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Hubs, Clusters, Regions: Invention Centers

The other day I blogged about Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, and noted what an incisive account the book provides of how and why some environments seem to breed new ideas effortlessly, while some squelch them.  

The deep account Johnson offers of the special power of cities to provide rich networks, facilitate collisions, and accelerate borrowing deserves applause.

But there’s more to be said here. Johnson’s explorations also have a lot of relevance to the kind of institutional discussions we’ve been pushing here at the Metro Program about the right sort of programs and policies that are needed to foster innovation in our drifting economy.

For several years now, we here at the Metro Program have been arguing--starting from basic economic theory--that place and proximity matter to innovation and economic vitality, which implies that public policy about exports, energy, innovation, and opportunity needs to take into account the ways some environments and institutions generate inventions and breakthrough outcomes better than others.  That’s why we’ve placed such concepts as regional industry and innovation clusters, discovery-innovation institutes that anchor intense business-university-laboratory partnerships, and most broadly metropolitan areas at the center of our account of how the economy works and what policy should stress.

Now Johnson’s vivid book adds some new, reinforcing layers to the argument. First, Johnson stresses that contrary to the folk wisdom of innovation (which dwells on the isolation of the creative act: Franklin’s solitary discovery of lightning, Steve Jobs “inventing” the personal computer in a garage) innovation actually prospers best when ideas can serendipitously collide, connect, or recombine with other ideas. 

To this point, he describes the work of the McGill University psychologist Kevin Dunbar who in tracking the achievement of breakthroughs in four leading molecular biology labs determined that in molecular biology at least, new ideas emerged less when scientists were working alone in the lab, hunched over a microscope, and more often during regular lab meetings, where a dozen or so researchers would gather and informally present and discuss their latest work. In short, as Johnson puts it, “the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table.” Innovation, in this sense, is deeply social and inter-disciplinary--a matter in part of information spillovers, ideas flowing along multiple unpredictable paths, connectedness.

But beyond the dynamics or mechanics of innovation Johnson also speaks to the particular places and spaces where such flows best occur.  On this front, Johnson mounts a deep philosophical attack (which parallels our own) on the isolated nature of so much of the U.S. innovation (and economic policy) apparatus. Notwithstanding that innovation flourishes where ideas can connect, Johnson contends that much of the U.S. innovation system seems oriented toward “closed” institutions and policies, as epitomized by the top-secret R&D lab, which he calls an “idea lockbox.”

This sequestration, motivated by both the stodginess of government programs and the drive by private firms to monetize ideas, comes, however, at great cost: Isolating research, Johnson writes, also “isolates them from other ideas that might improve them, might transform them from hints and hunches into true innovations.” And so Johnson calls for working out ways where R&D or other innovative activity is not “cloistered” but instead surrounded by a steady flow of brainstorming “constantly running in the background.”

For Johnson, the next-gen concept is the sort of “open innovation” platforms experimented by firms like IBM and Procter & Gamble, which have a long history of profiting from patented, closed-door innovations but have now begun sharing leading-edge research and collaborating widely with external partners. For my own self, our emphasis on urban and metropolitan areas, multi-sectoral discovery-innovation centers (or research hubs), and ways to foster the regional innovation clusters responds well to the need to get creativity out of the silos and into the productive space of groups, networks, partnerships, and collaborations. The trick, in any event, is not--as Steve Johnson says--to sit around in a “closed playpen” and think big thoughts. The trick is to get ideas and innovation resources into work environments that encourage group tinkering, fortunate collisions, creative borrowing, disciplined attacks on big problems as well as plenty of background white noise. That’s where good ideas come from.