Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Thu Nov 25th 2010 at 11:00am UTC

The Social Advantage of Large Cities

From Silicon Valley to Shanghai, cities are increasingly seen as engines of economic progress. Cities bring together diverse groups of people and companies in ways that increase productivity and create the networks, clusters, and chance interactions that lead to the discovery of new innovations and the creations of new entrepreneurial businesses. Up until now, the economic performance of cities has been gauged in terms of the education or human capital level of residents or the kinds of work they do.

But new research by my colleagues at the Martin Prosperity Institute sheds lights on the relationship between cities and three underlying types of workforce skills – physical skills of the sort used in manufacturing, analytical or cognitive skills, and social intelligence skills like the ability to direct teams, form entrepreneurial new businesses and organizations, and mobilize both people and resources behind common causes and objectives. The chart below plots the distribution of these three sets of skills by city size.

The relationship between skill and size is striking. On the one hand, smaller cities have more physical skill. As the chart shows, physical skills are negatively associated with city size. On the other hand, bigger cities account for more social and analytical skills. Both sets of skills increase with the size of cities. Social intelligence skills in particular are found in the largest cities and metro areas. And the largest cities have increased the proportion of social intelligence skills they account for over the past decade. Larger cities not only draw more educated and innovative people, but more people with the critical social skills required to turn new ideas into successful enterprises and industries.

This is in line with Jane Jacobs’ early thinking that cities are containers for a diverse mix of people and skills. And it also helps us understand some of the deeper reasons for the success of larger cities, the plight of smaller ones, and our increasingly spiky economic landscape.

4 Responses to “The Social Advantage of Large Cities”

  1. Mike Linacre Says:

    RF, please help me understand the graph. What is the y-axis? Do about 40% of the occupations require social intelligence? Or are about 40% of the workers socially intelligent? Or does the average worker score 40% on a social-intelligence test? Or …

    How about this for the y-axis: “Average Skill Level per inhabitant”? Surely there is a point at which huge cities with immense slums cause the curves to dip.

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    Based on my experience growing up in a small/medium town, the high analytical/social intelligence people in small towns leave and move to larger cities where their skills are marketable and there are other people like them.

    The high social intelligence people who stay in small towns tend to direct it to non-work functions like church & community groups, so it might be underreported here. Like Mike, I’m not sure how things are measured in the chart.

    Even huge cities with immense slums (Mumbai, Mexico City) I think the concentration of people with these skills leads to innovation & entrepreneurship. Where they’re lacking the cities may tend to shrink (see Detroit).

  3. Gaythia Says:

    I have a where’s the data question somewhat related to the issues mentioned by other commenters above. I went to the Martin Prosperity website linked to above. The webpage has a series of rotating graphs, the first of which is the one you give above. I tried looking at the Projects and Research and Publications pages but don’t see what I want there.

    My question has to do with the third screen. Near as I can tell by watching this rotate through a number of times: This contains 3 graphs with the title “Skills impact on learning in Ontario”. The first graph is labeled: Analytical Skills and says that by moving from the 25% level to 75% earnings increase by some $18,000. In the middle graph, Social Intelligence skills moving from 25% to 75% improved earnings by 35K. But in the last graph, Physical Skills moving from 25% to 75% caused earnings to decrease by $8,000. What’s with that? In the first place I would expect to see this graph go sky high at the 99% level, to accommodate star athletes and such. One other big question would be how skill level would be defined separately from earnings.
    Who are these people and how are their skills defined and measured?

  4. Raymond Says:

    As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers. Cities as economic engines of growth and incubators of innovation and ideas only reinforces the increasingly important role they play in our economy.

    The challenge will be for policy makers, urban planners, and business leaders to work collaboratively to ensure that our cities remain vibrant and healthy in terms of their ability to successfully integrate its citizens while accounting for environmental and social implications of urbanization. Urban sprawl, congestion, and poverty continue to plague our cities.

    Given the importance of our cities, we can only hope that our political leaders and business leaders will have the vision and foresight to invest in our cities, including key infrastructure such as transit and affordable housing.