The Power of People Networks

One of the key concepts in Richard Florida’s new book, “Who’s Your City?” is that of the “clustering force,” a knowledge-economy phenomenon that reward people for congregating in places where they can network and collaborate with one another. (See “The Clustering Force Be With You.”) The need to cluster is impelling smart, creative people to migrate to a handful of “superstar” cities where they can maximize the economic rewards of their talents and skills by pursuing innovative ideas with others like themselves. (See “Mass Migration and Superstar Cities.“)

The clustering force is one of the fundamental economic drivers at work in regional economies today. Because it is so ill appreciated, Florida devotes considerable ink to probing and dissecting it. And, because it is so fundamental to understanding the dynamics of regional economies, I devote yet another blog post to the topic.

As Florida observes, productivity and innovation come from face-to-face communication, information-sharing and teaming. Technology, as marvelous as it is, cannot yet substitute for intensive personal interaction.

Social capital is created, writes Florida, when people institutionalize these personal relationships through “bonding” and “bridging.” Bonding, he suggests, represents the close ties between extended families and ethnic communities of the type that Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam described and lamented the demise of in his book, “Bowling Alone.” Bonding is important for personal satisfaction and happiness, but not necessarily for innovation. Bridging, suggests Florida, is a pattern of interpersonal ties that extends across, and connects, different groups. For clustering and creativity, bridging is what counts.

I’ve quoted before the insights of Frans Johansson, whose book “The Medici Effect” describes how innovation takes place at the intersection of cultures, disciplines and worldviews. Extrapolating from Johansson, bridging allows people of varied backgrounds to make connections that enable novel combinations of concepts and thoughts. Florida quotes Andrew Hargadon, of the University of California-Davis, as making a similar point.

[Bridging] changes the way people look at not just those different ideas they find in other worlds, it also changes the way they look at thoughts and actions that dominate their own. Bridging activities provide the conditions for creativity, for the Eureka moment when new possibilities suddenly become apparent.

Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter writes about “the strength of weak ties.” Numerous weak ties do more to foster innovation than fewer, more intimate ties. “The beauty of weak ties is that they bring us new information,” explains Florida. Numerous weak ties, if I might elaborate, exposes you to a wider variety of people and ideas. If you limit yourself to talking to the same people, who simply confirm what you already think, you’re far less likely to come up with breakthrough ideas.

Florida, ever the coiner of new terms, calls this creative interaction “making the scene.” For investment bankers, the “scene” is power lunches or company retreats in the Hamptons. For tech gurus, it’s breakfast meetings, beer bashes or bicycle rides. Hollywood has a scene. Nashville has a scene.

Here’s the takeaway for Virginia regions trying to build their human capital: Scenes require social and economic infrastructure. Unfortunately, Florida drops that thought and doesn’t tell us what the infrastructure is. Picking up on the theme, I would suggest that the “infrastructure” for “scenes” is the existence of networking groups that allow a wide range of people to plug in and connect with one another. Those networking groups may be chambers of commerce or technology councils. They may be clubs like the Tower Club in Fairfax County, or the Bull & Bear Club in Richmond. They may be venture forums, or women’s business associations, or young professional organizations, or metro leadership conferences, or tipster clubs.

I would submit a hypothesis: The capacity of a region for innovation can be measured by the number of formal and informal networking organizations that create “bridging” opportunities across the broadest possible spectrum of society. The richer and denser the skein of bridging networks, the more easily ideas can be communicated through a region, the more spontaneously creative ideas will erupt, and the more speedily people can convert novel notions into business opportunities.

Economy 4.0: If Virginia regions want to build human capital, one place they can start is by encouraging the proliferation of networking groups of all shapes, kinds and colors, through which people — especially those outside the traditional elites — can share ideas and help make things happen. Openness and tolerance are virtues highly correlated with economic dynamism, as Florida often preaches. Those traits extend bridging networks and exchange of ideas to the broadest possible number of people.

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  1. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    I would submit that with respect to understanding human settlement patterns, “bridging” does not require a second person to bridge with.

    I saw or talked to no one when I walked into Lewisburg Square in September of 1961.

    I was with no one (or with no one who could speak the language of the place) when I visited urban agglomerations and shared-vehicle station areas in Europe between 1984 and 2001 on the way to articulating the New Urban Region Conceptual Framework.

    That is what is so important about “The End of Flight as We Know It”

    As they say, travel is broading — as long as one know that which they are observing.


  2. Pictou County Avatar
    Pictou County

    “Numerous weak ties, if I might elaborate, exposes you to a wider variety of people and ideas. If you limit yourself to talking to the same people, who simply confirm what you already think, you’re far less likely to come up with breakthrough ideas.”

    This is a scathing denunciation of the Bush administration. George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld are people who will not listen to anyone who disagrees with them. If you are right, why listen to retards who want to convince you that you are wrong?

