One of the major themes in your work is that various economic changes have shifted more emphasis onto creativity and ideas.
I think the crisis concentrates and accentuates a few long-running trends. The first is this notion—initially advanced by people like Peter Drucker as early as the 1950s—that our economies were becoming more knowledge driven. I simply added that this kind of idea of human capital actually comes from a much more fundamental human characteristic called creativity. People who are engaged in creative work will not only be happier and more satisfied, but they’ll add relatively more economic value.
But this seems to contradict one of your other major themes, which is that creativity flourishes most in high-density areas. In an economy that’s fueled by ideas and information, why should proximity matter?
Well, I combine that first point with another insight made by urban economists. Paul Krugman won a Nobel Prize in part for some of these insights.
And you cite Ed Glaeser as well.
Yeah, Ed Glaeser is the person who has done the most and the best research on this, although he’s quite a bit younger. He’ll win his share of awards. But a lot of this goes back to the great Jane Jacobs, who argued that what really mattered was not simply accumulation of knowledge or creativity but the geographic concentration. And Robert Lucas, who explained that urban areas bring together and multiply human productive efforts.
But as you mentioned, we have this kind of mythology going around that somehow the rise of new technologies—communication and transport technologies, which shrink the world—will spread out our geography. We always have this kind of romantic notion that technology will free us from the dirty, the pathological, the slum-ridden, the unhealthful city, and that the world will spread itself out.
And why won’t it?
In a previous piece I wrote for The Atlantic, “The World is Spiky” [PDF], I kind of took that myth on. There are two tendencies in the world economy. There is a great tendency for low-cost, fairly standardized stuff to spread itself out, and that’s where people say, “Oh my God, the world is flat.” But there’s also this counter-tendency for things to concentrate—to take advantage of these forces of agglomeration and human capital. So what I tried to argue is that that second tendency is very important. And now we have all sorts of World Bank reports talking about how productivity and performance are so much higher in urban areas, even in the emerging economies.
What I tried to do in this piece is say, “I don’t think this great crisis—or great ‘reset,’ as I like to call it—will change this trend. In fact, my hunch is that, coming out of this crisis, our geography will end up more concentrated than it was before.”
So I take it you don’t have a lot of hope for telecommuting.