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

December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

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.