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Time of the Big City Wanes

If you're in show business, you head to Los Angeles, and if you're in the technology field, you go to Silicon Valley. This agglomeration, NPR's Shankar Vedantam says, has long thought to be important for productivity, even in science.

When together, people thinking about similar topics are much more productive, Stanford University's Jay Bhattacharya tells NPR. For instance, he notes that the Manhattan Project brought physicists together in the desert to work on one problem, and since they were all there together, they could hear about new ideas quickly.

But, Vedantam notes, Bhattacharya and his colleague Mikko Packalen at the University of Waterloo have actually found that such closeness isn't as important as it used to be for invention and scientific innovation.

Bhattacharya and Packalen analyzed patents issued between 1836 and 2010, to gauge how often a patent cited other recent work, as a gauge of whether the person applying for the patent was engaged with others in the same city. From this, they found that for a long time, living in a big city meant researchers were exposed to the latest ideas. But, they found, that's changed.

"The scientists that are trying out the newest ideas no longer tend to concentrate in big cities. The advantage of living in a big city that [existed] since the 1880s all the way through the 1980s, that advantage has collapsed in the 2000s, " Bhattacharya says. "Scientists and inventors working in small cities are trying out new ideas at the same rate as scientists working in larger cities."

NPR notes that communication over the Internet likely plays a role in this shift. Vedantam says there are still advantages of being down the hall from someone, but that there are other ways of being connected.