The Conversation

Why some counties are powerhouses for innovation

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Santa Clara County produced more patents than any other U.S. county in recent history.

Christopher Boone, Arizona State University

By the time the application window closed, Amazon had received 238 proposals from cities and regions throughout North America looking to become the second headquarters of the behemoth tech company.

Amazon invited proposals especially from places that looked a lot like its native Seattle: metro areas with more than a million people; a stable and business-friendly environment; communities that could “think big and creatively” about real estate options; and a location that would attract and retain technical talent.

In the race to attract high-tech companies, what can cities and regions do to become centers of innovation? At the moment, some places are clearly in the lead.

By my analysis of data from the U.S. Patent Office, Santa Clara County, California, is sprinting ahead of the country. Between 2000 and 2015, more than 140,000 patents were granted in Santa Clara County. That’s triple the number for second-ranked San Diego County.

Four other counties in California – Los Angeles, San Mateo, Alameda and Orange – make the top 10. Washington’s King County, Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, Michigan’s Oakland County and Arizona’s Maricopa County round out the list.

These counties are in large metropolitan areas that are known as technology and innovation centers, including San Francisco, San Diego, Boston and Seattle. The other metro areas in the top 10, not the usual tech-hub suspects, are Greater Los Angeles, Detroit and Phoenix.

Higher education

Besides large concentrated populations, these metro areas share two other ingredients that support innovation. All of them have one or more leading research universities and a large proportion of college-educated people.

Santa Clara County is home to Stanford University, an institution that has become synonymous with the high-tech and innovation economy of Silicon Valley.

Stanford’s rise as a world-class research university coincided with a rapid increase in federal and military spending during the Cold War. The university’s suburban location gave it an advantage, too, by providing land for expansion and for burgeoning high-tech companies. Stanford’s leadership aggressively courted research opportunities aligned with the priorities of the military-industrial complex, including electronics, computing and aerospace.

As a leader in patents, Santa Clara County benefits from a well-educated population, with more than half a million adults over 25 years of age holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, the 10th-highest figure in the country.

Nationally, there is a strong relationship between the number of college-educated adults and the number of patents filed in those counties. I found that, for every increase of 1,000 college-educated people, one can expect 33 more patents to be granted in those counties.

For counties that contain one or more of the country’s “131 Doctoral Universities with Very High Research Activity,” as ranked by Indiana University’s Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the average number of patents filed was 6,686, compared to only 371 for counties lacking one of these research institutes.

Cost of living

Another common trait about most of these centers of innovation is the jaw-dropping cost of housing.

The median sale price for houses in San Jose in Santa Clara County exceeded US$1 million for every month in 2018. Between 2000 and 2017, house prices more than doubled in the California and Washington state counties with the highest number of patents.

Competition for higher-wage talent pushes up housing and other costs in these innovation centers. Although housing prices increased in greater Boston, Phoenix and Detroit, they remained relative bargains compared to the West Coast.

The threat of rising housing costs and gentrification was one of many reasons why residents protested the planned building of Amazon’s second headquarters in the New York City borough of Queens. The company has now decided to pull out.

Facing rising rents in San Francisco, many residents are leaving for surrounding suburbs or farther afield. Gentrification in high-tech cities coincides with homelessness and growing inequalities, hitting minority communities hardest.

Sparking innovation

Rising living costs in these tech centers can create innovation opportunities for communities inland where living costs are lower. There are more than 4,600 degree-granting institutions located across the U.S. in communities large and small.

In my view, one way to unleash innovation would be to tap into the rich diversity of students, faculty and communities at two- and four-year colleges beyond the typical top 100 research institutes.

For example, universities might invest in inquiry-based programs, where learning is guided by questions, research and discovery rather than simply receiving knowledge. Or, they could focus on lifelong learning and entrepreneurship training.

In this way, it may be possible for smaller colleges and universities and the communities they serve to provide alternative pathways to innovation. If this happens, the technology giants of the future may be fighting to locate in the middle of the U.S., rather than the coasts.

Christopher Boone, Dean and Professor of Sustainability, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Inexpensive Innovation

A recent story in BBC news shows that innovation does not necessarily require billions of dollars and crack R&D teams. About ten years ago, a Brazilian mechanic named Alfredo Moser developed a simple but effective way to bring light into dark corners of houses — refracted light from 2-liter plastic bottles filled with water. The idea, like most good ideas, has spread rapidly throughout the world and now provides light indoors to millions of windowless shanties.


