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Culture / Remote work

Why place — real, physical space — still matters for invention

Research shows you’re less likely to collaborate with people more than 30 feet away. That underpins all our economic strategy. Will it last?

Quorum, a gathering space for business and community, at the University City Science Center (Danya Henninger/Technical.ly)
Building 20 on MIT’s campus was called a “miserable hole.”

Yet a dizzying array of cross-disciplinary breakthroughs came from its windowless halls, in physics, linguistics, communications and more. At least nine Nobel Prize winners worked there.

The space was built to be temporary, to rally science for the Second World War, but it was in use through the 1990s. Offices sprawled and departments overlapped. It was frustrating to navigate. Yet as a consequence, experts in far-ranging fields found themselves working closely together. They lunched and shared coffee — and then wrote papers, filed patents and commercialized technology.

This is the heart of the so-called Allen Curve, named for influential former MIT professor Thomas Allen. Made famous by his 1977 book “Managing the Flow of Technology,” he discovered that collaboration follows a predictable and direct connection to physical distance.

Separate two coworkers by 10 meters (about 32 feet), and they’re less likely to chit chat. And chit chat among clever people results in an exchange of their passions and problems. Invention follows.

Create clusters for productive collaboration

The Allen Curve was further documented by MIT in 2017: More than shared expertise or even friendship, distance predicts collaboration. Researchers in the same workspace are three times as likely to co-author a paper than if separated by 400 meters (2 to 3 city blocks). Colleagues a few blocks further away are another half as unlikely to collaborate. The same is true for sharing patents. 

This is why density is so entwined with invention, economic growth and creative output. 

All the research suggests that academics walking between campus buildings and software developers bicycling to tech meetups is an economic good from which everyone benefits. 

“You want to create a cluster of assets to support the economic growth that’s going to come from that,” said Tiffany Wilson. In fall 2020, she became the CEO of the University City Science Center, once known as an urban research campus, with a collection of buildings and labs west of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. 

Wedged between the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, the Science Center has emerged in recent years more focused. After divesting much of its Market Street real estate portfolio, the nonprofit now runs a portfolio of programs intended to nurture life sciences startups, including the workforce they employ.

Central to that strategy is its urbanity. Trains and trolleys, buses and bicycles, good coffee and good beer are all as much a part of its bet on innovation as microscopes and spreadsheets. Good places to live are good places to work, good places to work can be good places to live — and happy workers tend to be productive workers. 

This is what economists call agglomeration effects, or what economic development strategists call innovation clusters, or what startup boosters call ecosystem building. Anything that underpins so many of our strategies is worth scrutiny. 

‘Structural holes’ are key to creativity

After the pandemic we ask, will the world’s largest social experiment in remote connection erode the Allen Curve? Wilson says no.

“It’s true that I don’t think we’re going to go back to the pre-pandemic structure of work,” said the Science Center CEO. At-home days are good for quiet administrative tasks, and help workers balance personal needs. 

And yet, as Technical.ly outlined recently, employers and economic leaders must invest in making in-office work dynamic, efficient and enjoyable — because once researchers, workers and entrepreneurs get together in-person, we create.

“We’re all still human and that’s where the creative sparks go,” said Wilson, who has a Georgetown MBA and did economic leadership tours in Atlanta and Washington DC.

She rattled off structural reasons why places like MIT’s Building 20, Pittsburgh’s Robotics Row, Baltimore’s Biopark and Philadelphia’s University City are so much more economically productive than video-conferencing alone. 

“Nobody lingers on Zoom,” she said. If something comes to mind after you leave the video chat, it takes more effort to reassemble everyone. You don’t accidentally bump into people on video chats. 

And research teaches that innovation comes from these “structural holes,” or the inefficient gaps between intended work.

In-person connection will evolve, not disappear

The ways we spend time online continues to shift. 

Most online communication tools are built for efficiency. I am thankful for the post-pandemic rise in time-saving 25-minute video calls. But true breakthroughs are stubbornly inefficient. Smart professionals recognize the difference and switch between virtual and in-person communication, depending on goals. 

Not all virtual worlds are so coldly efficient. 1 in 5 teens met an online friend in-person a decade ago, and the number is likely to have grown. Twitch streams, Instagram Live and other virtual worlds are designed to linger. The as-yet undelivered promise of VR, embodied by Apple’s Vision Pro, is that we’ll finally feel proximity online.

Won’t a future Nobel Prize be awarded to two researchers who talked things over while playing Minecraft?

Maybe our expectation that place matters is just because we’re stuck in what has come before. Legendary physicist Max Planck famously said science advances one funeral at a time. Just because today’s leading innovators prefer to swap ideas over coffee or in the lab doesn’t mean future generations will. 

Won’t a future Nobel Prize be awarded to two researchers who talked things over while playing Minecraft?

Maybe. Wilson counters that today’s advanced research still requires in-person tools, many of which are expensive, sensitive and downright messy. “No one can do biotech in their kitchen,” she said. To which I say: Fair enough.

At present, the federal government is subsidizing place at an historic pace. The Inflation Reduction and CHIPS acts, which includes the EDA Tech Hubs program, direct massive funds toward place-based innovation, like chipmaking facilities. 

Many of these investments take an ecosystem approach, including institutional research, private sector and workforce development programs of varying sizes, like the Science Center’s BULB program. (That’s well timed, after a research paper published last fall argued that university-led research is less economically productive than that from business.) 

Another human phenomena suggests that place will last. The Lindy effect was named in the 1960s after a Manhattan deli where standup comedians liked to meet. Coined by Pittsburgh-born biographer Albert Goldman, it suggests that the likelihood a technology will exist in the future is proportional to how long it has already existed — just like a good joke.

Forced to choose, bet that hammers will be around longer than smartphones. Expect knock-knock jokes to outlast today’s latest meme. Similarly, in-person interaction, like the cities and campuses that facilitate it, will likely be with us awhile.

“I just want us to really be careful about not losing the human connection,” said Wilson. “Even if I think it’ll continue to evolve over time.”

Companies: University City Science Center
Series: Builders
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