Studying creativity

New Scientist magazine has a cover package on creativity in its latest issue. The link (thanks to Business Innovation 2005 and, by extention, IdeaFlow) takes you to what is essential a tease unless you are a subscriber. The table of contents lists more than a dozen pieces about "the creative mind," and from the short sample bits of each article provided to non-subscribers, it looks like some meaty discussion. I think I'll be hitting the newsstand on the way home tonight to grab a copy.


Gazing into the (near) future

A piece on Wired News deals with what futurists see for the, well, future. "Futurists Pick Top Tech Trends" outlines a handful of things the surveyed futurists expect in the next few years. The two most interesting sections deal with the idea of simplicity and mobile socialization. The first deals with the notion that the continual addition of functions to gadgets might reverse, with things being scaled back to their core uses. The second addresses the idea that all of these gadgets will continue to allow us to do anything anywhere. It doesn't seem like a crystal ball is needed to predict the latter.


The price of convenience

Edward Jay Epstein, who writes for Slate as the Hollywood Economist, tackles the issue of Mark Cuban's movie distribution plans today. He writes that Wal-Mart is the true stumbling block on the path to simultaneous distribution of movies to theaters, television and home video. It seems the company doesn't want to compete with other delivery methods, and has threatened to deny shelf space to studios that shrink the window during which movies cannot be distributed digitally.

"If more and more independent film companies follow Cuban's lead, the studio system of artificial delay could cost Hollywood a significant part of both its movie and its DVD rental audience," Epstein writes.

The true indicator of Cuban's success, however, will be the quality of what he releases. No amount of convenience will make people try one of his films over a studio creation if they are inferior. Upcoming releases by Stephen Soderbergh and others are promising, but it will take consistently top-notch product if Cuban truly hopes to shift the market toward his way of thinking. Stay tuned.


No fear of homogeneous clusters

In last week's issue, Time magazine featured a piece in which it asked a handful of "the smartest people we know" about what the future holds. These people, from Malcolm Gladwell to Tim O'Reilly to David Brooks, were asked about technology, religion, science and politics. The questions about technology were most interesting for our purposes, and help to frame some big issues. Asked what innovation will most alter how we live in the next few years, the discussion turned to the Internet and how it affects communication. O'Reilly talked about how the Internet allows people to be as isolated as ever, but at the same time allows them to communicate more widely than ever. "I suspect most of us in this room maintain communication with a group that is far larger, far more geographically diverse than we ever would have known without technology," he says.

A further question about technology possibly locking us into "homogeneous clusters" was met by interesting discussion about the fact that finding others like yourself can be a good thing. Author Mark Dery mentioned gay kids in small town Oklahoma once had no choices; now they can connect with others. Gladwell said reaching out to such groups can actually enhance diversity because there are many different clusters: "It may be that in each of those groups, I'm finding people who are precisely like me, but there are 10 me's," he says.

Travel and the way it changes the way people think about place and where they are from also was discussed, and the panelists brought that idea back around to the discussion of the Internet and people's ability to stay in touch with and communicate with people in far-flung places. It seemed to further the discussion that runs through many of the posts here thus far, following the notion that you can do anything any where at almost any time. And that, as Gladwell and others say, is a good thing.


Clarifying creativity

Much of the criticism of Richard Florida's theories about the creative class stem from the misapprehension that he proposes excessive governmental spending on infrastructure and amenities in the attempt to attract young people. A new Q&A with Florida online at Fast Company's site does a good job of letting him address the issue.

When asked about the possibility of attracting the creative class through "top-down" solutions, he say that this isn't what he is advocating: "Creativity is organic. You can't plan for it. You can only allow it room and freedom to grow -- something that many leaders fail to do in their pursuit of maintaining the status quo."

Understanding this point is crucial, because it removes a common argument against his ideas. There still is plenty of room for debate here, but framing that debate around accurate information is key.


