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Innovation Cities: The Urban Edge

What are the qualities that make these five American cities more innovative and creative than others?


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As global connections and competition increase, traditional measures of success—size and output—have increasingly given way to such qualities as creativity and innovation. But how do you measure an elusive quality like innovation?

One way to quantify innovation: the number of patents for unique inventions that a metropolitan area has generated, whether in total or per capita. In the United States, for example, 20 metropolitan areas generate 63 percent of its patents; and just five urban centers account for 30 percent of all U.S. patents.

But patent numbers are only a starting point. What are the qualities a city must possess to encourage a culture of innovation?

That becomes a more complex equation, and while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, highly-ranked innovation cities share some common denominators:

•They are home to major universities and research organizations.

•They have a culture of dynamism and great infrastructure to attract and sustain diverse companies—from high-tech corporations to start-ups.

•They also recognize that a vibrant cultural scene and appealing lifestyle attract younger creative populations—from music, museums and theater to bicycle lanes and open public spaces.

SPAN takes a look at the top five American innovation cities, compiled from 2ThinkNow-Innovation Cities, Brookings Institution, Forbes Magazine and 24/7 Wall Street.

Los Angeles

The Los Angeles metropolitan area is America’s largest in area at 87 million square kilometers, and second only to New York in population. Yet, the number of patents it generated was unimpressive until a recent burst of creativity saw them jump 50 percent in the past five years, vaulting the city into the top ranks of U.S. innovation centers.

More international students, about 8,600, attend the University of Southern California than any other U.S. institution of higher learning. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is the primary U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system, and it operates the Mars Rovers.

Taking advantage of its year-round sun, Los Angeles has become a green technology pioneer with a novel program that will allow customers with rooftop solar panels to sell their electricity back to the utility company. This Feed-In Tariff initiative is already one of the largest urban solar rooftop programs in the United States.

Hollywood’s film and television industry continues to thrive, but so do other performing arts. “There are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers and musicians living and working in Los Angeles than any other city at any time in the history of civilization,” according to the University of Southern California’s Stevens Center for Innovation.

Among the jewels in the city’s cultural crown: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one of the largest art museums in the United States; The J. Paul Getty Museum, whose two locations span the entire history of Western art; and The Music Center performing arts complex, which includes several theaters and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Boston

Boston can claim to be one of America’s most venerable major cities, dating back to its founding by Puritan settlers from England in 1630; it can also claim to be one of the world’s most highly rated innovation cities.

One reason: the Boston metropolitan area, with 4.5 million residents, is home to more than 100 colleges and universities, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Boston University alone is the city’s fourth-largest employer.

Boston is replete with museums, galleries, performing arts theaters and music—from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops orchestra to indie rock bands.

Boston has encouraged the development of special zones to attract technology firms and start-ups, notably Kendall Square in Cambridge, close to MIT, and a new Innovation District along the city’s waterfront, which is anchored by District Hall—an eclectic mix of technology labs, art galleries, classrooms and conference spaces subdivided by garage-style doors. District Hall is among the first free-standing public innovation centers in the world.

Philadelphia

No single historical figure pervades the spirit of a city as does Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin, whose accomplishments range from discoveries in electricity to establishing the first public lending library.

The center of a metropolitan area of six million inhabitants, Philadelphia does not dominate in any single innovation category. Instead, it has successfully integrated its strength in education—notably the University of Pennsylvania, founded by, guess who? Mr. Franklin—with growing biotechnology and financial sectors.

The city has transformed America’s first naval shipyard, which closed in the 1990s, into a spacious campus-like setting of 4.8 square kilometers for 130 companies and organizations engaged in manufacturing, technology, and research and development.

Philadelphia has also gained a reputation as a center for graphic and product design, fashion and multimedia art.

Its most recent cultural achievement: a magnificent new gallery for The Barnes Foundation art collection. Using thematic connections, the gallery mixes paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Seurat, Titian and Picasso, with art from other artistic traditions.

San Francisco Bay Area

Silicon Valley remains the red-hot center of the digital/Internet technology revolution, attracting an estimated third of the American venture capital being invested in new enterprises and advanced research. The valley is home to such iconic brand names as Apple, Google, Intel, Oracle, eBay and Facebook.

San Francisco also ranks among the leading American cities in mass transit access. “We put transit first, ahead of the passenger car,” says Bridget Smith, director of the city’s Livable Streets program, which aims to increase bicycle, pedestrian and streetcar usage.

These electric trollies, streetcars and light rail systems receive their power from a city-owned hydroelectric facility, lowering net emission levels to just above zero. By making the city even more attractive with paths, open spaces and greenery, San Francisco hopes that 20 percent of all urban travel will take place on bicycles by 2020.

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to many public and private universities including Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and Berkeley, the flagship of the University of California system. Among its best-known facilities: the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which conducts advanced research in applied physics.

Seattle

At four million inhabitants, the Seattle metropolitan area can’t match Los Angeles in size, but it can when it comes to innovation levels and numbers of patents issued annually. Since Microsoft moved to the region in 1979, Seattle, dubbed the Emerald City, has vaulted into America’s top ranks of innovation cities.

Seattle has gained a reputation as a center of technology, innovation—and coffee consumption. In addition to Microsoft, the Seattle area is home to one of the world’s largest coffeehouse chains, Starbucks, and global online retailer Amazon. Other major Seattle-based enterprises: Expedia, T-Mobile and Nordstrom.

Seattle’s entrepreneurial community is active and growing, aided by Startup Seattle, a collaboration of the city and several technology firms. The city is also promoting innovation hubs, beginning with a district that adjoins the University of Washington campus.

“It’s right there: Innovate, Educate, Build,” Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn said in an interview with geekwire.com. “When you think about how we will compete in a global economy, those are the three categories you want.”

Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.