Why We Should Stop Conflating Cities With Innovation and Creativity

“It can be argued that urban innovation and creativity have combined, giving birth to the smart city. This new city showcases urban technological and cultural prowess, furthering the triumph of the city.”

Few people, particularly those cognizant of current writing on cities, culture, and technology, would blink at the sentence above. “Urban innovation,” the “smart city,” and the “triumph of the city”—these have become familiar as buzz phrases and even book titles.

But what about peripheral regions, rural areas, and small towns—can’t they be smart and innovative? And what exactly is meant by “the triumph of the city”? Triumph over what?

Language can perpetuate and reveal fundamental biases. Gender scholars have analyzed how male bias has permeated language, and how it can shape the way women and people of other genders are perceived and how they perceive themselves. I find that there is a strong pro-urban bias embedded in the language used to discuss innovation and creativity—a bias that makes it difficult to conceive of them outside of cities. The non-urban is systematically, and usually unconsciously, devalued by scholars and policymakers. And this bias persists despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

Why innovation outside of cities gets ignored

In fact, there is plenty of innovation—that is, the introduction of new products, processes, or organizational approaches—outside of cities.  This is overlooked in studies of innovation’s geography because data used to identify innovation (often patents) are themselves biased toward cities in various ways. For example, they tend to undercount process and organizational innovation, innovations protected by secrecy, and innovations in smaller establishments (all prevalent outside cities), and to count defensive patents tabled by (often city-based) large companies as innovation.

As Jakob Eder has recently shown, multiple studies reveal that establishments outside of cities are just as likely to innovate as those within them. These studies also reveal that innovation in local firms does not necessarily lead to local growth and development, since expansion and growth require resources and labor that are easier to access in cities.

Studies that provide evidence of innovation outside of cities are basically of two types: statistical studies using detailed survey or administrative data (which have less spatial bias than patents) to investigate whether firms outside of cities are as likely to innovate as those in cities, or case studies that describe examples of innovation in non-urban settings.

The statistical evidence is important, because it establishes that the case studies are not mere exceptions. Neil Lee and Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, for instance, studied 9,000 Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in creative industries in the U.K. They concluded that “firm characteristics are more important than location in determining the likelihood of innovation” and found “no support for the hypothesis that urban creative industries firms are particularly innovative.”

Markus Grillitsch and Magnus Nilsson, analyzing administrative data covering over 32,000 firms in Sweden, found “no evidence […] that knowledge-intensive firms grow faster in knowledge-rich regions.” This study, like many others, shows that firms in peripheral areas are not necessarily at a disadvantage. My own survey-based research in Canada, on both services and manufacturing, shows that certain types of innovation—process innovation in particular—are more prevalent farther away from cities and that, for similar firms, the probability that they introduce an innovation does not vary between urban and non-urban locations.

Fast vs. slow innovation

There are differences, though. Whereas firms in cities often introduce innovations that rely on intense market-related interactions (fast innovation), this type of innovation falls away as one moves to the periphery, where innovative firms predominantly operate in more technical fields and rely more on internal capacity and targeted collaborations (slow innovation). Two of many examples: Jackson Labs operates out of Bar Harbor, Maine (five hours north of Boston), and Dehnel-Particle Accelerator Components and Engineering is based in Nelson, British Columbia (seven hours from both Calgary and Vancouver).

Why does this evidence have so little effect on urban bias? The bias is such that only urban types of innovation and urban spatial patterns are recognized. There are few fast innovators in low-density regions, and few innovation clusters. Their absence signals—to a predominantly urban-based research community—the absence of innovation.

In this conceptual diagram, the urban cluster of innovators (white dots) is more noticeable, but the proportion of innovators in the city and outside the city is the same. (Richard Shearmur)

The graphic above shows this for clusters. It clearly illustrates a concentration (or cluster) of innovators (white dots) in the city, yet, less obviously, it also illustrates an identical proportion of innovators in the city and non-city (25 percent). To further compound the bias, while 100 percent of cities in the graphic are “innovative” (i.e. have at least one innovator), only 40 percent of non-city jurisdictions are. An urban scholar setting out to find innovation in the periphery is unlikely to simply stumble across it; it is almost impossible to “see” dispersed innovators, and without seeing, it is easy not to believe.

What about the creative non-city? Whether it is Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson’s work on aboriginal music in Northern Australia, Heike Mayer and Rahel Meili’s examination of experimental highland entrepreneurs in Switzerland, Bron-Yr-Aur in Wales (where Led Zeppelin composed some major hits), or blues music originating in the Deep South, there are endless examples of culture and creativity thriving in rural and peripheral settings.

Non-urban creativity has been overlooked because creativity is only expected from canonical (urban) cultural sectors and (urban) “creative” professions. Creativity from other sources, or which calls upon manual and experience-based skills, falls outside the canon. Given the types of creativity recognized by most urban scholarship, the term “creative city” is almost a tautology.

Smart non-cities

Finally, “smartness.” Rural industries such as mining, farming, forestry, and fishing have integrated GPS, satellite monitoring, and remote management techniques at rates equal to the urban adoption of smart technologies. Furthermore, as Elisabeth Roberts and Leanne Townsend show in their study of creative practitioners in rural communities, these communities and their residents are highly connected (even though sometimes at slower speeds): They use the internet and social media to network across vast distances, identifying common problems and interests in ways that were not possible a few years ago.

