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Where Innovation Happens
The story of human progress told city by city.
ALL NEW INVENTIONS are combinations of previous inventions, and all new ideas include combinations of previous ideas. In consequence, the places where people come together best serve as the birthplace of the new.
It is for this reason that, as Chelsea Follett documents in Centers of Progress, since the dawn of history, cities have served as humanity’s prime engines of invention.
Follett tells her tale of human progress from the Neolithic to the digital age by providing eight-page capsule “biographies” of forty cities, identifying each one with some important aspect of human innovation. Some of her selections will come as no surprise to most people, as when she identifies Athens with philosophy, Florence with art, New York with finance.
Others, less well known, come as fascinating revelations, such as the role of Tang dynasty–era Chang’an in opening world trade via the Silk Road through its invention of paper money, or the Croatian city of Dubrovnik in pioneering public health:
Dubrovnik was something of a medieval outlier when it restricted the wanton disposal of garbage and feces in the city in 1272. The city banned swine from city streets in 1336, hired street cleaners in 1415, and created a complete sewage system in the early 15th century. . . . In 1390, Dubrovnik also created the world’s first permanent public health office to enforce its various public health rules.
Follett calls one of those public health rules—a mandatory quarantine of “all passengers on incoming ships and members of trade caravans” coming to Dubrovnik from places infected with bubonic plague—“a radical and historic experiment in disease prevention,” earning the city its place of pride on her list.
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Others among Follett’s selections are disputable. For example she nods to Polynesian Nan Madol for inventing seafaring, Mayan Chichén Itzá for team sports, and Cold War Berlin for defeating communism. These would not be my choices, because while Nan Madol and Chichén Itzá did make noteworthy innovations in the fields she cites, they were not the sources for these contributions to progress as far as the rest of the world was concerned—suggesting that Follett understandably has selected some cities more as symbols or exemplars than as the definitive historical ultimate sites of origin in each case. As for defeating communism, I would give a lot more laurels to Gdańsk than Berlin, while awarding the late-nineteenth-century version of the latter city the gold medal for the invention of modern medicine.
But peace, what really comes through in the course of these forty delightful stories is the power of urban-centered human creativity, manifested in across a range of cultures through time in different degrees depending upon that culture’s receptivity to innovation, but ultimately inherent in all.
PERHAPS THE MOST POWERFUL of Follett’s tales is her last, in which she singles out San Francisco for its role in spearheading the digital revolution. Here she recalls a series of events that many of us observed unfold in real time and that all of us have been affected by.
It begins with the foundation of the Hewlett Packard electronics firm in the Bay area shortly before World War II, then follows with the invention of the transistor (Shockley Semiconductor Lab), the hard disk (at IBM San Jose lab), the first digital computer (at UC Berkeley), and the start of Fairchild Semiconductor in the 1950s. Then Intel in turn was created by Fairchild engineers Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce in the 1960s, followed by SRI (one of the four nodes of the newborn ARPANET), Xerox PARC, Atari, Apple, and Oracle in the 1970s. With the newly named Silicon Valley thus founded, the wave of Bay Area-based internet innovation exploded in the 1990s and 2000s: eBay, Yahoo, PayPal, Google, Airbnb, Coinbase, Craigslist, DocuSign, DoorDash, Dropbox, Eventbrite, Fitbit, GitHub, Grammarly, Instacart, Instagram, Lyft, Niantic, OpenTable, Pinterest, Reddit, Salesforce, Slack, TaskRabbit, Twitter, Uber, WordPress, Yelp, and on and on and on.
But nothing grand lasts forever. Each of the cities has its time on the stage to say its lines and make their impact. But the show moves on. As Follett writes of San Francisco:
San Francisco’s golden age has ended. As the city struggles to address its homelessness crisis and various other problems, numerous technology companies have relocated and many technological breakthroughs are now occurring elsewhere. Do not take San Francisco’s placement at the end of this book to mean that the city today presents a model to be emulated. Quite the opposite. Even so, the area’s erstwhile achievements merit celebration.
“San Francisco is this book’s last center of progress,” she concludes, “but not humanity’s. There are doubtless many more world-changing innovations to come. . . . What will be the next great center of progress? No one can say for certain. You might be standing in it.”
Or you might be someone who would like to help build it. If so, a fine place to start would be by absorbing the lessons recounted in Chelsea Follett’s Centers of Progress.
Robert Zubrin is an aerospace engineer. His next book, The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet, will be published in February 2024 by Diversion Books.