Wanting to enhance Apple’s creative edge, Jobs used the same model when designing his four-story California headquarters, with offices on the perimeter of an atrium to enhance random encounters among his 12,000 employees. And he similarly modeled his most profitable stores around innovative glass staircases. By enhancing visible interaction, Jobs sought to generate excitement.
Jobs’s main retail competitor, Gateway computers, generated 250 visitors a week in their stores. Apple’s first stores averaged 5,400 visitors a week, those stores soon generating $1.2 billion in sales – a record for any sort of retail stores.
Built around a pioneering glass cube protruding from the plaza of the GM building, Apple’s Fifth Avenue store did even better, generating 50,000 visitors a week in its first year in New York. This led Jobs to proudly note in 2010, “This store grosses more per square foot than any store in the world.” (It helped that Apple also produced superior computers and related products).
So, who says that exciting design does not promote creativity and commerce?
Jane Jacobs’s ideas on community, rediscovered by New Urbanism advocates, follow the same matrix. City blocks, she insisted, should be short. Thus, someone walking from point A to point B might take a different route each time, ”discovering” the antique dealer, the art gallery there, the Indian restaurant on another block.
She also regarded sidewalks as more than by-ways to destinations. Rather, she viewed them as potential 24-hour venues, hosting varied populations – people going to work in the morning, mothers taking their kids to the park in the day, workers congregating at a bar after work, people on their way to movies and concerts at night. What was crucial was not that the street be elegant a la Park Avenue or Rodeo Drive, but more that it be constantly populated by diverse groups. This, then, was her structural foundation for building community.
Jacobs also advocated that buildings have different textures and heights, this benefit subsequently illustrated by Manhattan’s Bleecker Street. There, low-slung walk-ups profuse with bars and restaurants — the heart of Greenwich Village’s nightclub district — abruptly give way to bland high rises on depopulated streets. The difference is instantly noticeable. What’s more, as Jacobs observed, busy sidewalks tend to be safer than deserted sidewalks.
Jacobs’ theories have gotten a major boost from recent studies at the University of Michigan and New York University. Those studies, soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, graphically demonstrate how well-designed communities enhance creativity.
Students in one study were assigned a verbal task — generating a word (such as tape) to match a clue (such as measure) — while sitting in a box. Others were assigned the same task, but outside the box. As study co-author Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks told me in a phone interview, those inside the box came up with about 20% fewer solutions.
Even students confined in a box bounded not by walls, but by duct tape on the floor, provided 25% fewer solutions than counterparts wandering outside the box. Promoting this sort of wandering and random discovery, a la Jacobs and Jobs, has clear implications for how we structure community. Those commuting on the same freeways through bland suburbs generate fewer ideas than those living in more heterogeneous, pedestrian-friendly communities.
Similarly, when Procter & Gamble needed radical innovative products, they turned the traditional workplace upside down, he said. Their design team left behind their cubicles for unstructured space in a different part of the city, enhancing their creativity.
The new studies also confirmed that two people could be physically closer together, “but if they are on different floors, chances of collaboration diminishes,” he said. Collaboration rises, even amid greater distances, when environments promote easy accessibility.
Even once innovative designs can grow stale over time, however. Truly creative spaces are constantly changing.
To shake things up, people thus rearrange furniture, or discover a new neighborhood coffee shop or, for those lucky enough, travel abroad. “Creativity is jump started by novelty, and the ability to flow between contexts,” concluded Sanchez-Burks. These studies have huge implications. Rigid this-is-how-it-has-always-been thinking, coupled with longing for an idealized past, may feel safer short term. But such thinking is counterproductive in the long term.
The most conservative societies are often the most backwards, with the fewest inventions and the lowest GDP. Exhibit A: a Jerusalem dominated by orthodox Jews, whose productivity and personal income lag behind the more secular, innovative residents of Tel Aviv. Exhibit B: A conservative Saudi Arabia which, despite its oil riches, lags behind a more secular and productive Qatar. Exhibit C: Can anyone really compare the creativity of Sarah Palin’s “real American” Wasilla with Los Angeles or New York?
The key to enhancing productive community is thus to exult in our differences, while also fostering interaction between varied populations. We are different ethnically, religiously, and racially. When community is structured to promote easy access, we cross-pollinate, building a stronger, more productive whole. And as Americans competing in a tightening global marketplace, redesigning our communities to build on our creative diversity becomes crucial.
The clash, then, is between growth or stagnation, between jump starting our full national potential or longing for a mythical past. Our future as a country, perhaps even as a world, may well depend on how we resolve this dichotomy.By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist
Next Thursday: How increased economic stratification, together with social media and the Internet, often erodes real community. For Part One of the series, click here.