It has been shown that a city can influence the way innovation emerges. Now recent research indicates that the structure of an urban area may restrict the social interaction which is a key factor for innovation.

Decentralisation, Fragmentation and Commuting: Might a City’s Structure Constitute an Obstacle to Innovation?

Innovation often emerges from social interactions within cities, because, as Open Innovation Consultant Yassine Damil explains, “megacities have the advantage of bringing together people and talent.” But might a city’s structure also undermine the potential for innovation? Researchers Steven Farber and Xiao Li of the University of Utah have succeeded in proving that the structure of an urban space can simultaneously constrain and support the development of social relations. Their study* leads them to conclude that although the sheer size of a city tends to foster Social Interaction Potential (SIP), there are also other factors at work, such as decentralisation, and longer commutes to work, which have a more negative impact on the “level of opportunity for people to engage in face-to-face activities.”

Density fosters social interactions

The research attempts to define, for the 42 most populous cities in the United States, each having over a million people, the value of Social Interaction Potential and the characteristics which define it. Three factors are observable which tend to reduce SIP: decentralisation, i.e. the dispersion of population and industry over an urban sprawl; fragmentation, which refers to the scattered, non-linear use of the land in the urban space; and long travel between home and work or other meeting points. The research reveals that “the effect of decentralisation is more than seven times stronger than that of fragmentation, and nearly twenty times that of long travel.” This led the researchers to conclude that when residential or employment zones increase in density within a region, this increases the opportunities for SIP, even though it also tends to cause longer travel times due to congested roadways.

Innovation crucibles

So how do these factors impacting on SIP actually affect collaboration, creativity and innovation? Although cities such as New York, Chicago and Seattle would appear not to have great potential for social interaction-driven innovation, given their highly decentralised structure and the long commutes undertaken by their populations, Yassine Damil takes a more nuanced view, commenting: “It seems to me that chance interactions rarely lead to innovation. Interaction may well lead to innovation when it takes place in spaces designed for the purpose, such as research facilities or conferences. It’s there that innovation seems most likely to emerge.”

*Urban Sprawl and Social Interaction Potential: an Empirical Analysis of Large Metropolitan Regions in the United States, by Steven Farber and Xiao Li, Department of Geography, University of Utah.

By Guillaume Parodi