How cities can cultivate genius

I just got the new Wired magazine in the mail (March 2012), and it has an interesting article called “Cultivating Genius” by Jonah Lehrer. (Sorry, no online link yet.) The article starts by essentially making the same point that Edward Glaeser makes in Triumph of the City about how innovators and creators tend to congregate, especially in cities, which allow for the quick spread of ideas.

But not all places attract and cultivate geniuses. Lehrer points to three “meta-ideas” places adopt that seem to encourage genius:

  1. Human mixing, i.e., diversity. I see three areas where this point is important. First, the debate about immigration, because, as Lehrer points out, “in the overall population, a 1 percent increase in the number of immigrants with college degrees leads to a 9 to 18 percent rise in patent production.” Second, to me, it is also important to affirmative-action policies, which the Supreme Court recently agreed to revisit, because colleges and universities are where many of our new ideas are generated. Third, it may have implications for general diversity in the US. For more on that, see this 2000 diversity-index map from the Census Bureau (the trends haven’t shifted too much in the past decade, according to this USAToday map):diversity in the US
  2. Education. Lehrer believes that effectively educating the lower and middle class will waste less genius. I agree. For an interesting visual on education in the US, see this graphic from Good Magazine comparing education levels to salary:
  3. Risk taking. Lehrer suggests that we do a better job developing institutions that encourage risk taking. He makes the point that we develop great athletes because we have institutions that take risks to develop them, with the result that even small towns often produce at least one or two great athletes once in awhile. We should do the same with other types of genius, he says.

It is this third point that I think deserves the most attention from cities. As I’ve previously said, cities may be the best place for government innovation and risk-taking, for four reasons:

  1. Cities tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological than other levels of government.
  2. Density of human potential that hastens the spread of ideas.
  3. Less bureaucracy (smaller government) lets cities respond more quickly.
  4. There is less aftermath if a new innovation fails in one city than in a whole state or country.

Lehrer’s article is thought provoking (and short), so I encourage you to check it out (I’d add a link when it’s up).

2 thoughts on “How cities can cultivate genius”

  1. “[A] 1 percent increase in the number of immigrants with college degrees leads to a 9 to 18 percent rise in patent production.”

    I do not think this is the same kind of diversity demonstrated on your map or set for debate before the Supreme Court. Affirmative action is different that global diversity, i.e., attracting immigrants, in that it is based not upon culture but race. That is not to put down affirmative action, which has many strong bases for support, not least the need to counteract historical persecution. But the influx of people from other countries is a different diversity in kind than racial diversity from within the same state, or even the same neighborhood. Regardless of whether the Court revises its holding from Grutter v. Bollinger, I expect universities will remain free to seek out and even reserve space for students from outside the United States, without regard to their race.

    1. Great point. I didn’t mean to conflate those three different aspects of diversity; I’m editing the post to make that clearer. The article actually makes a broader point about diversity being a good thing for developing new ideas, but then provides just the one example about immigrants and patent production. I don’t have data off-hand about affirmative action increasing the generation of new idea, but I think that some people view that as a reason for promoting those policies.

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