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North Korea, where few people ever get in—or out. (Photo: fljckr/Flickr)

No Innovation Without Migration

• September 02, 2014 • 5:12 AM

North Korea, where few people ever get in—or out. (Photo: fljckr/Flickr)

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.

I regret taking on the Jane Jacobs urbanist cult. Jacobs advanced a normative geography worthy of admonition. However, my assault on her good name overshadowed a point I was trying to make. I could have made that point without mentioning her. A critique of my post:

On to Russel’s claims concerning growth. If Russel were merely critiquing the application of Jacobs’ observations about walkable places and innovation, then I do not think there would be any serious issue. Even if you are a die-hard Jacobs acolyte, such crude applications and insistence of the physical determinism of certain physical arrangements of buildings and infrastructure and economic development should offend anyone who thinks deeply on cities and economics. But Russel seeks to extend the critique by attacking the notion of Marshallian industrial districts, Porter’s cluster theory, and the general idea of external economies and agglomerative forces, in general. While cute, it is a step too far and exposes some confusion on his part, even within his own arguments.

The crux of my argument doesn’t have anything to do with what Jacobs wrote or the sway she has with contemporary urbanists. Moving on quickly from Jacobs demonstrates a good understanding of what I wrote. The critique rightly hones in on the more controversial thesis taking issue with the popular version of urban economic theory (e.g. Alfred Marshall and Michael Porter). Concerning the geography of innovation, I’m deviating from the Marshallian view.

While more recent, a body of scholarship exists that paints a different picture of innovation mechanics. I referenced some this literature in my last post. I characterize the Marshallian school on innovation geography as density-driven. I characterize the new school on innovation geography as migration-driven.

Like my blogging opponent above, I was trained to see the world in Marshallian terms. The script flipped when I read Borderless Economics by Robert Guest:

A few years ago, I visited a library in North Korea. I asked the librarian which authors were popular. He replied that everyone loved the works of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il. Sure, I said, but what other authors did North Koreans like?

The librarian fell silent. He could not name a single one.

Of the 70-odd countries I’ve reported from, North Korea is perhaps the most illuminating. The world’s last Stalinist dictatorship is hermetically sealed from the outside world. Hardly anyone is allowed out, and hardly anyone is allowed in (it wasn’t easy getting a visa.)

Because North Korea shuts out people, it shuts out ideas. That’s one big reason why it is a starving backwater. Its more open cousin, South Korea, which welcomes foreigners and sends hordes of students and businesspeople abroad each year, is 17 times richer.

South Koreans worry whether their children will make it to the right university; North Koreans worry whether their children will make it to the age of five.

The central message of my book, Borderless Economics, is that when people move around, they spread new ideas, mostly for the better.

North Korea could command all its citizens to live in one super-dense city (Marshallian, or density-driven). Its capacity for innovation will still pale by comparison with neighboring South Korea (migration-driven innovation). This natural experiment contrasts two academic theories of innovation geography. Without it, we have large and dense cities attracting the lion’s share of international (and domestic) migrants. Teasing out the two will be the subject of my next few posts.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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