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Geography & Genius: What Makes a City an Innovation Hotspot?

We’ve scoured our best titles on the history and nature of human innovation to to find out what factors make a hotbed of extreme genius.
by Emily Phillips | Jul 15 2016

Picture a golden era in human history: what do you see? Bearded men, philosophizing in the Athenian agora circa 2000 BCE? Maybe you imagine the likes of Michelangelo and da Vinci, being all genius in their Florentine ateliers in the 15th century, or perhaps you think of the miracles that have emerged from Stanford dorm rooms and suburban garages in Silicon Valley. Whatever the case, there are particular times and places in human history when the stars seem to align and human creativity and innovation blossom.

Curious, isn’t it—why does human civilization take leaps forward at some points in time, but not in others? And does any place on earth have a monopoly on churning out geniuses? We’ve scoured our best titles on the history and nature of human innovation to try and decipher the factors behind these hotbeds of extreme development in human history.

The right place at the right time

Location, location, location: the spaces that surround us wield uncanny power when it comes to the likelihood of innovation flourishing. From the Chinese city of Hangzhou in the first two centuries CE to the ancient Inca and Mayan strongholds, Golden Ages have cropped up all over the globe. But we’re going to look at a particularly sharp example: Calcutta.

Starting in the mid-1800s and lasting for the better part of a century, Calcutta published more books than any other city in the world, save for London. This remarkably prolific time in publishing history is known as the Bengali Renaissance and is credited in part to Calcutta’s singular political geography: it was exactly there that the philosophy of its British colonizers met the cultural heritage of the subcontinent head-on. This golden era of production was the result of many factors, from the chaos of Calcutta’s vibrant streets to its unique cultural diversity, all of which created a perfect storm of genius. As Eric Weiner explains in The Geography of Genius, the people of Calcutta were not endowed with a special knack for publishing, rather, it was the city’s diversity and culture of debate that fostered an Indo-Anglian artistic synthesis.

The root of all genius

Will and Ariel Durant also confirm in The Lessons of History that civilization is not a question of race; instead, it’s a question of place. And of any places in particular? Cities are often the most fertile ground for innovation. They are the perfect environment for ideas to grow, but not simply because of their multiculturalism. Industry plays a role as well, but not just any old city chock full of people and wire mills will work as a genius incubator: progress also requires the financial support provided by wealthy patrons and visionary investors who believe in the promise of a new industry. That takes a special kind of city—like Florence.

In the 15th Century, Florence was flourishing, which meant there was was a lot of money ready and waiting to be spent. Its citizens, comfortably employed and upwardly mobile, were eager and able to patronize art and invention. Plus, the Catholic Church was making a killing by selling indulgences, with which it financed some of the most incredible buildings of the Renaissance. The lively and vibrant commerce in Florence—its merchants traveled the world and brought new ideas with them—also fed the fires of innovation. Florence had the right proportions of ideas, talent, and financial backing to support an economy of genius.

Talent attracts talent

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson shows that the most creative people tend to have the largest networks. Similarly, the best ideas come from connections, networks, and crowds. Edward Glaeser notes in his book The Triumph of the City, that so many creative people in one place, in conversation with one another, leads to high levels of innovation. Not unlike Calcutta, Ancient Athens was one such hotbed of invention and the perfect spot for “creative collisions.”

In early Athens, citizens took great pride and considered creating part of their civic duty to do their best and contribute their talents to society. This fostered healthy competition and a whole lot of new work. As mentioned above, the abundance of commissions for artists meant that they were always innovating and trying to one-up each other during the European Renaissance. And this setup isn’t so unlike the early years of Silicon Valley. Engineers flocked there to work with particular personalities, like James Clark and Fred Terman, the founder of Netscape and the Dean of Stanford Engineering School, respectively. With luminaries sending out a bright pulse to new talent from around the globe and those fresh perspectives creating, competing, and collaborating, the new economy blossomed.

Tomorrow’s epicenters of invention

By measuring and observing patterns deep beneath the earth’s surface, seismologists work to predict a geological event. So too can we keep the above ideas in mind when attempting to pinpoint the site of the next golden era. Intersecting cultures, ample financial resources, and flourishing cities that attract talent are the markers of the next Renaissance city.

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