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Let me take Pictou County’s thought one step farther…

    All electronic media, but most expecially Blogging in all its many forms, is the very worst way to come into contact with new ideas.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    What creative thing has ever come from NoVA? We all feast directly or indirectly at the public trough. But for federal spending, what would NoVA look like? Or suburban Maryland for that matter?

    The real creative people in the US do not live in this area. I’m not arguing that we locals are not smart. There are an incredible number of bright and talented people in Metro D.C. But we only are creative with more ways to spend taxpayers’ money.


  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    you better be careful TMT.. you’re going to get a Hoover medallion from Groveton….

    Did you really say that NoVa the mother of all public troughs?

    re: blogging and ideas and creativity

    how many of you have sat down and had a face-to-face with Richard Florida?

    do that mean that his ideas are not creative or that you don’t test his ideas? or that perhaps he does not read what folks say about his ideas and perhaps re-think them?

    Isn’t this how we learn?

    it would be nice.. perhaps earth-changing if folks could actually meet and greet with the likes of DaVinci or Newton or Richard Florida but don’t we confuse personality with ideas?

    I agree.. sometimes it is inspiring to conspire … with folks of like mind but at that point you’re “interfacing” with personality and not necessarily ideas and to be honest.. I always found it distracting.

    I would understand someone much better if I closed my eyes and listened rather than be distracted by his/her mannerisms…

    Firefox – a browser than some of use is one amazingly fine product – developed by hundreds of folks who have never met each other..and didn’t need to – to collaborate ideas into something useful…

    people are social critters.. no doubt.. but ideas don’t need faces to be good ideas.

  6. “What creative thing has ever come from NoVA?”

    – Pop-up ads, overcharging dumb people for substandard internet service, and sending everyone in America enless supplies of discs labeled “1000 free hours!” (AOL)

    – Cobbling together a national wireless network from obsolete pager and taxi spectrum (Nextel)

    Both ideas were short-lived, but absolutely brilliant. Neither sucked at the government trough. I’m assuming these guys started in NOVA.

    I think the safer thing to say is that the Beltway is the black hole of creativity. No good idea escapes from within the congestion zone.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    we had a phrase for companies making “pitches” for their company or products/services…

    death by powerpoint.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry – I “PowerPointed” a group this last week myself. But I tried to make-up for it by giving them a one-page handout that covered the key points!

    What we do in this area is not insignificant, but we are all generally dependent on federal appropriations, regulations and judges for most of our livings — either directly or indirectly.

    Yet we continue to tout ourselves as if were entrepreneurs and great business titans. If America falls, it will do so because of places such as Washington, NoVA and suburban Maryland. We’ve moved from a nation of creating real value to one of operating on tax dollars, manipulating statutes and regulations, and lobbying.


  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Observations I tend to agree with.

    Not putting NoVa “down” but just recognizing the obvious.

    NoVa claiming entrepreneurial superman status would be like HR/TW dissing Roanoke for not being as effective at attracting shipbuilding companies…

    but there is an interesting policy question and that is what role should the state be playing in “tapping” more taxes from NoVa than other less economically-capable areas in an effort to assure some level of education equity statewide?

    Would it be any more or less fair for Va to choose any other area in Va if it was an economic powerhouse on the same premise as they now “tap” NoVa?

    Somehow .. there seems to be attitude that NoVa is being punished for all the hard work it did to become an economic engine.

    but then.. does it really matter if NoVa became an economic powerhouse through hard work or just dumb luck anyhow .. if the policy of the state is to tap more wealth areas no matter where they are to help less wealthy places for basic serves like education?

    I’ll probably get “thumped” again for even asking such a preposterous question….

  10. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Like powerpoints? Try this one.

    Becoming a superstar is easy when you have a fairy godfather.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    “We’ll have to occupy the landscape differently, in traditional town, villages, and small cities. Our giant metroplexes are not going to make it, and the successful places will be ones that encourage local farming.”

    James Kunstler, in an editorial in today’s Post.

    One of his other points in this article is that you can’t get something for nothing.

    Kunstler and I have what can only be described as a “weak tie”, but it sure is nice to know that someone confirms what I already think.

    Why do I liten to retards who try to convince me I’m wrong?



  12. Groveton Avatar

    As this day unfolds and the people on this blog contibute their witty observations …

    Perhaps this would be a good day to visit the Washington area …

    To remember the people whose names are written on headstones in Arlington and on a wall in Washington.

    Or, at least, to take a minute away from Bar-B-Ques and swimming pools to remember that none of this debate would be possible without the ultimate sacrifice made by those who wore the uniforms of the United States military.

    God bless America.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic
    Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868

    I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

    We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.

    If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.

    Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude,–the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

    II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

    III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.

    By command of:

    N. P. CHIPMAN,

    Respectfully posted,

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