Longitudinal cities limit lateral thinking and innovation : A hypothesis

Back in the nineties, I used to commute between my workplace at Churchgate in the southern tip of Mumbai and my home at Andheri West, far north of it, on a daily basis. Work started at 9 am. At 8.45 am, the workplace would be devoid of any people. But, between 8.45 am and 9.55 am, the workplace would magically fill in with people. After a few quick minutes of the pre-9 am ritual of coffee, logging in on the register, washroom and a quick hello, everyone would be on their seats at 9 am. Like me, most of the 30 odd other colleagues would have travelled 30-40 kms to get to work in the morning. Like clockwork, literally.

In retrospect, two ‘strange’ things happened here. 90% of the staff would come in to the workplace within a 10 min window, despite each one of them travelling different but long distances. Secondly, each one would usually walk in at the exact same minute nearly every day.

How? Because we would all travel by the very reliable ‘local trains’. Running at a frequency of around 3 mins, everyone knew which train they would catch, which compartment they would get into, where within the compartment they would stand and who they would meet in the train. The same scene would be repeated every day, for months and for years. People rarely reported late for work, in an age when remote working, smartphone and agile working were yet to be discovered.

Things have changed today. Because of the introduction of agile working in a lot of organisations, and the luxury of cabs and cars, knowledge workers do not come in to work at the same time. Within a 10 minute window everyday? Are you nuts!

But my query is not about the pluses or minuses of agile working, but a different hypothesis that plays in my mind. The longitudinal geography of Mumbai and the long distances, made trains the only reliable sources of transport for many years. The working class would know what time they had to get up in the morning, what time to leave home, what time to do this and what time to do that; because their lives were entwined around the railway network. Padmashree awardee and ace musician Remo Fernandes says that in Mumbai “You rush to bed, and you rush out of bed. I dunno when you do it, or do you instead?!”

The assembly line nature of the city seems to have got hardwired into people, and possibly passed down through generations, even though the ‘world of work’ has changed radically. In Mumbai, there has been a slot for everything amongst the working classes. Anything new in one’s life would work only if it fitted into one of these slots. Otherwise ‘newness’ had no space. New ideas had limited space; innovation had limited chance. Has the longitudinal geography of Mumbai made vertical thinking a norm and lateral thinking an alien entity?

Take a look at the spurt of the startup ecosystem in India; it has mostly flourished in places like Bengaluru and Gurgaon. Although Mumbai has been the commercial capital of India for centuries, other cities seem to have been a step ahead when it comes to the ‘innovation and new ideas’ ecosystem. I suspect that the geography of a city and the way people commute has a strong (but not limited to) influence on the creative quotient of its people. This eventuality is not limited to Mumbai; take a look at vertical Manhattan and do a comparison with sprawled out California. It is once again a case of unidirectional thinking vs freethinking.

Well, the verdict is not out; but this certainly looks a bit of digging around to prove or dis-prove my hypothesis.

More about the radically changing nature of work, workers and workplaces at www.idream.in/www/

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