Where Does Innovation Happen?
Illustration: Lauren Nassef | Art Direction: Jelena Schulz

It’s long been assumed that suburbs are for squares and all the big ideas come from the big city. But then how do we explain Silicon Valley; Redmond, Wash.; the Route 128 tech corridor outside of Boston; or the Outer Loop of Washington, D.C.? A recent study, “The Geography of Unconventional Innovation,” by economists Enrico Berkes of Northwestern University and Ruben Gaetani of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, might have an answer—and it has to do with density.

“The role of high-density regions as engines of innovation is smaller than commonly thought.”

Forty percent of the patents in Berkes and Gaetani’s study came from low-density areas (aka the suburbs), and they conclude that denser populations in cities lead to consistent innovation, but not what they call innovation “intensity.” In other words, inventors and innovators in urban areas are more prolific in their ideas, but the ones attached to companies in the suburbs are able to develop a smaller number of ideas to greater commercial effect.

“Innovation produced in densely populated areas is more likely to be built upon unconventional combinations of prior knowledge.”

What Berkes and Gaetani call “unconventional patents” (or patents that have little or no obvious economic significance) are more likely to be developed by startups located in cities rather than “large, publicly traded firms” that are often located in corporate parks in lower-density areas beyond the city.

“The local pool of ideas is a strong predictor of the technologies combined in new inventions.”

In their relative isolation, the sprawling suburban offices—of, say, IBM in Armonk, N.Y., or Motorola in Schaumburg, Ill.— are designed to make scientific and creative interactions efficient (optimizing what Berkes and Gaetani call “knowledge flows”), in contrast to the looser, more “causal interactions” that cities afford. More efficiency means a faster path to market with economically significant patents.