I recently spoke with Chelsea Follett, managing editor of HumanProgress.org and policy analyst at Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, about her new book, Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World. Here is our discussion, edited for clarity and brevity.
Thomas Walker-Werth: What led you to write a book about cities, and why these specific ones?
Chelsea Follett: I started out by making a list of the different aspects of modern life and civilization that people often take for granted—everything from a stable food supply and proper sanitation system to written language. I didn’t start out thinking, this book is going to be about cities, but I found that, overwhelmingly, you can trace the greatest achievements, inventions, and innovations to specific cities or population centers. That raises an interesting question: Why cities? And why certain cities and not others? I think that discussing and debating those questions can help us figure out the keys to cultivating innovation today.
Walker-Werth: Based on the cities you’ve studied, what particular social or political conditions make a place ripe for innovation?
Follett: I noticed three main conditions. The first is people. When you have more people engaging in discussion and debate, exchange of goods and services, and so forth, they tend to produce more prosperity, and they’re more likely to hit upon a new idea that will improve the world. That explains why, even when the vast majority of people lived in rural areas, new ideas, inventions, and innovations tended to emerge from cities.
But that doesn’t explain why only certain cities. All cities, by definition, have a lot of people in them. That brings us to the second condition: peace. By “peace” I mean . . .