Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Post-Industrial Industrial City

Tom Vanderbilt has produced a noteworthy paean to what might best be called the post-industrial industrial city. His article appears in the Wilson Quarterly under the title Long Live the Industrial City.

Vanderbilt uses the garment district in New York as an example of how a manufacturing center transitions from “industrial” to “post-industrial.” At one point 90% of garment production was centered there. The fact that most of that work moved overseas did not mean that the district had to wither away. Instead the ongoing activities focus not on mass production but on the higher end of the garment business where design, creativity, and ingenuity pay off. In order for those who design to demonstrate their creativity with an actual product, they need access to a full range of technologies, crafts, and services. They need fast turnaround, rapid communication, and, expert craftsmen to produce their designs. Having all those capabilities co-located in a small area of New York is exactly what is needed to maintain the City as a fashion capital.

The attributes of the enduring garment district are used as a paradigm for the more success-oriented environments that cities can provide.
“People come to be near other people—to draw upon their expertise, to exchange ideas, to compete. The power of proximity has long been understood: the access to specialized knowledge and labor, the lower transaction costs, the “agglomeration effects” in which like breeds like. Large American clothing retailers such as Wal-Mart and Kohl’s may produce and sell globally, but they have design studios in New York City. Firms locate in the same place to gain a sense of what the competition is up to and to hire talent, to benefit from the spontaneous interchange that can happen in streets and elevators, while groupings of showrooms provide one-stop shopping for out-of-town buyers.”
The role of the new industrial city is to produce ideas. Manufacturing can be moved almost anywhere, but creativity requires a special environment. Vanderbilt calls up a number of authors who have written eloquently of the city attributes that create the proper environment.
“It has become fashionable, in part due to the tireless work of urban studies theorist Richard think of cities as big idea labs—creativity skunkworks—where, in science writer Matt Ridley’s infectious phrase, ‘ideas have sex.’ Often, perhaps in reaction to decades of prophecies of urban decline, this theorizing takes on the zeal of a crusade. You’d be forgiven for thinking no idea has ever been hatched outside a metropolis.”

“The reason a city like New York still thrives, even after losing most of its industrial base, argues Richard Florida, is that economic success ‘no longer revolves around simply making and moving things.’ Instead, he writes, ‘it depends on generating and transporting ideas.’ Just as neuroscientists speculate that higher intelligence correlates with the number of network connections between neurons in the brain and the speed with which they communicate, the cities that function best are those with the ‘highest velocity’ of ideas, and the most efficient and robust links between people.”

“Of course, as Elizabeth Currid, an urban planning scholar at the University of Southern California, points out....these sorts of creative exchanges are not purely economic in nature. ‘Agglomeration may be even more important to maintaining the social mechanisms by which the cultural economy sustains itself,’ she writes. The key to understanding urban economics in the future, some argue, is in so-called nonmarket interactions—for example, an essential ingredient of success in the fashion industry is being around other people in the fashion industry, both at work and at play. New York City has become what sociologist Saskia Sassen calls a ‘postindustrial production site.’ It is a place built for the spread of ideas. What the successful 21st-century city now produces is innovation itself.”
Can any city be a site for producing innovation? Perhaps not.
“But what makes innovation happen, in terms of both inspiration and execution? Inspiration speaks to the intrinsic qualities of New York City: a willingness to accept new people and ideas, proximity to others drawn by these self-selecting qualities, and the fast transmission of ideas. The world’s great fashion capitals—Paris, Milan, London, now Shanghai—also happen to rank among the world’s leading financial capitals. Like fashion, finance is dependent upon the fast transmission of information....That those four cities also happen to be their countries’ media capitals illustrates people’s desire to be close to that information, to report and transmit it. And so the city itself, ever novel, ever regenerating, looms as an inspiration.”
While Vanderbilt is correct in pinpointing the elements conducive to innovation, and big cities definitely can provide the appropriate environment, he seems a bit over exuberant in creating the impression that cities are necessary for that environment. Silicon Valley might best be described as a collection of suburbs. In some instances one of our major universities could provide the appropriate multi-cultural, technically-broad environment for innovation. But let us thank the author for providing us with such an uplifting and exciting image of the sites that more and more of us will end up calling home.

1 comment:

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