Blog: Richard 'Murph' Murphy

How do we build a local knowledge-based economy? Richard 'Murph'  Murphy has a few ideas... and they're not what you might expect. Murph is an urban planner for the City of Ypsilanti, seasoned blogger and U-M grad who was recently profiled as one of Concentrate's "masterminds."

Richard 'Murph' Murphy - Post 3

Before you all leave for the holidays and miss next week's posts, I should take the opportunity to mention Mittenfest III, a three-day local music extravaganza that serves as a benefit for the 826michigan writing program.  Mittenfest takes place at downtown Ypsilanti's Elbow Room on the Friday through Sunday after Christmas, 5pm to 1am, with 9 bands each night, and features a pretty impressive list of the area's musicians.

The "benefit" side of the event is kind of an afterthought, though. The primary reason for the show is that Brandon Zwagerman, my former classmate and a paragon of Michigan statriotism, who pulls strings in Washtenaw County from several states away, is coming home for the holidays, and wants to see a few dozen of his favorite bands. Brandon is previously responsible for Madison House, a backyard venue not much bigger than my living room that was one of the most popular live music spots in Ann Arbor for a few summers, and Somethingfests for every occasion. (Such as the Arbor Vitae-hosted ArborFest, where I, as the scene newbie taking a shift at the door, attempted to charge Chris Bathgate cover to get into his own home. Sorry about that...)

But, back to my more general theme.

One of the cultural shifts necessary in our post-industrial economy is how we think about locating businesses. My profession (urban planning) has spent most of its first century trying to disentangle and draw bright lines around various activities, putting each in the "right place", separated from each of the others. 

The original intent was sound - protecting residences from the noxious side effects of 19th century foundries, slaughterhouses, and glue factories - but the reasoning behind the current state of things is a little more questionable. We now seem to accept as normal and reasonable the idea of an "office park" or "research park" or "industrial park" or even "educational park" - areas like little zoos, where each business has its well-defined space, penned off from all the others by stormwater detention ponds and parking lots. (Sometimes there are little fountains in the ponds, giving the illusion of this being a nice place, and helping us ignore that the animals are being kept in sterile, lonely isolation.)

The system that worked fine for 3 shifts of 1,000 assembly line workers each, running machinery around the clock - an activity that merited some separation from neighborhood residences - doesn't make quite as much sense in the "knowledge economy" we like to talk about.  Whether it's Google's requirement for proximity to all-night doughnut shops, the working alone together practice of coworking, or the fact that downtown is the hottest residential market in both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, there's plenty of evidence out there that people don't all value separation as much as we've assumed. (Or as much as we've codified, based on those assumptions.)

And here's where I think Dug Song was reading my notes for his comment from yesterday. ug says, "What I hope to see develop here is a well-knit, efficient network of innovators with ample opportunity for collaboration (often on lots of small, fun, throwaway projects and investigations). And this comes down to matters of physical space, proximity, and culture. We need to foster a community of startup folks and geeks meeting and learning from each other."

Excellent. Thank you, Dug.

Proximity, and the frequent crossing of paths it creates, is a critical piece of getting an "idea" to an "innovation" or "invention", and from there to "economic development".  Some of this is about having houses close enough together that you can talk to your neighbor over the fence. Some can be approximated online - the example of Mark Maynard and Steve Cherry's blogs recruiting me to Ypsi being foremost in my mind. (Phone doesn't count - chance encounters on the phone are generally just creepy.) A lot of it is having third places (not work, not home) for these encounters to happen - the phenomenon where I can walk into Bombadill's, Beezy's, or the Corner Brewery at any time and probably know half the people there somehow.

Running into people is an underappreciated way to get a job, find funding, get connected to people working on similar projects, or just talk through what you're working on to a fresh face and have the thought shift you were waiting for.  Sure, there's value to formal networking - calling up likely resources you know and asking after the things you're looking for. The best cross-pollination comes from the serendipitous, though. Running into somebody who introduces you to their lunch companion, who happens to be exactly the person you needed to meet, but the intermediary never knew it.

There are a lot of reasons that I like downtowns and the dense neighborhoods that surround them. I find the mixture of people and things pleasing and exciting in and of itself, for example - probably a product of being slightly ADD and wanting to have lots around me to occupy my attention. There are the environmental benefits in every realm from stormwater to historic preservation (it's like recycling, but whole buildings at a time!).

I think this is the most compelling reason, though. It's these downtowns and dense urban neighborhoods where creativity finds fertile ground - where sub-idea particles are slammed together and bombarded with alternatives until life is sparked. (and, uh, metaphors are tortured beyond recognition...)  It's the proximity of having lots of people close together, and the critical innovation resources that proximity supports (bus service, free wi-fi signals, good coffee, and tables to talk over) that gives Dug's network of innovators the ability to get together, collaborate and recombine, Really, it's a shame that we lock so many smart people up in office parks rather than letting them out on the sidewalks, where the real work happens.