Shared environments often take the form of a real-world public space, what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg famously called the “third place,” a connective environment distinct from the more insular world of home or office. The eighteenth-century English coffeehouse fertilized countless Enlightenment-era innovations, everything from the science of electricity, to the insurance industry, to democracy itself. Freud maintained a celebrated salon Wednesday night at 19 Berggasse in Vienna, where physicians, philosophers, and scientists gathered to help shape the emerging field of psychoanalysis. Think, too, of the Paris cafes where so much of modernism was born; or the legendary Homebrew Computer Club in the 1970s, where a ragtag assemblage of amateur hobbyists, teenagers, digital entrepreneurs, and academic scientists managed to spark the personal computer revolution. Participants flock to these spaces partly for the camaraderie of others who share their passions, and no doubt that support network increases the engagement and productivity of the group. But encouragement does not necessarily lead to creativity. Collisions do – the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space. That’s where the true sparks fly. The modernism of the 1920s exhibited so much cultural innovation in such a short period of time because the writers, poets, artists, and architects were all rubbing shoulders at the same cafes. They weren’t off on separate islands, teaching creative writing seminars or doing design reviews. That physical proximity made the space rich with exaptation: the literary stream of consciousness influencing the dizzying new perspectives of cubism; the futurist embrace of technological speed in poetry shaping new patterns of urban planning.
From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson