Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Burgh Diaspora

milwaukee-map

Illustrated map of Milwaukee in 1872. (Photo: Public Domain)

Richard Florida Explains Why Density Doesn’t Impact Innovation

• January 11, 2014 • 2:37 PM

Illustrated map of Milwaukee in 1872. (Photo: Public Domain)

The more parochial a place, the more ineffective the talent.

Last Wednesday, I mentioned that the Orkney Islands were a hot spot of innovation many moons ago. This weekend, the Financial Times picks up on the same story: “But why such a remote spot became Britain’s hotbed of cultural innovation 5,000 years ago remains a mystery.” On Thursday, Richard Florida pre-emptively solved the mystery:

Large companies, universities, and other anchor institutions help spread the fixed costs of research (think buildings, suppliers, etc.). And by massing large numbers of research and development workers together in large organizations, they give the capacity to capitalize on new inventions. The authors argue that the presence of just one large-scale firm can be a huge advantage in providing the institutional heft behind a fledgling innovative economy.

But these big companies tend to focus on things that relate to their existing products and may overlook inventions in other areas. Regions with large numbers of smaller, more entrepreneurial companies can gain an edge in capitalizing on these innovations that larger companies might pass over. The story of Steve Jobs’ trip to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center — walking away with a whole host of ideas Xerox hadn’t brought to market — is perhaps the most legendary example of this.

Take a look at Portland, Oregon, and Rochester, New York, on the [graph above]. Both are at the same place on the horizontal axis, with about 1,000 inventors apiece. But Portland had twice the number of quality-adjusted patents per inventor. One explanation, it turns out, could be the number of smaller tech firms. Though both metros had similar numbers of large labs, Portland registered a whopping five times as many smaller labs as Rochester. The study concludes that having a diverse firm base — with at least one large lab and many smaller labs — can increase innovation by 17 percent.

Florida ends with a shrug. No one is sure why Portland is more innovative than Rochester given the same number of smartypants. Nonetheless, the two metros provide a nifty natural experiment. The large organization is Big City, ripe with talent density. Collisions abound. The small firm is Peter’s Cafe in Horta (Azores) or the Orkney Islands. Migration matters.

If someone asked me to explain the disparity between innovation in Portland and Rochester, I’d begin and end with migration. Portland is a destination for ambition. Rochester is the place the prodigal daughter leaves. The more parochial a place, the more ineffective the talent.

Richard Florida described this geography way back in June. Where are America’s brainiest cities? The surprising results:

While we usually think of the knowledge economy as having a strong bi-coastal orientation, most of Lumosity’s top 25 brainiest places are in the Midwest.

The table below shows the 20 highest ranked large metros (those with over one million people) on Lumosity’s overall cognitive performance index. The table also includes their overall rank among all CBSAs on this measure. Milwaukee is the highest-ranked large metro. Minneapolis-St. Paul is second, Boston third, Pittsburgh fourth, and Indianapolis fifth. Kansas City, Rochester, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Austin round out the top 10 among large metros. San Francisco is 11th, San Jose (the Silicon Valley) 13th, and D.C. 14th among large metros.

Emphasis added. Milwaukee is the brainiest. Milwaukee isn’t the most innovative. Interestingly, according to a report Richard Florida references, Milwaukee is among the most dense:

The population-weighted density approach reveals that the areas with people living at the highest density levels—metro areas with 5,000 or more people per square mile—were clustered mainly in California and along the corridor stretching from Boston to Washington. Other very dense metro areas included Chicago, Honolulu, Laredo, Las Vegas, Miami, Milwaukee, and San Juan. Low-density metro areas, on the other hand—those with fewer than 1,000 people per square mile— were generally clustered in the South.

Slice it any way you like. Density does a poor job of explaining innovation. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Mr. Creative Class.

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

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.