Distributing choice

I learned about Steven Soderbergh's new film, "Bubble," because Robert Pollard did the music for it. Pollard, leader of the now-departed indie rock juggernaut Guided by Voices, is frighteningly prolific, which makes being a fan an expensive and time-consuming task. He announced a new release and I ordered it, really only learning what it was I had ordered when it arrived yesterday. A bit of Googling revealed that this was part of a very interesting project.

"Bubble" is the first of six films Soderbergh will direct for HDNet Films, the company started by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner to produce high-def product to be released simultaneously on theatrical, TV, and home video platforms. These films follow on HDNet's "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "The War Within," and point the way toward a potentially revolutionary new way to produce and distribute films.

Soderbergh already has been a revolutionary presence in the film world because he cannily alternates between big budget films like "Oceans 11" and the smaller, more experimental films like "Schizopolis," funded by the large paydays of those mainstream hits.

Now, in joining with Cuban and Wagner, he is helping to provide what would seem to be the calling card of the future: choice. Those who don't want to head to the theater to see a new film can rent or buy a DVD. Those who would rather just see it on TV will have that option as well. Cuban is a lightning rod for criticism, and many have predicted the a quick and spectacular failure for this enterprise. Even if it does, it surely points in the direction entertainment will eventually head. Call it the Long Tail or just common sense, things are going to become more convenient, more varied and more diverse.


The Big Moo

In his latest book, The Big Moo, author Seth Godin revisits the notion that success in business comes from being remarkable. He last addressed this in his book, The Purple Cow, in which he wrote that the ordinary just doesn't cut it. Regular cows are boring, for example. A purple cow would be remarkable.

This then, is the next step. To be remarkable, you need "the big moo." To help you find it, Mr. Godin rounded up 32 fellow big thinkers from around the country to contribute pithy stories, advice and anecdotes with the purpose of making the reader think about ways to be remarkable. If The Purple Cow was a movie, The Big Moo would be the second disc of the collector's edition DVD, chock full of extras.

All 33 people contributing to the book did so for free; proceeds will benefit three charities. Mr. Godin has relentlessly marketed the book in the hope that business owners and managers will buy multiple copies, get them into the hands of employees and help everyone start being remarkable.

Plausible? Well, that depends on how suggestible you are. The book is easy to get through in a sitting or two, its short, anonymous bits from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Peters and Mark Cuban easily digested. Some will move you; others, such as the one that begins "Play is tactile... play is active... play is experiential..." and goes on like that for two pages, will not. But over the course of the entire book, certain messages are beaten into your head enough, in enough different ways, that they become mantra-like. Be different. Dare to fail. Push the envelope. Listen. Any and all of these suggestions are worth remembering, and these stories are convincing, engaging ways to put them across.

You will learn about the organic wave of protests that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. You'll hear about Shaun Considine, who literally pulled the song "Like a Rolling Stone" from the dustbin of history. You'll read about Giorgio, a glassware maker who learned about cultural differences that were hampering his sales because he talked to his customers.

The book even handily highlights key phrases in italics: "It had never been done before," “Those who fit in now won't stand out later" and "Once you make the standard, you've created a commodity" being just the first few.

Overall, the book's 73 short entries say one thing: Take a risk. As the cover copy reads, "Stop trying to be perfect and start being remarkable." Easier said than done, of course, but with The Big Moo as inspiration, you're off to a good start.


Restoring our competitive edge

Thomas Friedman and Richard Florida have made the United States' eroding place in the world of science and technology a topic of conversation; now, the National Academies, at the behest of Congress, have weighed in on the issue. The report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," was issued last week and was written by a 20-member committee that included university presidents, Nobel Prize winners, corporate CEOs and others.

In it, four recommendations for how to restore the country's place at the forefront of science and technology are put forth. They are:

--Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education.
--Sustain and strengthen the nation's commitment to long-term basic research
--Develop, recruit and retain top students, scientists and engineers from both the United States and abroad.
--Ensure that the United States is the premiere place in the world for innovation.

All of these were once givens, now they are things that will take some work to restore. The report outlines specific steps that should be taken to get started. This should be required reading for education, business, science and governmental leaders.


