We sometimes think of innovation policy as being about generating better ideas through things like sponsored research. And that’s certainly one part of it. But if those ideas are generated in a vacuum, they go nowhere – making ideas spread faster is the second pillar of innovation policy (a third pillar – to the extent that innovation is about new product-generation – has to do with venture capital and regulatory environments, but we’ll leave those aside for now).
Yesterday, I discussed why the key to speeding up innovation was the density of the medium through which new ideas travel: basically, ideas about IT travel faster in Waterloo than in Tuktoyaktuk; ideas about marine biology travel faster in Halifax than in Prince Albert. And the faster ideas travel and collide (or “have sex” in Matt Ridley’s phrase), the more innovation is produced, ceteris paribus.
Now, although they don’t quite use this terminology, the proponents of big universities and big cities alike find this logic pretty congenial. You want density of knowledge industries? Toronto/Montreal/Vancouver have that. You want density of superstar researchers? U of T, McGill, and UBC have that (especially if you throw in allied medical institutes). That makes these places the natural spot to invest money for innovation, say the usual suspects. All you need to do is invest in “urban innovation ecosystems” (whatever those are – I get the impression it’s largely a real estate play to bring scientists, entrepreneurs, and VCs into closer spatial proximity), and voila! Innovation!
This is where sensible people need to get off the bus.
It’s absolutely true that innovation requires a certain ecosystem of researchers, and entrepreneurs, and money. And on average productive ecosystems are likelier to occur in larger cities, and around more research-intensive universities. But it’s not a slam dunk. Silicon Valley was essentially an exurb of San Francisco when it started its journey to being a tech hub. This is super-inconvenient to the “cool downtowns” argument by the Richard Floridas of this world; as Joel Kotkin has repeatedly pointed out, innovative companies and hubs are as likely (or likelier) to be located in the ‘burbs, as they are in funky urban spaces, mainly because it’s usually cheaper to live and rent space there. Heck, Canada’s Silicon Valley was born in the heart of Ontario Mennonite country.
We actually don’t have a particularly good theory of how innovation clusters start or improve. Richard Florida, for instance, waxes eloquent about trendy co-working spaces in Miami as a reason for its sudden emergence as a tech hub. American observers tend to attribute success to the state’s low tax rate, and presumably there are a host of other possible catalysts. Who’s right? Dunno. But I’m willing to bet it’s not Florida.
We have plenty of examples of smaller communities hitting tech take-off without having a lot of creative amenities or “urban innovation strategies”. Somehow, despite the lack of population density, some small communities manage to get their ideas out in the world in ways that gets smart investors’ attention. No one has a freaking clue how this happens: research on “why some cities grow faster than others” is methodologically no more evolved than research on “why some universities become more research intensive than others”, which is to say it’s all pretty suspect. Equally, some big cities never get particularly good at innovation (Montreal, for instance, is living proof that cheap rent, lots of universities, and bountiful cultural amenities aren’t a guarantee of start-up/innovation success).
Moreover, the nature of the ecosystem is likely to differ somewhat in different fields of endeavor. The kinds of relationships required to make IT projects work is quite different from the kinds that are required to make (for example) biotech work. The former is quick and transactional, the latter requires considerably more patience, and hence is probably less apt to depend on chance meetings over triple espressos in a shared-work-environment incubator. Raleigh-Durham and Geneva are both major biotech hubs that are neither large nor particularly hip (nor, in Raleigh’s case, particularly dense).
It’s good that governments are getting beyond the idea that one-dimensional policy instruments like “more money in granting councils” or “tax credits” are each unlikely on their own to kickstart innovation. It’s good that we are starting to think in terms of complex inter-relations between actors (some, but not all of which involve spatial proximity), and using “ecosystem” metaphors. Complexity is important. Complexity matters.
But to jump from “we need to think in terms of ecosystems” to “an innovation agenda is a cities agenda” is simply policy opportunism. The real solutions are more complex. We can and should be smarter than this.