Once again, I started a new book while in the middle of others. It’s a bad habit, but I can’t seem to help myself. The current book is Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. I’m not too far into it, but his stated goal is to describe some universal characteristics of creative environments. And I know this book on creativity is worth its salt because it took all of 7 pages before introducing one of the major themes of the book is the creative genius of cities.
One of the characteristics Johnson discusses is the presence of what he calls liquid networks. This is basically a network that is not too chaotic yet not too stable either. It is in the sweet spot where new ideas can form, and the best ones can stick around. In an environment that is too “solid,” it is tough for innovations to occur, because it is tough for “spare parts” to come into contact with either other, and it is equally tough for the actors within the environment to find much reason to innovate. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, right? In a “gaseous” environment, on the other hand, innovations occur constantly, but there is not enough stability for any of them to stick. The total chaos destroys any new creation formed. The analogy is with a “Goldilocks” planet such as Earth, where it is not too hot but not too cold either. The chaotic stability (my own term) allows life to develop and survive.
This is a tough balance to strike, and cities don’t always get it right. One-industry cities, such as the old Detroit, had at one time had a nurturing, chaotically stable environment, but as the successful innovations became more successful, they began to crowd out new innovations and diversity in general. The liquid environment gradually became solid, and when the auto industry began to decline, there was nothing there to take its place. This is another way of looking at my theory of over-success: a once liquid environment that either becomes too solid or too gaseous. City governments and business leaders should be looking at developing tools to diagnose where their cities are on the chaos-stability spectrum. Maybe this already exists in some ways, but I’ve never heard of it, and if it is being done, I don’t think the effort is comprehensive.