City dwellers generate more carbon dioxide emissions

We know that on a global level cities generate 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions even though they house just half the world’s population. A new study takes a closer look at urban-rural differences in carbon dioxide emissions in Finland and confirms that city dwellers produce more CO2 per capita than their rural counterparts. The typical Finn living in the countryside is responsible for creating 8,900 kg of CO2 per year while an urban dweller has a carbon footprint of 10,900 kg. Even though denser city living could potentially reduce energy consumption and hence CO2, the authors of the study suggest that higher incomes along with higher rates of “parallel consumption” in cities likely explain the difference. Parallel consumption is when people conduct activities elsewhere that could be done at home, such as going to restaurants rather than eating at home. Rising incomes and associated increases in energy and material consumption is one of the conundrums of an urbanizing planet. Urbanization can lift people out of poverty, provide better access to education and healthcare, allow people to interact with more diverse groups, and lead to innovations. Figuring out how to capture the best of city life in plans for a more sustainable future will be one of the major challenges to face humanity in the coming decades.


Urban transitions

At the 2012 annual meeting of the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change scientifc steering committee, we mapped out planned activities for 2013. I volunteered to lead a workshop on urban transitions and transformations as lead up to a volume for the Cambridge University Press series on sustainability that I am co-editing. The themes of

transition and transformation have begun to infuse a lot of discussion in sustainability, likely a product of maturing thought and acceptance on sustainability as a fundamental knowledge, research, and practice domain. The next challenge in sustainability will be to envision and create ways to transition to the desired future states that will result in necessary socio-ecological transformations. I plan to include practitioners in the discussion and also to seek help from my colleagues in archaeology who have recorded and thought about transitions and transformations a great deal.

Urban Long Term Research

The Urban Long Term Research Area projects were well represented at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. The special sessions captured the attention of the New York Times, which published two articles:

1. A summary of some of the ULTRA projects: Link

2. On the socioecology of vacant lots in Cleveland and other cities: Link

Here’s hoping that the USDA Forest Service and the National Science Foundation find the funds to continue to support these meaningful, innovative, and transformative initiatives. As I have written before, sustainability will depend in large part in making urban life sustainable. The ULTRA research, which is mission-oriented and driven by sustainability goals, is a bold and very much needed body of work.


Build it and they will come

A couple of times a week, I cycle to work (about 15 miles roundtrip). My bike route takes me along the Western Canal. This used to be a gravel path interspersed with some beaten-up asphalt used by utility trucks. An added hazard was the adjacent golf course (think poorly hit golf balls and inattentive golf cart drivers). Last year the City of Tempe added a paved pathway with lights (and nets to protect users along the golf course). I am surprised by the increased number of people of all ages that use the path for running, strolling, and cycling. Canals in Phoenix are a far cry from those in Amsterdam, but the dedicated pathway along the canal is enough to get people to come and use them.  The City of Tempe’s efforts to make the city livable is important for the health and well-being of its citizens, and for promoting the city as a competitive, amenity-rich destination for new residents.


Urbanization and Global Environmental Change

Arizona State University was host to the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change conference this past fall.  I had the honor of presenting a plenary presentation (view here, my presentation beings 3 minutes in after an introduction). The conference attracted a broad international audience of both academics and practitioners. As we enter the urban century, I suspect that interest will continue to grow  about understanding the dynamic linkages between urbanization and global change. Effective interventions for global sustainability concerns are likely to be invented and implemented in the world’s burgeoning cities.

World Urban Forum

wuf5_logoI recently returned from the World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro. Along with Michail Fragkias, I helped to organize a session on “Urban Responses to Climate Change” and presented a paper on linking global environmental change with an ecologically-informed environmental justice. The theme of the conference, attended by 13,000 participants, was “The Right to the City: Bridging the Urban Divide.”  Remarkable to me is that UN-HABITAT would invoke the title of one of Henri Lefebvre’s most influential titles. It suggests that the UN and other organizations recognize that the injustices that have accompanied urbanization, leaving millions of people marginalized and unable to enjoy the basic freedoms of living in the city, need to be seriously addressed in the coming decade.  In other words, building new infrastructure or refinancing loans will have few long-term benefits if people are not granted the basic right to a decent life in the rapidly growing cities of the world.

Sustainability for all

A recent story in the New York Times about the Velib bicycle program underscores the importance of justice in sustainability. The Velib program, which offers heavy duty bicycles for rent in Paris, has attracted a great deal of praise, and has been especially important for the all important tourist trade. However, as this story highlights, almost 80 percent of bicycles have been stolen or vandalized, some by disenchanted youth in the suburbs. One sociologist argues that there is “social revolt behind Vélib’ vandalism, especially for suburban residents, many of them poor immigrants who feel excluded from the glamorous side of Paris.” Indeed, the center of Paris is privileged space, and the efforts to bring sustainable transportation alternatives must seem patently unjust to those marginalized in the suburbs. Sustainability, both for moral and practical reasons, must be just if it is going to resonate with all members of society.

NYT Story: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/31/world/europe/31bikes.html?_r=1&em