An eco-city at every spike

One can't help but think of the doomed Biosphere project when reading about this, but the idea behind Arcosanti is at least pushing some urban planners in an interesting direction. This article in the Financial Times about the Arizona development, which involves ecological city design geared toward pedestrians and efficiency, makes the idea seem like a logical extension of the "spiky" argument. If people really are gathering in centers around the world in which to pursue certain industries, there are worse ways to deal with that concentration of people than this. "Gathering a greater density of people to live and work in one place not only benefits the environment, by requiring less expenditure of energy for things like heating and travel, but also allows people to feel part of a community."


Shades of grey

The follow-up to a cover story about Rebecca Ryan finds the Madison weekly Isthmus noting that not everyone is on board with her "cool cities, hot jobs" theories about how to boost local economies. Joel Kotkin with the New America Foundation has a piece in the latest issue of the UK mag Prospect in which he writes that the cities that embrace these ideas, put forth most forcefully by Richard Florida, do a disservice to their residents.

"If you can somehow make your city the rage of the hipster set, they insist, all will be well." But of course, he writes, all is not well. "Perhaps even worse, the lure of 'coolness' leads cities to ignore the fundamental issues -- infrastructure, middle-class flight, terrorism -- that have so much more to do with their long-term prospects."

It's an old argument, given considerable ink by Steven Malanga in a widely quoted opinion piece last year. Maybe Kotkin, Malanga and others are right; maybe city leaders in these places become so mesmerized by the notion of "coolness" that they ignore essential needs. But I can't help but think that his criticism paints with too broad a brush. Do leaders really ignore all else in the quest for coolness? Or do they still worry about essential needs and what are thought of as more traditional development policies such as maintaining proper zoning laws and low taxes, while at the same time starting to address more quality of life issues such as aesthetics, culture and diversity? It's no surprise that the debate has taken on such black and white tones; that's what things often are reduced to in politics. But it would seem that the truth -- and the best course, frankly -- is to find a way to maintain and enhance the more traditional traits that signify a prosperous city, including low taxes, good schools and proactive development policies, while also pursuing more progressive social and cultural initiatives.

Money magazine just published a list of the best places to retire, and focused its search on college towns. Many of the things cited by Money as being attractive lures for retirees are the same things Florida, Ryan and others tout as being draws for the young, creative class. No one ever accuses cities of catering to sixtysomethings, yet they seem to be doing so by offering the same things that appeal to twentysomethings. Coincidence, or might there be more value in the push to embrace creativity than so-called pro-business types are willing to admit?


On-demand culture

Others will write more eloquently elsewhere about Apple's announcement of the new iPod that plays video, so I'll leave the proclamations about its capabilities and such to them.

But the announcement is exciting on another, broader level: This furthers the onset of our on-demand culture. Sure, audio has been this way for years, and people have been able to illegally download and watch video for nearly as long. But with this new device, Apple makes portable video convenient and legal, and those are two important components of any mainstream movement.

Without placing too much importance on this announcement, I do think it's safe to cite previous posts about the Richard Florida-Thomas Friedman debate in noting that this is just another way for people to do what they want, when they want, where they want. As we move away from appointment-style entertainment toward a more on-demand model, our reliance on the old ways of doing things is fading. With TiVo, we could tape a show and watch it later, using its original broadcast time to do something else. Still, we had to watch it on the TV, which meant we still were shackled to a place. With this, we now can watch a TV show while riding the train to work the next morning.

Arguments about the picture size and quality aside -- or those about the fact that Apple's pact with ABC means there still are few if any shows most people would want to watch available for purchase -- this is a beginning. Wednesday's announcement doesn't mean that you can watch "Lost" on a 2-inch screen, it's that you soon will be able to legitimately watch anything, anytime, anywhere. The on-demand culture is here.


