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Joi Ito’s Plan For Urban Innovation: "Let A Thousand Weirdos Bloom"

Instead of planning for an urban renewal, the head of MIT’s Media Lab says cities should just get out of the way and make it easier for young and interesting people to do what they do best: innovate.

Ever since Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, back in 2002, urban planners have been hot to find the secret key to unleashing innovation (and its attendant jobs) in their cities.

Is it all about attracting gays (perhaps Florida’s most newsworthy prescription at the time. What a difference a decade makes!)? Artists? Techies? And, more importantly, if a city doesn’t already have a home-base of such "creatives," what can city fathers do to attract it?

Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s famed Media Lab, has a different idea: Find what talent already exists in your city, the more iconoclastic the better, and then nurture it without big-footing it in the process. In other words, "Find your own weirdos, and figure out how to amplify them," he says, riffing on Richard Pascale’s theory of positive deviance.

In a preview of his keynote speech at the four day, New Museum-sponsored Ideas Cities 2013 conference in New York, Ito says there’s no "one size fits all" template for urban innovation. What worked in San Francisco’s SoMa area, or Cambridge’s Kendall Square, might not work in Minneapolis or Macon.

What’s more, the very effort to attract such talent by building infrastructure in advance, may well backfire, raising costs and destroying the vibe. "Look at New York," he says. "If you have an area where established businesses have gone away, costs will go down, and entrepreneurs will move in. Scuzzy kids don’t need much space anymore, they just need a network and a place with a critical mass of energy to self-organize. Infrastructure comes later."

As technology and the internet have lowered the cost of innovation and expressing yourself creatively, the ability of small groups of people to have a big impact has increased, he says.

"The barrier now isn’t lack of money," he says, "it’s lack of permission. Untapped capital gets unlocked when authority gets out of the way and lets people do what they would do if given potential and the context in which to do it."

That Untapped Capital—the theme of the conference—may not be simply the next wave of tech entrepreneurs. They may be Brooklyn pickle purveyors. Or urban farmers in Detroit. In short, home-grown talent that just needs space and an indulgent municipal government willing to turn a blind eye to the occasional zoning violation.

This hands-off approach is inherently frustrating to planners who are eager to help. "The natural tendency of planners is to fund stuff," Ito says. "But by doing so, you often change the nature of it."

He compares it to meditation. If you’re thinking about meditating, you’re not meditating. Similarly, "if you’re thinking about creating a space for emergence, for the unlocking of bottom-up capital, you’re not going to do it by deploying capital. Even by sitting in a conference room, talking about it, you’re deploying capital."

In Ito’s words: back off and let it emerge on its own.

That’s not to say a city can’t be a facilitator. It should focus on doing what it’s supposed to be doing anyway: providing street lights, fighting crime, keeping up the roads and transportation infrastructure, and so on. That’s been the problem cited by many fledgling entrepreneurs in Detroit.

But "in mature cities, where you already have basic infrastructure, people are looking for space more than they’re looking for help," he says.

Still, Ito says, sympathetic government may well have a role to play. "A lot has to do with the character of the city, the character of the people, the character of the mayor," he says. "I’ve seen mayors and city councils do a good job of understanding their cities if they’re close to the people." In short, if they can make it easier for their own weirdos to thrive by letting them do what they do best, then they’re doing the right thing.

But if the city is run by bureaucrats insistent on running a buttoned-up operation, in the pockets of developers and well-funded entrepreneurs, Ito says, "they should just get out of the way."