A song about cities! Video for new release by OK Go - "Skyscrapers". Seems to be more about clothes....

One of the most persistent ideas I see in urban policy is that the physical environment should be designed to provide more opportunities for casual and random interaction between people who’ve never seen or heard of each other before.

The “stranger multiplier” – the concept that accidental contact with complete strangers can significantly increase social capital and economic wealth – is a pervasive idea among planners, urban designers, architects and urban policy makers.

It can be seen, for example, in the Grattan Institute’s recent publication, Social Cities, and in a new book I’m currently reading, Imagine: how creativity works, by Jonah Lehrer.

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Lehrer is, in the words of this reviewer, the wunderkind of American science writing. He’s a Rhodes Scholar, has a double major in neuroscience and French literature from Columbia University, and at 30 years of age has already published three internationally successful books.

Chapter seven of Imagine is titled Urban Friction and discusses the contribution cities make to creativity. That’s a big and important topic and this chapter does a pretty good job of summing up the key things we know about the value of agglomeration for innovation.

Lehrer gives a lot of well-deserved attention to the findings of Geoffrey West – if you view the TED talk by West I posted recently, you’ll very likely find what he’s got to say is both fascinating and important.

But Lehrer disappoints with his insistence that much of the benefit of cities is accidental contact with strangers. The purpose of cities, he says, is to force us to interact.

They lead us to explore ideas that we wouldn’t explore on our own, and converse with strangers we’d otherwise ignore.

He goes on to say cities make us mingle with people of different ‘social distance’. We have dinner parties with friends, but we also talk to strangers on the street and end up being exposed to a much wider range of worldviews.

While it’s tempting to discount these urban interactions — what could possibly emerge from a random sidewalk chat? — they actually come with impressive payoffs.

Putting a bunch of strangers in close physical proximity in a public place like a square or on a train, and expecting there’ll be “impressive payoffs”, is wishful thinking. Lehrer’s own example of “impressive payoffs” betrays his misapprehension.

He cites the vastly higher patenting rates in cities as evidence of the value of interacting with strangers. Density is indeed strongly associated with innovation, but it’s the opportunity cities offer to interact with highly specific people – like other inventors, patent attorneys, technology and design experts, marketers, academic researchers, investors, etc – that confers the benefit, not random interactions with strangers.

There’s a lot of value in bumping into people on the street you already know, no matter how fleetingly, or believe you have something special in common with, but not much with strangers. Most people don’t want to engage meaningfully with someone they don’t know on the train for sensible reasons and rarely do.

Suppose you’re a visitor to the US from the antipodes with a quirky idea for a TV series you hope to sell to a company like HBO. You aren’t going to spend your precious time striking up conversations with complete strangers on the off-chance one of the city’s 8 million inhabitants will be the one who gives you that lucky break.

Like most people, you’ll see more sense in focussing your time and resources on people and networks who know the business and have serious connections. You’ll be highly targeted.

The random encounter on the sidewalk, or the subway, or in a restaurant will eventually have value, but only when you’ve already gotten to know the other party. But by the time that happens, you aren’t strangers anymore!

Lehrer thinks Jane Jacobs advocates interactions between strangers in her famous book, The death and life of great American cities, but that’s not how I interpret it. In fact she promotes interaction between people who already have something in common – like the local businessmen on Hudson Street – expressly for the purpose of protecting the community against strangers (I’m currently reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life as a member of the City Builder Book Club.).

Let me emphasise that strangers nevertheless really, really matter for city life. They collectively make up the huge agglomeration of people that enables specialisation, diversity and economies of scale in not only production, but also consumption. Even something as simple as a public street or square needs lots of strangers to bring it alive.

We all benefit from the 99.99% of people in our city we don’t know. But interacting in depth with any of them randomly in the street or on the train isn’t something the vast bulk of us want to do or find worth doing. We know instinctively that it’s not an efficient way to maximise the benefits of living in a city.

The great advantage of cities is we can find the kinds of people we want to engage with. That’ll mostly happen through formal or semi-formal arrangements like meetings, appointments, dinners, parties and so on, but sometimes there’ll be serendipitous meetings on the street. However all most people expect and want from strangers at a personal level is civility.

Addendum: I should add that I don’t mean to diss the book – of the three or four chapters I’ve read so far, Imagine: how creativity works is an impressive and engaging book (although there’s always a curmudgeon somewhere). I read and enjoyed Lehrer’s previous book, How we decide.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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