Larger cities not only draw more educated and innovative people, but more people with the critical social skills required to turn new ideas into successful enterprises and industries.
Human progress, to a large degree, has depended on the continual expansion of social networks, which enable faster sharing and shaping of ideas. And humanity’s greatest social innovation remains the city. As our cities grow larger, the synapses that connect them—people with exceptional social skills—are becoming ever more essential to economic growth.
Great thinkers, artists, and entrepreneurs—what I call the creative class—rarely come out of nowhere. They cluster and thrive in places where the conversation and culture are the most stimulating.
Research by Stephen Shennan at University College London, Robert Boyd at UCLA, and others indicates that shifting demographics was an important cause of early leaps in human development. Shennan’s research—which notes that artistic and technological leaps similar to the one in Europe had occurred in Africa and the Middle East tens of thousands of years earlier—suggests that what all these leaps had in common was the growth of local population density beyond a certain threshold.
Researchers affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute have identified the mechanism that underpins city growth and development as an accelerated rate of “urban metabolism.” Unlike biological species, whose metabolism slows as they get bigger, successful cities exhibit faster metabolism as they grow—a phenomenon that the researchers dubbed “superlinear” scaling. “By almost any measure,” they wrote, “the larger a city’s population, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.”
Cities are our greatest invention, not because of the scale of their infrastructure or their placement along key trade routes, but because they enable human beings to combine and recombine their talents and ideas in new ways. With their breadth of skills, dense social networks, and physical spaces for interactions, great cities and metro areas push people together and increase the kinetic energy between them.
Highly developed social skills are different from mere sociability. They include persuasion, social perceptiveness, the capacity to bring the right people together on a project, the ability to help develop other people, and a keen sense of empathy. These are quintessential leadership skills needed to innovate, mobilize resources, build effective organizations, and launch new firms. They are highly complementary to analytic skills—and indeed, the very highest-paying jobs (and the most robust economies) usually require exceptional skill in both realms. Nonetheless, social skills seem to grow ever more essential as local economies grow larger and more complex. In this sense, cities are like brains: their growth and development require the growth and development of an increasingly dense web of synaptic connections.
Whatever their layouts and transportation systems, cities can’t work as innovative engines unless they are populated by people who can effectively promulgate, and marshal support for, new ideas. Given the rising demand for social skills in our economy, it is curious that we devote so few of our educational resources to building them. A growing chorus has noted the failure of U.S. schools to adequately teach math, science, and technology, but social intelligence is equally important, and we need to cultivate it more systematically. In the 19th century, the public-school system grew partly from the need to teach the growing immigrant workforce rudimentary reading, writing, and math skills. University education in the years around World War II was predicated, to some extent, on the training of a cadre of technicians and managers to run the country’s increasingly sophisticated factories. Today’s students need a stronger focus on teamwork, persuasion, and entrepreneurship; a better integration of liberal arts with technological literacy; and an emphasis on the social intelligence that makes for creative collaboration and leadership.
Sociability has been the key to humanity’s progress for thousands of years. As we look toward the future, we need to find ways to hone and enhance it, and to keep enabling the crucial interactions on which new innovation will depend.
Richard Florida is Senior Editor at The Atlantic and director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. He is author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Who’s Your City?, and The Great Reset. He is founder of the Creative Class Group.