Saturday, November 25, 2006

What makes a cool city?

Today’s New York Times has an article on the growing attractiveness of Atlanta, Portland, Oregon, Charlotte, Denver, and Austin for the young and restless generation. With an overall aging population, the group of the 25 to 35 year olds becomes a shrinking minority, courted by cities because studies show that once people are over 35, they are much less likely to move and relocate again.

According to one of the marketers for Atlanta …”had the chamber tried to advertise Atlanta, they might have screwed it up —because they [the youngs] are much more trusting of their own network than they are of any marketing campaign."
In studies, the most attractive factors for such cities were the low cost of living, an airport hub for easy travel, and a diverse and open culture.
But what really makes an open and diverse culture remains a mystery. In surveys the young and restless like downtown living, good public transportation, and lots of entertainment options. The point is, however, that cities that already have a significant share of the young and restless tend to attract more of them. So the question remains: What gets a city over the tipping point, and makes it more attractive than others.
Atlanta might give us one answer, in that it is home to more than 45 universities and colleges in the metro area, as well as to scores of companies in the high-tech and entertainment sector. As we have found in our own research, students at universities fulfill an essential function as what in social network theory is called “gatekeepers” and “bridging structural holes”. What we saw when comparing two networking events organized by the same people in Boston and San Francisco is the crucial roles of graduate students and other academics in being the gatekeepers. The picture below shows the social network constructed at two networking events run in sequence first in Boston, then in San Francisco.

The dark dots are the industry participants, blue dots are academics, the red dots are the people for whom the event was organized, the pink dots are the organizers in San Francisco, and the grey dots are the organizers in Boston. What is striking is the cohesiveness and density of the Boston network. While there are more participants in Boston than there are in San Francisco, the Boston participants form a much denser cluster, connected by the academics (the blue dots). As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the “Tipping Point”, connectors are the key people to convert cool ideas into trends. As we can clearly see in this picture, academics are the connectors!

So, having a large pool of diverse universities and colleges within local reach seems to be a key ingredient and catalyst for a successful mix. Which of course begs the questions how to get those universities in the first place? Is it geographical location, industrial development, or just luck that contributes to a successful mix? Many more questions to answer!

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