Just as for innovation, smartness differs between the urban and rural. In cities, administrations are directly involved, managing complex transportation, water, and waste networks; in rural areas, it is industries, communities, and individuals that are smart, often preceding local governments.

Given this evidence, the systematic association of “smart,” “innovative,” and “creative” with “urban” indeed constitutes a bias. In Canada, 30 percent of the population lives more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from a metropolitan area of 500,000 people, and 20 percent of people live in rural areas (places with no town over 10,000 people). Celebrating the urban is laudable, but this has unfortunately morphed into an unspoken and linguistically entrenched devaluing of the non-urban, where much of the population lives.

There is a final twist to this argument, because another bias permeates the urban discourse: a pro-innovation, pro-creativity, and pro-smartness bias. Innovation is not always desirable. Not only can some innovations be destructive (such as financial innovations prior to 2008), innovation today is often celebrated solely because it incites consumption. This boosts GDP and profits, but fuels resource depletion, pollution, and climate change. Smartness rests on (sometimes intensive) energy use, throw-away electronics, and data gathering, with concomitant privacy and monopoly issues.

As suggested by Mario Pansera and Richard Owen, maybe some of today’s most avant-garde innovation is occurring in global backwaters where frugality and maintenance and reuse of machines are introducing new environmentally sustainable practices. “[N]ew business models and new policies that foster grassroots eco-innovation might not only be relevant for developing countries, but offer transfer potential from the ‘south’ to the ‘north’ (innovation ‘blowback’).” The same wind may start blowing from the periphery to the center.

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The Particular Creativity of Dense Urban Neighborhoods

Long ago, Jane Jacobs showed us how dense, diverse urban neighborhoods filled with short blocks and old buildings were catalysts of innovation and creativity. But when economists and urbanists measure innovation they typically look at big geographic areas like metros. Yet, what Jacobs was talking and writing about was the micro-geographic texture of much smaller neighborhoods like her own Greenwich Village.

A new study, forthcoming in the Review of Economics and Statistics, takes a close look at the effect of small urban neighborhoods—and in particular on key characteristics of their physical layout—on innovation. The study, by Maria P. Roche, a doctoral student at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Scheller College of Business, examines the effect of certain neighborhood characteristics on innovation. The study compares the rate of innovation (based on patents granted between 2011 and 2013) to two key neighborhood characteristics that capture older more compact, neighborhoods built before the mass onset of the automobile: street density (based on the total miles of streets shared by cars and pedestrians) and percentage of housing stock built before 1940.

The study includes a range of control variables to capture the role of amenities like bars and restaurants; the role of a particular type of human capital or talent measured as concentration of college grads and inventors; the presence of key knowledge institutions like universities and colleges; and physical characteristics such as land area and bodies of water. To get at this micro-geography of innovation, the study looks at Census block groups and tracks the connection between neighborhood form and innovation in more than 120,000 block groups or across the country

The study finds that neighborhood form—in particular the density and layout of its streets—has a considerable effect on innovation. It finds that a ten percent increase in street density or connectivity is associated with a 0.05 to 1 percent increase in innovation. This is in line with previous studies which find that a ten percent increase in employment density results in a two percent increase in per capita patenting over a ten-year period and that a ten percent increase in highway connectivity leads to a nearly two percent increase in patenting across metro areas over a five-year period.

Neighborhoods with higher street density not only have more patented innovations, but more citations of the patents they generate. This suggests that neighborhoods with denser streets help facilitate greater knowledge exchange and higher levels of interaction over the ideas they generate, as Roche told me via email. The report reads: “Studies comparing citation data with surveys of inventors have detected a strong correlation between patent citations and knowledge flows.”

The study also finds population, employment, and amenities like bars and restaurants to be positively associated with neighborhood level innovation. Roche sees these as factors that work together with the layout of streets and neighborhood form to spur interaction between people—the exchange of knowledge and ideas that ultimately generate new innovations.

For too long, we’ve seen innovation as something that takes place in corporate R&D (research and development) centers, university laboratories, and suburban office parks. But as Jane Jacobs long ago said, new innovations are more likely to come from the density and diversity of urban neighborhoods.

These Jacobs-identified factors have tended to elude economists and urbanists, who have lacked the kinds of detailed neighborhood-level data and analysis needed to track and identify them. Until now, most studies of the geography of innovation have tracked innovations or startup companies broadly across cities and metro areas. Roche’s study uses detailed data to help us better understand how factors of urban form interact with density to shape geographic micro-clusters of innovation at the neighborhood level. Not only does innovation turn on the presence of universities or concentration of talent or human capital, but on physical characteristics like street layout and form of the neighborhood.

As Roche puts it, her findings provide real empirical “support for the idea that the actual physical capacity to connect people and ideas may, in fact, be one reason why cities, and some neighborhoods are more conducive for innovation than others.” The forms and structure of our cities and neighborhoods are not add-ons or afterthoughts. They are key features of the innovative fabric that powers our economy as a whole.

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