Unlocking the Real Innovation Potential of Cities

As a business and innovation consultant, civic volunteer, author, and urban geographer by training, I have a particularly strong belief in the essential role that cities play as engines of new ideas and economic activity. I also have a particularly strong belief that they could play an even stronger role if we were willing to stretch our thinking and be a bit more creative about how innovation really happens.

Let's face it, cities are where the action is -- dynamic places filled with talent, creativity, energy, intellectual and financial resources, plenty of bright young people, and lots of customers, challenges, caffeine, and connections waiting to happen. It's an almost perfect mix for imagining, developing, testing, refining, and launching a new product, service, solution, or business practice. And it happens a lot of the time, in large part out of the shared proximity of folks who find out about each other's work or simply bump into each other on the subway, at coffeehouses, conferences, or a host of other meeting places and events. Think of the history of architectural innovation that took place in Chicago beginning in the late 1800's -- where a steady stream of designers and inventors viewed the sky as the limit in their quest to reimagine not only buildings but what cities could be. Folks who ran into each other amid the bustle of the Loop and combined what they new best with the knowledge and inspiration of others. Or fast forward to the new history of innovation being written in San Francisco and the Bay Area where entrepreneurs are meeting up, learning from each other, and quickly harnessing the power of digital technology to redefine our lives and a wide range of industries. Folks who, more often than not, were strangers who somehow connected.

Not that there aren't a lot of clever people outside of urban areas, but increasingly they are drawn to cities in search of new opportunities and greater challenges.

But could cities nurture even more innovation, on the part of an even broader group of people, if we were more open to stretching our understanding of how innovation occurs? Because innovation thrives when simple and remarkable connections take place -- not just between friends and colleagues, but between total strangers from different walks of life. Yet most of us, and most of our companies and organizations still harbor the misplaced notion that innovation is the province of a limited number of brilliant individuals or small teams working together in the same lab, garage, or meeting room, set off from the world around them. It's a notion that is based on a relatively small set of images and case studies we have of famous inventors, even though most of them were inspired by the world around them.

Consider this fact: 99 percent of all new ideas are based on the ideas and insights of strangers -- in other industries, disciplines, cultures, places, periods in history, or parts of the natural world. If this isn't a call to leave the safe and comfortable confines of our offices, cubes, high tech meeting rooms, and coworkers to wander around and engage strangers, then I don't know what is. But unfortunately, all too often when we do head out, we choose to connect with people who are a lot like us. People with similar backgrounds, similar education and knowledge, and similar worldviews. But what if we could stir the pot as a matter of private strategy and public policy? To tap into all of the know-how, insights, and perspectives of our increasingly diverse communities -- from life long residents to recent immigrants from distant lands? And what if we saw the essential purpose of cities to be the formal and informal connecting of smart and committed people, realizing that the more connections we all made, the more likely we would all be to spark important conversations and initiate innovations tied to emerging opportunities or pressing challenges? Sure some of this happens already, but it's only the tip of the iceberg and it isn't happening enough for all of the talented people around us.

Then, what if we committed to creating cultures of curiosity and openness that encouraged businesses large and small, other organizations, educational institutions, and individuals to spend a significant part of their time searching for powerful new connections, focused on the big questions they are trying to answer and willing to share key pieces of the puzzle they already know? And what if we saw cities as even richer collections of assets than they already are -- assets that could be leveraged to drive even greater innovation in anything worth doing by bringing together strangers in new ways?

Each day we all pass by literally hundreds of people, places, and things that could change our lives, but we never take the time to notice them. In our rush to get from Point A to Point B, we walk past strangers who know things we've yet to discover. We walk past stores, offices, galleries, libraries, and even billboards with powerful insight to share. We observe or ignore holidays and local festivals and events filled with meaning and possibilities. We stroll through new or familiar neighborhoods failing to look above the surface to figure out what makes them remarkable. We read the local newspaper or a favorite local blog that tells us about people worth knowing with but choose not to connect because we are either too busy, too smart already, or to afraid to reach out. And beneath it all is the simple fact that many of us have forgotten how to be curious and open to those around us and, lacking this skill or confidence in our ability, we are unable to believe that important ideas and strangers abound and that we can be even more innovative and remarkable in the rich and rough-around-the-edges places we call cities.

By simply reimagining ourselves, the nature of innovation, and the real potential of any city on the planet.

Alan Gregerman is the author of the new book The Necessity of Strangers. Connect with him at www.alangregerman.com or while he's wandering around Washington, D.C. or another one of his favorite cities.