8.23.2006

Party Over Here

I have a cousin who is literally a rocket scientist. She went to top-notch schools for her B, her M, and her P. And when it came down to figuring out where she want to do her first professorship, all the places that made her offers were full of other talented people. The tie-breaker for her was to go to a place where she would not only be with other talented people but near other talented people. So the great universities in the middle of nowhere lost out to the great university in the middle of everything.

I share this personal anecdote (and changed a few details for discretion's sake) to make the point that the absolute opposite of what many of us predicted would happen has happened as it relates to the importance of location. After all, the Internet and the reliance of it for communicative and collaborative purposes by the knowledge economy was supposed to render location obsolete, right? Let people live and work where they want to work, however diffuse that is, and let's all meet up in cyberspace.

Only it turns out that location, when it comes to knowledge workers, is even more important now. Maybe it's that the world is getting smaller but meaner, so we long all the more for the personal touch and the face to face. Or maybe there's something to be said for the nuances and subtleties that are derived when people literally rub shoulders rather than just send emails and ftp documents.

(By the way, here's another argument for keeping recess in grade school and not sacrificing it in the name of cramming more math and science into our curricula. I'm firmly in the "doom and gloom" crowd as far as the US losing its competitiveness in math and science, and yet I still think that what you learn as a kid in recess is going to be more important to your future success -- even in the maths and sciences -- than more time in the classroom. Because memorizing facts can't hold a candle to the softer but more marketable skills of observation and persuasion and problem-solving.)

Whatever the case may be, this has implication for us city lovers who want to attract knowledge workers, for the commercial activity and job creation that invariably follows when such superstars cluster together. Business Week recently highlighted Stockholm, Orlando, and Singapore as three cities that have done a good job here. It also mentioned Montreal, Portland, and Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill.

Now don't get me wrong: government is not the solution to all of life's problems, let alone this one. I'm leery of governments picking industries, doing too much deal-making, and other monkeying around with the free markets. But there are some natural things that governments ought to do that can clear the path for knowledge workers to cluster, investments in parks and recreation, championing of research universities, and development of tech infrastructure being three. (Take a look at that list of cities above and all of them have at least two out of three solid.)

If life's a party, then knowledge workers like my cousin are the popular and pretty people, the ones who, if they come, everyone else wants in too. And in fact, life is a party -- the best work is done when people are geographically near each other. If cities want the party over here, they better know how to throw one that's good enough to attract that kind of agglomeration.
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