John Hagel brings together two opposing viewpoints today regarding the location of innovation. These are flat and spiky earth concepts. The first, Tom Friedman's flat earth, proposes that due to the egalitarian and open nature of the Internet, modern communications and travel, innovation need not be concentrated in historic urban centers. The second, Richard Florida's Spiky Earth, suggests that these same forces actually increase the gravitation toward acknowledged centers of innovation.
John suggests that they both may be right, but are missing the point that the world's innovative landscape evolves over time. Different locations may assert themselves at different times and may grow to prominence and lose prominence as someplace replaces them.
Historically, many cities have been the "center" throughout history. Florence, Milan, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, etc. But this is not a static state.
It's much like initial network theory. There was an assumption that a strong centralized node had a degree of permanence, but this was shown not to be the case. But that does not mean that strong nodes don't remain important .. they might just lose their dominance.
This can be seen in the case of Estonia. Why would anyone want to innovate in Estonia, one would have asked. It was totally off the market. Until all of the sudden there was Skype. Then a community of innovation suddenly started to exist in Estonia. It grew out of nowhere, capitalized on native talent. Then started to import talent. A perfect example of the flat earth concept.
Until a few weeks ago when they were consumed by eBay. The major hub re-asserted itself. Skype went from belonging to Eastern Europe to belonging to the Bay Area.
This indicates that there is play between the two concepts. You can innovate and be eaten too.
At issue here is two rather limited theories that assume that people do or do not want certain things as a unit. That people are, in essence, all the same. But they are not.
The Bay Area is a great concentration of innovative thinkers. I try to go there at least every eight weeks if not more. I go for conversation and community.
On the other hand, I don't want to pay $800k US for a house that's about to fall over. Many people are willing to pay for that because the opportunities are numerous and the conversation is that good.
But Ameritrade is innovating in Omaha. Fast Servers is innovating in Iowa City. People are innovating all over the place. Because they've been able to start their own conversations and build up critical mass to give them legs.
The Internet gives their conversations reach. I can extend my reach via this blog, or trips to Palo Alto or having coffee with friends. All of these help me build what Frans Johansson calls "Intersections" in his book The Medici Effect. For Johansson, innovation happens when people are exposed to multiple ways of thinking - cultural, professional, etc. As we are so exposed, we begin to pull truths from one discipline and import them into another. This extension of doctrine to incorporate thought from outside the doctrine is the essence of innovation.
The creation of environments that lead to this type of innovation is made much easier by modern technology. The flat layer of our world is much thicker. But this does not negate the fact that people are social animals and the value of the intersection is enhanced by face to face interaction. Like it or not, we're still human. Human beings like to hang out with human beings.
We have the capabilities of a totally flat society. We have the social needs of a spiky one.
((Please be sure to go back and read John's article, I didn't quote from it enough))