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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#BensTake: What’s Next for Municipal Innovation?

Over the past decade, I observed the birth of a movement toward innovative, high-performing local governance, and watched it catch fire. Today, thanks to bold leadership, risk-taking and thoughtful investment from across sectors, we have no shortage of proof points that high-performing government can play an outsized role in the economic, social and all-around well-being of residents at scale.

As I wrote recently, the municipal innovation field has matured well beyond spreading seeds broadly and seeing what grows. We’re entering a new phase of movement-building, which calls for renewed energy and effort to sustain the progress we’ve made. Three key lessons from recent years help chart a path forward for anyone wanting to support the next phase of this movement:

  1. We must maintain our intentional support of municipal innovation as a catalyst for change. Too many philanthropic institutions still view the nonprofit as the only catalyst for positive social change. The body of evidence today demonstrates that, in fact, local government can play an outsized role in driving the social and economic outcomes captured in our mission statements. And with philanthropy holding important resources, including human and financial capital, we can’t remain on the sidelines.
  1. There are inroads to this work for everyone. Regardless of your specific passion, it would likely be better served if local governments were equipped to accelerate positive results. If your organization is committed to racial equity, programs like Racial Equity Here, among others, are working to help government dismantle deep-rooted disparities. If you’re passionate about community engagement, there’s immense need for proven practices that help governments meaningfully connect with residents.

  2. Communities of practice are invaluable. What was missing in the early days of municipal innovation is still an important lesson today: innovation is more valuable when it’s being shared across leaders and cities. Communities of practice, which allow cities to work together on the same issues, connect leaders with partners in the field whom they can rely on for help, and allow them to leapfrog toward results by avoiding past mistakes and replicating successes. We must intentionally grow and support this model of learning.

Today, a decade of public sector risk-taking backed by philanthropic investment, has shown us what is possible, in cities large and small. The promise of a better America may in fact rest not with cutting-edge social innovators in the nonprofit realm, but in local government with its stable funding streams and long-term outlook. It’s a conclusion we hardly could have imagined just a decade ago. Let’s work to make it true.

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