Soul of the city

Richard Florida is often referred to as the rock star economist, and while the bar isn't set very high when it comes to earning such designations, there is some truth to it. Hearing him address an auditorium full of business and community leaders, students and the simply curious last night, I'd say he comes off as a mix of motivational speaker, collegiate lecturer and evangelist. The first stems from necessity, the second from his calling and the third, if I had to guess, from a belief that what he says, if applied, can actually make a difference.

Will anyone listen? It's hard to know. His talk capped a long, somewhat disjointed evening full of ideas and promise, and in the very least, it sparked discussion in the lobby immediately after; that's a good sign.

His talk was discussion worthy. Having heard it twice yesterday -- once at an economic development group meeting and then again, in longer form, at the evening lecture -- I was taken with the simplicity of it all. People want to live in places where they are comfortable, and will then seek out the work they desire. Makes sense. But until talking with Florida last week for a newspaper interview and hearing him yesterday, the one question I had was, has anybody thought to ask people if this is actually true?

Florida shared some results gleaned from a new Gallup Poll called "The Soul of the City," which found that the things people value most in their city are aesthetics and diversity. There is little out publicly about the poll yet, but once it hits, I think it will be big, for it offers another way into Florida's theories and provides some hard data to back up his hypothesis. Before, he was essentially drawing conclusions from data: Certain cities were deemed to be creative, tolerant and diverse, and those same cities seemed to thrive economically. This new poll, however, shows that these are the things that actually draw people to and keep them in a particular city. That data can then be crossed with more specific information about the economies and industries in those cities to draw what I would assume will be fascinating conclusions.


Flat vs. spiky

Two of the patron saints of Creativille seem to be engaged in an intellectual debate, as Richard Florida's recent piece in the Atlantic Monthly is seen as a direct response to the notion of a "flat world" as posited by Thomas Friedman in his book, The World is Flat. Florida says the world is actually "spiky," with a handy (and frankly, pretty cool looking) set of maps that show population centers around the world spiking up to reflect patent filings, population, light emissions and scientific citations. It's an interesting companion to Friedman's work, and it has drawn criticism from Chris Anderson at the Long Tail, who says Florida misses the point by being a "hitist," looking only for the places where big things happen, and ignoring the many other places where small but wonderful things occur. People can do almost anything anywere, he writes, and he says the interesting things happen "in the noise below the spikes."

But aren't both Florida and Friedman right? Friedman's flat world is one in which a talented person can do anything they want; they no longer need to come to the U.S. to create software, design computers, create movies, etc. But Florida's spiky world shows that while this is true, people still migrate to population centers where they find the kind of lifestyle they want, and the resources they need, to do so. The difference is that now you can do this in Bangalore just as surely as you can in New York or Los Angeles.

Perhaps I'm over-simplifying, but it seems that the argument here is over the fine points, while the broader views of Florida and Friedman are actually pretty well aligned.


A beginning

I am the editor of the Corridor Business Journal, a weekly business paper covering the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids Corridor in Iowa. I came to the paper after years as a news reporter at the daily in Cedar Rapids, writing most recently about arts and entertainment. Partly because of the need to give myself a crash course in business thought and theory, and partly because I needed to fill space, I decided to review a business book each week. While a week isn't enough time to read even the most bulletpoint-laden book, I have gleaned enough from my purposeful skimming to learn a lot about business.

I have found that the books I've enjoyed most are those that transcend the bounds of the typical Eight Steps to Soar Like an Eagle and Manage your Nestlings for Success. From Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds to Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat or Freakonomics from Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, these books all seem to point to a new, deeper way of looking at the world. Seeing things only from a business perspective, or only from the point of view of the arts, is to miss the big picture.

So, after thinking on all of this for a while and coming no closer to consolidating it into a new worldview, I decided to do what everyone else seems to do: I started a blog. The major impetus for this comes from Richard Florida, whose work may well be seen as an umbrella of sorts over this whole mess. Florida is coming to town to lecture, and I had the opportunity to interview him. The unedited transcript is here. Tomorrow I'll get the chance to hear him speak a couple of times, ensuring at least one more solid post here. From there, who knows where this will go.