Lightning in a Bottle: economic Development and Entrepreneurs

Steven Johnson:

The musician and artist Brian Eno coined the odd but apt word “scenius” to describe the unusual pockets of group creativity and invention that emerge in certain intellectual or artistic scenes: philosophers in 18th-century Scotland; Parisian artists and intellectuals in the 1920s. In Eno’s words, scenius is “the communal form of the concept of the genius.” New York hasn’t yet reached those heights in terms of internet innovation, but clearly something powerful has happened. There is genuine digital-age scenius on its streets. This is good news for my city, of course, but it’s also an important case study for any city that wishes to encourage innovative business. How did New York pull it off?

There are no easy answers. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine and author of What Technology Wants (2010), writes in the book: “The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers. A place that is open, but not too open. A buffer that is tolerant of outlaws. And some flash of excitement to kick off the virtuous circle. You just can’t order this.”

And yet, even if scenius is lightning in a bottle, there are surely some practices that make you more likely to capture the lightning when it does strike. In an age of public sector austerity on both sides of the Atlantic the good news is that most of them don’t involve massive top-down government spending. (Although, in New York’s case, it does help to have a tech-geek entrepreneur as mayor, in the form of billionaire Michael Bloomberg.)

A vibrant start-up culture requires a healthy community of venture capital firms willing to back risky ideas. New York has a number of gifted venture and angel investors, led by Fred Wilson and Brad Burnham at Union Square Ventures, which supports a number of the city’s web start-ups including But investors need ideas perhaps more than ideas need investors, particularly in an age when starting a web business is amazingly cheap. So the real question is: how did New York find itself generating so many interesting ideas?