative people – in cities, regions, and neighborhoods – provides a key spur to innovation and competitiveness.”  Richard Florida

Florida calls this place, but it’s really more about how a location can support and encourage social density, a critical mass ofinteractions and connections between people to create a cocktail of creativity, intelligence and courage.  From the studios of Florence, to the coffee houses of Paris and the skunkworks at Google [x], vibrant environments in which people from wide and varied backgrounds have spontaneous meetings and explore interesting problems have been the engines of economic growth, innovative ideas and human wonder from the dawn of humanity.

“Despite all the predictions that technology—from the telephone and the automobile to the computer and the Internet—would lead to the death of cities, the creative economy is taking shape around them. Urban density, the clustering of people and firms, is a basic engine of economic life. Place is the factor that organically brings together the economic opportunity and talent, the jobs and the people required for creativity, innovation, and growth.”  Richard Florida

Earlier research by three MIT psychologists in the late 1940s points to place being a similar factor in friendship formation. At the end of the Second World War universities struggled to cope with record enrolments from returning servicemen. Like many universities, MIT built a suite of new housing developments for servicemen and their families. One of these buildings, Westgate West, doubled as a research lab for psychologists Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, and sociologist Kurt Back, to explore how friendships are formed.

Festinger, Schachter, and Back found that space, or more specifically the density of social interaction, facilitated by a particular environment, was the key to friendship formation: “friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home or walking about the neighborhood.”

They found that it wasn’t so much that people with similar attitudes become friends, but rather that people who pass each other each day tended to become friends and later adopt similar attitudes (their findings have since been replicated with fancier tech by more recent MIT dons – see Alex Pentland’s new book Social Physics).

More recently there has been a lot of discussion about building office spaces that channel the same social principles to promote innovation. At both Pixar and Apple Steve Jobs put a great deal of effort into creating office environments that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations”, including working with Norman Foster to design what he hoped would be the world’s best office – the new Apple campus/spaceship.

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”  Steve Jobs

And Google is of course famous for creating an office meets children’s playground environment. David Radcliffe, Google’s man in charge of creating the perfect work environment, echoes a similar opinion to Jobs:

“Casual collisions are what we try and create in the work environment. You can’t schedule innovation, you can’t schedule idea generation and so when we think about our facilities around the world we’re really looking for little opportunities for engineers or for creative people to come together.”

Young talented engineers, designers and entrepreneurs increasingly want to live and work both in liberal creative companies and cities. Led by younger CEO’s the recent crop of up-and-coming tech titans – Dropbox, Uber, Square, Airbnb, Pinterest, Twitter – have already set up shop in San Francisco rather than the more suburban climes of Palo Alto. Google and Facebook are following suit, filling out their New York and London offices and looking for massive pieces of San Francisco real estate to capture the flood of talent back to the city. It will be interesting to see if the Creative Class’ attraction to the city is enough to steal them away fromApple’s Cupertino spaceship.

The same trend is spurring governments and city planners to bring the 80s tech park back from the suburbs and into the cities. Mayors Bloomberg and Johnson have both worked hard to develop their tech clusters – Tech City and Silicon Roundabout.

The appreciation of our cities is of course nothing new, and the value of collective human experience and social interaction is something most people know intuitively (and data scientists can spot given enough numbers). But I don’t think the modern urban revival is just a trend for hipsters and tech startups, rather something driven by a few converging trends.

Prior to the industrial revolution cities were built around feet as the primary mode of transport. This meant cities were dense, tight and easily traversed on foot or if lucky, on horse. They promoted social density, the building of social networks (real ones, not twitter followers) and perhaps happiness. One only has to wander through Rome or Paris to appreciate how enjoyable these old cities are.Coffeehouses and town squares not only facilitated spontaneous conversations and political discussions, but economic growth – insurers sprung from the deals at Lloyds Coffee House and the London Stock Exchange sold its first stocks in 1698 on the walls ofJonathan’s Coffee House in London.

However once the automobile became affordable for all, people were no longer limited to living within walking distance of work, but could live on the outskirts of the city and easily drive in. Modern cities like Los Angeles were then built around and for the car. These cities increasingly sprawl, drawn out and away from their original hearts by meandering highways, byways and freeways. Inadvertently our desire for the freedom of the automobile, open roads and our own slice of land we can call home, has created bleak suburbs that make it difficult to have a spontaneous conversation (except on your iPhone while sitting solo in a traffic jam) and tend to get pretty poor walk scores. Shopping malls, freeways, drive through burger joints and virtual social networks have replaced town squares, coffee houses and real world social networks.

But a number of converging trends seem to be pushing us back to the city types of old: higher costs of petrol and increased awareness of the environmental impact of cars which encourage people to travel less; increased travel time; greater awareness of the negative physiological impact of commuting by car rather than bike or legs; higher costs of land reducing the attraction of large suburban blocks; shifting tastes in the younger generations and the gradual waning of the suburban dream as we begin to appreciate that sitting alone in our massive suburban house over an hour drive from our friends, family and a decent coffee shop isn’t in fact that great fun.

Having lived in London and Sydney, and spent a fair degree of time in Florence, Rome and Paris, I’m really attracted to walking cities and their many benefits – health, fitness, creativity, and serendipity. I currently live in Leederville a small suburb close to the city of Perth. Our office is a short walk from my home and in the busy part of Leederville. Below our office is a bar, next to it is two more bars, and within 5 minutes’ walk there are a ton of coffee ‘houses’, pubs, shops, restaurants, offices and studios. Leederville isn’t quite Greenwich Village but it certainly has some of what Brad Feld calls entrepreneurial density, it has a whole bunch of creative studios, designers, software startups and advertising folks. It also seems to have a high portion of new startup boutique shops and restaurants. It doesn’t have the high growth companies he talks about [entrepreneurial density = (# entrepreneurs + # people working for startups or high growth companies) / adult population], but the local co-working space is certainly working on it. Serendipity is certainly a norm here, and the local council seems to get that this is part of the magic of the place.

It’s great to see urban renewal in action (even in my very car focused home town of Perth) and some of the superb research coming out on this trend, but when it comes down to cultivating this sort of atmosphere within a company or our day to day lives how do you quantify the clustering of people, casual collisions and serendipitous meetings?

At Boundlss we’re really keen on helping people build creative companies, communities and ecosystems. And have been working on a number of ways to map these aspects of human behaviour, from mining social media feeds to find real world interactions, to passively tracking face to face interactions in real time using sensor and mobile data. I’ll cover the sensors in our next post, and we’ll update you on our latest project to track Brisbane’s tech ecosystem in a short while.