New York as a Culture Medium

Last week I had the privilege of listening to the amazing John Sexton, the president of NYU, introduce Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City (both books I highly recommend). In his eloquent intro, Mr. Sexton noted that New York City has been hit with 4 catastrophes in just over a decade: The tech crash of 2000, 9/11, the financial crisis, and more recently Hurricane Sandy. After each of these crises, predictions were made about the decline or demise of New York, and it never happened. I just personally witnessed, once again, how quickly New York bounces back. Did the most mobile and privileged residents move out of NY after 9/11, as some journalists predicted? Not at all, quite the opposite.

How can this be? What accounts for the powerful resilience of a city like NY? My answer is blindingly simple at first blush:  Because of its culture.

New York is a hotbed of culture. And what do we mean by culture? We at Wunderkind and Scientific Intelligence have a unique definition.

A culture is a stable and self-reinforcing medium for the generation of ideas.

A medium, as in a culture medium in a bio lab – an agar plate. The word culture therefore has a double meaning for us:  As a human society with rules and tendencies, and as a medium that generates and incubates organisms. Biological cultures produce genes and species. Human cultures produce and propagate memes, and therefore, ideas.

In the case of powerhouse cultures like New York, this ‘medium’ supports not only the reinforcing of existing ideas, but the generation of new ideas (innovation) that drive “the knowledge–based creative economy,” as Florida calls it. New ideas come from cultures/communities that are dense, diverse, asymmetrical (creating a kind of dynamism and chemistry) and of course, rich with resources.

Not every city has the kind of density and wealth of a New York. But many have the diversity and resources in pockets, to start the memetic cycle of mutation and propagation of exciting new ideas. Listen up Toronto! And let’s watch what happens in Boston/Cambridge over the next decade, another rich culture medium for innovation.