Innovation: Cities Play Role of Catalyst

By March 13, 2013

Cities don’t necessarily foster the emergence of new ideas but, by bringing together the required infrastructure and markets, they do make it easier to turn ideas into practical, marketable solutions.


There’s no doubt in Richard Shearmur’s mind that cities play a major role inthe process where by companies generate innovative ideas. However, there searcher and teacher at the National Institute for Scientific Research in Quebec, Canada has been developing a theory which goes against the current orthodox thinking that the city is a geographical milieu which itself generates innovation. Professor Shearmur believes that the city indirectly makes it easiert bring innovative projects to fruition, as it acts as a catalyst, but he argues that the city doesn’t actually provide direct inspiration. In order to illustrate histheory, he differentiates between the concept of invention – i.e. the creative process in itself – on the one hand, and that of innovation on the other. Hesees innovation as a central element of a company’s business. So we’re not just talking here about a product or a process that has been invented at a given company, but one which is actually used, marketed and monetised. In this sense, innovation isn’t limited to the boundaries of an urban area.

Ideas are mobile…

Since face-to-face encounters are the cornerstone of the innovation economy, mobility plays a major role in this ‘decentralisation’ process.Richard Shearmur’s view is that the city is no longer to be seen as a space determined by precise geographical limits, but rather as the sum total of all the professional and private comings and goings of its inhabitants. Thus the ideas and knowledge which emerge from social networks as a result of arange of interactions are de facto not limited geographically to the boundariesof the city. Nor is the output of R&D facilities, which may be situated outside major metropolitan areas. Moreover, companies that are traditionally linked to a particular town may be taken over and/or relocated without losing their potential for innovation. In this sense, innovation and the creative processhave no physical limits: they can pop up from any geographical or social milieu, argues the Economic Geography professor.

…but they flow through urban spaces

These reflections have led Richard Shearmur to portray the city not as a cradle of ideas, but rather as a conduit through which vast economic resources are channelled and so help to bring ideas to fruition. Innovations may emergein all kinds of milieux, and their origins have become even more dispersed with the huge increase in the number of Internet users throughout the world.However, ideas cannot entirely fulfil their commercial potential unless they are developed and brought to market in a major urban area. It’s the cities that supply the workforce, provide the infrastructure and host the markets which are all required to make and sell innovative products, points out ProfessorShearmur.

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