After trip to the UAE to discuss innovation, cities and the future, the question of when Dubai will be recognised as a leading global city was frequently raised. In a very good panel discussion at the Emirates Literature Festival, Parag Khanna from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, suggested that, by taking a view of global connectedness, Dubai is already in the top 10. However in other, more innovation-focused dialogues with both government and business leaders, most agreed that, by traditional metrics, Dubai and the wider UAE were yet to appear on any top rankings of the world’s innovation hotspots. Some felt that this is not a true reflection of what is actually going on across the UAE that is working hard to drive bolder innovation, and so challenged the traditional technology and GDP output metrics. If there is an alternative view, then how should we be tracking innovation prowess and impact of one location against another?
For me, many of these discussions highlight the on-going debates of not only how we should measure the best locations for innovation around the world but also the question of whether we should be analysing cities rather than countries? Just as with tracking the most innovative companies, many agree that innovation prowess is good and helps to drive economic growth as well as improve social cohesiveness and environmental impacts, but few seem to be aligned on how best to coherently judge one location against another. What are the issues here, what are the opportunities and what are some of the implications?
First off we should acknowledge that most historical views have been focused on countries. Governments and international organisations have frequently taken a nation vs. nation comparison perspective on the most effective innovation location. Many still do.
Although they each come up with different answers, all in all these four analyses, and others, provide a rich, deep annual review of country-by-country activity – but are they still relevant? Does innovation really happen at a national level anymore or is it more accurate to consider a local perspective?
Many now believe that it is cities that matter more than countries. Cities are where innovation happens, where most ideas form and from where economic growth largely stems. They are where most of us choose to be, to work and to interact with others. They are also where significant problems can first emerge and where challenges can be magnified. As a steadily rising global population approaches 70% urbanization, not only are many mayors taking the lead over presidents and prime ministers on issues such as pollution, obesity and climate change, but they are also directly encouraging innovation in potential solutions such as electric vehicles, sugar taxes and green energy. Many of us are rapidly moving to a new world which ironically is surprisingly familiar to the classical historian who studies the time when cities such as Venice, Istanbul, Shanghai, London and Hamburg led the way.
Today, once more, it is cities not countries that are driving innovation forward and so it is through the city lens that we should be measuring and tracking not only who is most effective and efficient at innovation, but also what approaches are working best, where and why.
So where in the world is leading on innovation? Is it still Silicon Valley? Is it Singapore, Moscow or Tel Aviv or London, Boston or even Dubai? There is lots of hype and misinformation around so how best do we cut through the noise and really identify where innovation is having greatest impact? For cities, the current views on which are the most innovative are variable, looking at myriad of indicators. Here are just a few:
So, we clearly have not only many different answers to the question of which city is the most innovative, but also a host of different views of how it should be measured. Although everyone’s view is valid, no one seems to have actually come up with a solid and consistent way of looking at this. Just as with the questions of which companies are the most innovative, it is only through diligent, enduring assessments that we can build up a clear view of which factors really count. However, while we have seen sustained examinations of what makes one company more innovative than another, maybe, for cities, it is just too complicated? One must hope not as many cities and a plethora of policy makers, investors and commentators are all very interested in both highlighting and understanding where is best. They clearly need better answers. Is there, therefore, an improved, most holistic, way of most reliably identifying the world’s most innovative cities?
To kick-start a new ball rolling on potentially developing a more insightful view, last Sunday we ran an innovation lab with a group of PhD researchers at the ISPIM Innovation Forum in Toronto. In a wide-ranging discussion, different groups had varied but, in the end, quite complementary views. Pivotal here was context: understanding why city-focused innovation is being measured and by whom is evidently going to drive different approaches. If this question is about civic-led change or city branding, social impacts or even reflecting on historical achievements then clearly the narratives and hence the core dynamics in identifying the world’s most innovative cities will shift. However, while this nuance may change from location to location, when thinking about a holistic global approach it was argued by most that a fundamental means of tracking levels of collaboration has to be in the mix. Whether looking at a new high-tech smart city, a growing second tier city or a global mega-city, partnerships between business, government, academia, entrepreneurs and society were seen as a core issue.
Other potentially significant elements suggested as in need of being included in any complete view included other enablers such as capital, infrastructure and digital connectivity; visible benefits encompassing the economic, social, cultural and environmental; and long-term sustainability measures – especially concerning the attractiveness of a city for global talent and the avoidance of future brain drains. Notably there was strong rejection of some of the traditional ‘Northern Hemisphere’ technology output driven type views – especially commonly used metrics such as patents and the raw number of start-ups. Interest was instead stronger on understanding more about the ‘black box’ process within the city that drives improved innovation – very similar in thinking to the Innovation Leaders analysis of company activity.
Unsurprisingly in a room full of PhD researchers the role of education was also stressed. Whether this is examining the levels of creativity being encouraged in early stage schooling or the interaction between and within leading research universities, the role of home-grown, high-quality innovative education centres within any city was also a priority focus.
Foremost in yesterday’s discussion however was the idea of communities. Somehow tracking how groups of disparate people and expertise connect and collaborate, the culture that supports this and diversity across the community was seen a paramount. Cities that actively encourage migration, provide access to citizenship for a diverse talent pool and enable new connections across ecosystems were all seen as the ones that lead in the innovation arena. Lastly, as a closing local thought, and as highlighted way back in 2002 in the Competing on Creativity report, it was suggested that maybe what is seen as having been at the core of Toronto’s recent innovation success could be a future focus for all cities globally – talent, tolerance and technology?
These perspectives certainly provide some focus and raise some interesting additional questions to explore. Moving forward perhaps more of us can build on this and other views and collaborate more widely on refining and testing an improved way of answering the question of how best to assess which cities are the most innovative? If you would like to join in, let us know and we can do this together. Most immediately you may have comments on some of the points above, if so please do share. Looking further ahead, if you would like to be part of a global collaboration to address the challenge, again do let us know and we can make sure you are in the mix going forward.
As the dominance of cities continue to grow, potentially at the expense of national interests, it is important that we seek to gain a clear and shared, globally relevant view. While many view see that the likes of San Francisco, Boston, London and Tel Aviv are some of the leading innovation hotspots today, some ask if they will continue to be so in the future. If we are going to identify the emerging centres of future innovation early, we need to collectively know what to look for. Maybe, as new locations begin to play a vital role as hubs for talent, ideas, and capital, the leaders will change. As the shift of power turns away from the traditional western cultures perhaps innovation will turn too. Maybe the new ideas will come from cities like Bangalore, Nairobi or even Dubai?
The Innovation Leaders research that identifies the companies that achieve the most from their innovation activities and deliver tangible, sustained growth. Now in its 16th year, this annual analysis profiles the global leaders across 25 different sectors, highlighting the shifts taking place and identifying new achievements. Undertaken by members of the Growth Agenda team, its aim is to inform organizations on the most effective approaches for success. It is regularly used by governments and companies around the world to inform policy, guide investment and refine growth strategies. The analysis and insights are widely shared via multiple platforms.
Dr. Tim Jones is a recognised expert in innovation, growth and futures. He is the author / editor of eight books and a regular speaker on innovation leadership, growth platforms and future trends. For over twenty-five years he has worked with many leading multinationals, governments and universities identifying emerging opportunities: A leader in collaborative programmes, Tim has made his name in helping organsiations to see the world through a different lens and so reveal new areas for potential growth. Tim is Programme Director of the Future Agenda – the world’s largest open foresight programme; leads the annual Innovation Leaders analysis that profiles the companies making the most of their innovation investments and is also co-founder of a global advisory network, The Growth Agenda.