Four Things I Learned From Studying Innovation in 3 U.S. Cities


I’ve spent most of my career studying how key regions around the world have harnessed their indigenous research capabilities, entrepreneurial spirit, and industrial prowess to realize the economic and employment returns many innovative technologies promise.

I’m particularly intrigued by the differences that make some places engines for innovation.

If we are to be successful in assuring that all Americans share in this success, we need to understand how more locales can leverage their academic centers of basic research and other R&D enterprises to enhance regional economic growth and competitiveness. One way to accomplish this is to understand what factors can help accelerate effective approaches to knowledge transfer, technology development and commercialization, as well as new science and technology-based business startups.

I was fortunate to receive a grant from the National Science Foundation in 2008, which allowed me to do research on three interesting American cities – Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Diego. Each of these cities has committed to building new clusters of global technology companies through a variety of innovation initiatives. Each has high levels of research activity of potential value to growing science and technology based companies. Nonetheless, each of these cities has a very different history in terms of spurring technology cluster growth.

With my research collaborators, Joshua Shapiro and Nathan Owens, we set out to explore what might lie at the base of these differences. We suspected that it had a lot to do with social and cultural dynamics that enable communication, build trust, and agility in the face of new opportunities or crises—as well as how comfortable a community is with risk taking. We gathered significant data on regional characteristics during three separate visits to each city. We surveyed 215 technology companies and 89 innovation intermediary organizations and conducted 126 in-person interviews. Our full report can be found here.

Our findings suggest that communities need to engage in a process of self-examination that allows them to … Next Page »

Mary Lindenstein Walshok is co-author with Abraham J. Shragge of "Invention & Re-Invention: The Evolution of San Diego’s Innovation Economy." She serves as UC San Diego’s associate vice chancellor of public programs, dean of UC San Diego Extension and is an adjunct professor of sociology. Follow @

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