Cities encourage seriousness. But can they do this when employees are at home?

Cities encourage seriousness.  But can they do this when employees are at home?

There is one thing that happens in cities – we Thinking This happens in cities – when people with different ideas bump into each other on the sidewalk, at a bar or a grocery store or at the gym. Together, they think about things that would never come up in a conference room or the kind of coffee meeting with a calendar invite. Strange new ideas take root. Novelty follows.

Urbanist icon Jane Jacobs identified these conflicts as central to what makes cities dynamic. This is what his followers think about him product of contingency, Economists have their own name for the almost magical benefits that flow from these relationships: knowledge spillovers. Economist Edward Glaeser said, “Cities provide opportunities for opportunity.” written“Humans are the stuff of progress.”

Remote work, well, has blurred this picture. Can you get contingency two days a week? Where do people run into each other when the city’s coffee shops are closed? When workers have moved to Montana, or to the outskirts, how do they spread their knowledge? Does it even matter now?

“It’s certainly a difficult time for my view of the world,” said Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, who has written extensively about why it’s good for workers, companies and the economy while people Clusters in particular cities,

Economists have argued that clustering in itself is something that matters, because it helps people trade ideas, get better jobs, and find other people doing highly specialized things. And these benefits of what economists call “clustering” have theoretically become more important as America has shifted for decades to an economy built on ideas.

The question today is not just whether white-collar workers can be more productive by sitting with their colleagues in the office. It matters to them to get along with their coworkers – and stay close to employees Other Companies, and other industries, and other people who may be distant acquaintances or simply familiar faces who think about completely different things.

During the pandemic, many companies struggled with their employees staying at home. Many of those workers concluded, “I’m just as productive!” And people generally did the opposite of clustering: they moved Far away in the suburbsAnd in increasing numbers, college-educated workers are leaving the places that economists say are most productive, including the Bay Area and New York.

Mr. Moretti believes it may take years for us to understand the effects of remote work. But he suspects that it will become more and more clear that we have lost something valuable. Yes, you may be just as capable of performing your daily tasks at home. But what about the idea that you don’t realize you don’t have it because you never met a friend-turned-coworker at the bus stop?

“I still believe strongly in the economic forces that were at work before COVID, the forces that have agglomerated cities and communities for the last 2,000 years,” Mr. Moretti said. “I don’t think they’re gone.”

However, perhaps we should think about them differently?

Karen Chappell, director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto, said, “Agglomeration in space still matters – but accumulation over time is probably where we got it wrong.” “Maybe you don’t need to gather every day.”

He has used location data from the cellphone Track the return of people to the city Throughout North American cities. Many places have not been closed for long and relatively little remote work is happening today. But the city’s level of activity – the stuff of contingency – are particularly lagging behind In cities at the center of the innovation economy, including Seattle and San Francisco.

“During the pandemic, we argued with ourselves that we don’t need so much in-person collaboration,” said Alexander Quinn, senior director of research in Northern California for real estate firm JLL. The group had its own crisis of confidence during the pandemic. But he believes its value is becoming apparent again. “Meaningful innovation,” he said, “happens individually.”

But can this happen, say, two days a week?

“It almost feels like a planned contingency, and I don’t know how you achieve that. It’s a contradiction,” he said. “Let’s create that impromptu creation on Tuesday and Wednesday!”

San Francisco, for all its empty offices and highly remote tech companies, also offers some of the best evidence that agglomeration still matters. Budding artificial intelligence companies have been signing new leases In remarkable proximity for one another. Real estate brokers have already branded the cluster “Area AI”

Artificial Intelligence is a perfect example of an industry that should benefit from consolidation. It is young and developing rapidly. Its funding is also concentrated in the Gulf region. The people working on it are highly specialized. His ideas are the definition of cutting edge.

“For all of us who have been in tech for a while, this is the strongest sense of change and advancement and real-life magic that I think we’ve ever felt,” said Barry McCardell, co-founder and CEO of ” a company, hexBuilding AI-powered tools to analyze data.

That’s a feeling tied to a specific Place (Where Hex has doubled his office space). There are certainly remote workers in the industry, too. But for many people, a plane ride or a Zoom connection away is not an option.

“These ideas are very vague,” said Canjun Qiu, co-founder of an AI company. to paint,

They’re big and complex ideas – it’s hard to nail them down, or email them, or put them into a white paper.

Ms. Qiu, who was influenced by Jane Jacobs in college, believes her company had little in the way of those vague ideas during the years of pandemic lockdowns. This didn’t become clear to them until the AI ​​community came back to life in person (and their employees were back in the office five days a week). Imbue is now a regular host “Thursday Night at AI,” Events where people from across the industry meet. Ms Qiu recalled a recent incident where another entrepreneur took out his phone to show his challenges with an app.

“To have a Zoom meeting about that — I would not take that Zoom call,” she said.

How exactly these personal collisions work – how they turn into ideas, then innovations, then human progress – is still a bit mysterious. Tom Wolfe saw it 40 years ago Employees in the Silicon Valley semiconductor industry used to meet in the same bars after hours to exchange stories of their progress (Ms. Qiu and many others in AI today live and socialize before the pandemic In the same San Francisco group house,

Economists David Atkin, M. Keith Chen, and Anton Popov recently Tried to identify these effects Using geolocated cellphone pings it can be determined where employees of different companies bump into each other in the valley. When two companies are in locations where employees frequently cross paths – including employees with little business connection to each other – more patent citations occur between those companies.

“The mechanism we have in mind is not, ‘I’m in line at Starbucks, I start a conversation with a stranger, and three minutes later I’m talking about my firm’s latest technology,’” Mr. Atkin. Said.

Rather, he said, think of Silicon Valley as a built-in social network of friends of friends, former college classmates, one-time coworkers and the like. People who meet each other in a bar or supermarket activate the link on that network and start chatting.

The whole point is that these are No Planned meetings between people who believed ahead of time that they had something in common that they needed to talk about. Now a physicist and an engineer are having a conversation about AI, a software developer and an architect are looking at an app together.

But for this they all will have to leave their homes.

So then, the question is how many times? If white-collar workers choose to work two, three days a week, that impacts everyone else in the city who is potentially affected: restaurant servers, bartenders, dental hygienists, small business owners. Coffee shops that operate five days a week cannot operate for two days. Then other collisions that happened in the past also disappear.

Glenn Kelman, CEO of Seattle-based Redfin, is concerned not only about innovation, but also about civil society. Remote work makes it easy to live in an Internet bubble, he said; The physical world forces different people to come together.

Mr. Kelman adapted to remote work during the pandemic, but earlier this year he changed his mindCall your employees two days a week.

“I think the tech people themselves have spoken to the idea that people are not social creatures,” Mr. Kelman said, “that we don’t get this energy from being around each other.”

However, it is difficult to ask workers to give up flexibility in terms of child care, or more affordable housing in another city, in the name of clustering and innovation. Maybe that compromise isn’t worth it.

Some cities may eventually develop with an answer. Downtown may have fewer offices, more residents and attractions, and other types of conflicts that are not dependent on daily office culture. But for now, what kind of place is a city that creates serendipity just a few days a week?

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