Professor David Wolfe

The innovative city

Monday, December 2, 2013 - 12:35pm
Mark Witten

Innovation is a social, interactive process and geography matters.

Researcher David Wolfe’s studies of successful urban regions have shown how cities are the optimal sites for innovation because of the proximity and concentration of skills, knowledge, people and research capabilities. “Innovation is a contact sport and face-to-face interactions between people are often where new ideas come from. Cities offer multiple opportunities for contact, interaction and the exchange of ideas among highly skilled people,” says Wolfe, a professor of political science at U of T Mississauga and director of the Program on Globalization and Regional Innovation Systems at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

In today’s global economy, these inherent advantages make cities more important as sites for innovation — the translation of ideas and inventions into new products, processes and services that drive economic growth and prosperity. “Innovation is important for countries, economies and people because it is the source of an improved standard of living. If we can’t innovate, we’re not going to maintain or improve our standard of living,” says Wolfe.

Canada is a country of predominantly medium- sized and small cities. In his book 21st Century Cities in Canada: The Geography of Innovation, Wolfe examined how successful large cities and mid-sized ones, like Saskatoon, have built upon and leveraged existing strengths in specific sectors to develop their innovation capacity and capitalize on emerging business opportunities.

Saskatoon built on its traditional agricultural strengths to become a centre of innovation and home to a large and fast-growing agricultural biotechnology cluster. The city developed and became the world leader in canola, now Canada’s second-largest crop.

The concentration of federal and provincial research facilities, including the national Research Council’s Plant Biotechnology Institute, and early establishment of Innovation Place, a thriving research and industry park deliberately located next to the University of Saskatchewan, enabled the city to develop its innovation capacity in a targeted and commercially viable way. large agribusiness multinationals also moved R&D programs to Saskatoon to be close to the publicly funded infrastructure and specialized expertise.

“Saskatoon has really focused on building its research assets, and local firms have capitalized on this dynamic research infrastructure to develop commercial biotechnology applications. Much of the collaboration that happens in the city seems to be done informally through personal contacts and brief consultations,” says Wolfe, noting that it’s common for individuals in firms to turn to a knowledgeable friend or acquaintance at the University of Saskatchewan or other research facility to gain knowledge to solve a problem.

larger cities like Toronto benefit from greater density, economic diversity and the vitality of new human capital and talent gained through international immigration. But medium-sized cities may find it easier to bring together key players in research, industry, education, civic associations and government to collaborate on, advocate for and implement new innovation and economic development policies and strategies for their community.

That social and civic engagement is key to successful innovation in cities. Says Wolfe: “People tend to think of innovation as a private activity, but there is a large social dimension too.”

Reprinted with kind permission of EDGE magazine