Sunday, September 29, 2013

Are messy cities like Houston more innovative?

I caught this story last week in the NY Times on how a messy desk can make you more innovative, something I can personally relate to.  It made me wonder: do you think the same thing applies on a larger scale to a "messy", unzoned city like Houston?  First, the key excerpt:
A second experiment, however, found that working in chaos has its advantages, too. In this one, college students were placed in a messy or a neat office and asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were significantly more creative, according to two independent judges, than those plugging away in offices where stacks of papers and other objects were neatly aligned. 
The results were something of a surprise, says Kathleen D. Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota and the leader of the study. Few previous studies found much virtue in disarray. The broken-windows theory, proposed decades ago, posits that even slight disorder and neglect can encourage nonchalance, poor discipline and nihilism. Chaos begets chaos. 
But in the study by Dr. Vohs, disordered offices encouraged originality and a search for novelty. In the final portion of the study, adults were given the choice of adding a health “boost” to their lunchtime smoothie that was labeled either “new” or “classic.” The volunteers in the messy space were far more likely to choose the new one; those in the tidy office generally opted for the classic version. 
Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “which can produce fresh insights.” 
The implications of these findings are also practical. “My advice would be, if you need to think outside the box” for a future project, Dr. Vohs says, then let the clutter rise and unfetter your imagination.
The somewhat chaotic, freewheeling nature of development in unzoned Houston is well known.  Is it possible that also feeds our culture?  Consider:
  • We're known for being more open and friendly to outsiders and diversity in general.  Maybe when you're used to constant novelty in your built environment you're more primed to accept novelty in your social circles?
  • We're known for our optimistic, can-do spirit.  We're also very entrepreneurial.  Maybe seeing constant change around us leads us to be optimistic about changing all sorts of things?
  • Our restaurant scene is getting waves of national accolades for its creativity.
  • Our innovative, pioneering work in energy technology (like the fracking revolution), medicine (like the first artificial heart), space/NASA, and, of course, the Astrodome, the world's first domed stadium.
For contrast, consider very static European cities.  Their cultures are far less optimistic or entrepreneurial.  When the buildings around you haven't really changed for over a century, it would seem easy to get the attitude that "nothing I do matters or can really change anything."

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that our culture and our unzoned free-market in development are inextricably linked, and attempts to more tightly control, restrict, or plan development risk long term damage to our open, optimistic, entrepreneurial culture.

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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At 8:47 PM, October 01, 2013, Anonymous Neil said...

Living things are messy. The fact that most first-world cities never get the chance to be messy - that in fact a mess is thought the opposite of having things be 'nice' - has cost us much of the trial and error (innovation iteration) these places could generate. The opportunity cost is astronomical, but hidden to eyes that see how /nice/ River Oaks is. For instance, imagine if decision shapers were bumping shoulders with the creative class over breakfast instead of being sequestered in their castle breakfast rooms, one to an acre.

At 2:59 PM, October 03, 2013, Anonymous awp said...

I wouldn't go with messy, but at least in real estate we are disorderly and that is a good thing.


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