I recently read Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  There are several places in the book where I found myself highlighting key findings and bookmarking pages.  In one section in particular, on “urban friction,” I literally started reciting out loud.  I highly recommend this book.

So what is urban friction?

Urban Friction is a romance movie from 2002 and also a term that describes social interaction and the value it creates, particularly in cities.  Lehrer describes it, at least in concept, through the work of Jane Jacobs, an urban activist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Jacobs was very interested in preserving the quality of city life Greenwich Village where she lived.  Her neighborhood in Manhattan and others like it at the time were at risk for being bulldozed and turned into high rises with elevated highways.  Robert Moses wanted to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway directly through SoHo and Little Italy and she became a outspoken activist against the project.  Jacobs studied the scale of the buildings and streets in her neighborhood and compared the crowded sidewalks to a “spontaneous ballet” filled with people of all walks of life including school kids on the stoops, “gossiping homemakers,” and business people coming to and from the office.  On a city plan, Greenwich Village is just a few streets on a map, but up close, the Village was (and still is) a thriving community of people interacting with each other from all walks of life.  Jacobs emphasized that this “surplus of human capital” produced incredible innovations like new wave music.

Jacobs describes the physical elements of the Village during her lifetime that made it work as the ideal place for spontaneous interaction, including short city blocks for pedestrians to easily navigate, plenty of older buildings with less expensive rent allowing for a diversity of residents, and mixed use buildings – a combination of housing, restaurants and retail – encouraging a wide variety of people to be on the street at any time of day or night.

Enter Geoffrey West.

Jane Jacobs introduced the elements of cities and what made them valuable at a conceptual level, but Geoffrey West turned her concepts into mathematical formulas.   West is a theoretical physicist in search of “fundamental laws.”  He worked for decades at Stanford University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory specializing in the behavior of elementary particles, but when one of his major projects was cancelled due to government funding, he focused his attention on the behavior and patterns of cities and became a distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute.  After years of collecting data, West and Bettencourt discovered that all urban variables could be described with just few simple equations.  According to Lehrer, “These are the laws that automatically emerge whenever people ‘agglomerate,’ cramming themselves into apartment buildings, urban cars and sidewalks.  It doesn’t matter if the city is Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, Kansas, the urban patterns remain the same.”

West and Bettencourt started making very accurate predictions about every socioeconomic variable, from the production of patents to per capita income.  They found that productivity increased by the size of the city, and as the size of the city doubled, productivity increases by a factor of 1.15.  For example, a person in a city of 1 million should generate, on average, about 15% more patents and make 15% more in salary than a person living in a city of five hundred thousand.  The bigger the city, the more productivity per capita.  According to West, “Cities are this inexhaustible source of ideas, and that’s entirely because of these equations.  As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating.”  But it’s not just size that matter apparently, density does too.  According to West, the most creative cities are the ones with the most “collisions” between people. West claims that all cities are a little bit uncomfortable and that the purpose of urban planning is to find a way to minimize people’s stress while maximizing their interactions.

Do principles of urban friction apply to companies?

Lehrer describes how West translated the work he as doing for cities and applied them to modern corporations.  “West and Bettencourt discovered that corporate productivity, unlike urban productivity, didn’t increase with size.  In fact, the opposite happened:  as the number of employees grew, the amount of profit per employee shrank.  According to West, this decrease in per capita production is rooted in a failure of innovation.  Instead of imitating the freewheeling city, these businesses minimize the very interactions that lead to new ideas.  They erect walls and establish hierarchies.  They keep people from relaxing and having insights.  They stifle conversations, discourage dissent and suffocate social networks.  Rather than maximizing employee creativity, they become obsessed with minor efficiencies.”

It seems that the very thing that would help organizations increase their value (creativity and innovation) is being stifled by their desire to control how collaboration happens and put everything into its own box.  As much as I’d like to disagree with this West, I think he’s onto something.  Heck, I’m often the one helping organizations design those walls, so I’m part of the problem!

How can space facilitate urban friction?

Two really effective ways I’ve seen companies create urban friction when it comes to the physical environment is to tear down walls and to share space.  Below is an image of GSK’s new building at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, with an atrium that connects different parts of the building together.  In one glance, you can see up to one-third of the workforce in this space.

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The below image is of a building in Milan with lab and office areas open to each other.  This transparency allows for people in different teams to see each other and interact spontaneously throughout the day.

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Sharing space, as a strategy, might include sharing an atrium, circulation paths, meeting rooms, bathrooms, break areas or office space, depending on what is feasible and how far the company is willing to push the concept.  GSK shares almost all of their space which has allowed for fortuitous encounters across the entire organization.

Outdoor workspace might be the best place of all to facilitate urban friction.  Not only are outdoor environments open and typically shared, but they provide many key elements for spawning individual and team creativity like natural light, access to nature and areas for movement.

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I love the concept of urban friction and am particularly interested in how the concept might be applied, from a physical planning perspective, where cities and companies intersect.  The desire to bring companies back from greenfield sites into urban centers is a growing one, and creating a healthy friction between people of all kinds (within and outside of companies) seems a healthy and valuable idea for all.