Innovation Monitor: The Unique Innovation in Small and Medium Sized Cities

Innovation Monitor: The Unique Innovation in Small and Medium Sized Cities

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Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.

At the NYC Media Lab we keep up with civic technology and innovation, and how big cities and urban areas are building for the future. Before the pandemic, “small-town tech innovation” might have brought up a handful of images, like Boise, Idaho, which has used geothermal heating for over a century, or Chandler, Arizona (usually referred to only as a “suburb of Phoenix” in tech blogs), where Waymo has been doing its self-driving tests for the last several years.

Over the past year, we’ve noticed how small to medium size cities (SMSCs) and non-urban areas tackled issues around the pandemic in creative ways. SMSC programs that got little attention pre-2020 are now getting recognition. In many ways, SMSCs are ideal testbeds for new policy and technology, providing an agile environment to experiment before new ideas reach the federal level.

This week, we’ll look at the importance of innovation in non-urban areas, why we shouldn’t just focus on urban innovation, and SMSCs’ appeal as new hubs for remote and hybrid workers.

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Erica Matsumoto (Sub)urban centers Since 1927’s Metropolis, “urban” has been conflated with high-tech innovation, while images of suburbia have largely remained static (or hilariously tame, like in Pleasantville). What do you think of when imagine a “smart city”? Probably not medium size cities. Certainly not rural areas.

This unconscious bias turns out to be unjustified. Jakob Eder’s work has demonstrated how areas outside major cities are just as likely to innovate. Bloomberg’s CityLab released an excellent account of urban innovation bias in Why We Should Stop Conflating Cities With Innovation and Creativity.

“The statistical evidence is important, because it establishes that the case studies are not mere exceptions. Neil Lee and Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, for instance, studied 9,000 Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in creative industries in the U.K. They concluded that ;firm characteristics are more important than location in determining the likelihood of innovation’ and found ‘no support for the hypothesis that urban creative industries firms are particularly innovative.’”

From the same piece: “Markus Grillitsch and Magnus Nilsson, analyzing administrative data covering over 32,000 firms in Sweden, found ‘no evidence […] that knowledge-intensive firms grow faster in knowledge-rich regions.’” But what does suburban and rural innovation actually look like? Innovating, fast and slow

While urban centers are more incline to “move fast and break things,” as you get outside the city, technical firms tend to rely on “internal capacity and targeted collaborations (slow innovation),” according to Bloomberg CityLab. And as urban planning researcher Richard Shearmur demonstrates in the graphic above, dispersion plays a role in the illusion that innovation exists mostly in major cities.

Never mind that “rural industries such as mining, farming, forestry, and fishing have integrated GPS, satellite monitoring, and remote management techniques at rates equal to the urban adoption of smart technologies,” as Bloomberg noted. SMSCs themselves successfully piloted smart “city” tech. As WSJ wrote in their feature on SMSC innovation during the pandemic:

“When it rains or when snow melts, sewers often flow over, dumping wastewater into rivers. South Bend, Ind., became one of the first cities to address the problem with so-called smart sewers. They include sensors and valves that detect when the system is in danger of overflowing and redirect wastewater so that less of it escapes the sewers.”

Last November, Aspen, Colorado kicked off a pilot program which allowed delivery drivers to reserve curb space with their phones, enabling the city to gather drop-off data. Creative endeavors Another funny conflation: creativity in SMSCs is often paired with artists, not technologists. Like Led Zeppelin composing hits in Bron-Yr-Aur, Wales, or Hunter S. Thompson’s home is Aspen, Owl Farm. Blues, of course, originated in the Deep South.

One favorite, sort of ironic example is Radiohead’s work on OK Computer at St Catherine’s Court. The 1997 album has become the quintessential record on society’s overreliance on technology and its alienating effects: “Guitarist Jonny Greenwood said ‘the only concept that we had for this album was that we wanted to record it away from the city and that we wanted to record it ourselves.’”

With so much artist lore, it’s easy to assign the writer-in-log-cabin trope to SMSCs. But there is tons of creativity in areas of technology and policy as well. Small city, big impact SMSCs face big, urgent challenges, from transportation to healthcare to digital inclusion. But they’re able to do more with less. They have the advantage of relationships over bureaucracy, as Centre for Public Impact program manager John Burgoyne points out in his great Medium piece: “Due to the tight knit nature of the communities in small cities, key actors have forged strong relationships across sectors that allow them to navigate complexity efficiently and effectively.”

Burgoyne says that just because large cities are likely to have dedicated innovation offices, doesn’t mean that they’ll have a coherent strategy: usually, their approach to innovation is diffused across departments with disparate ideas.

Smaller cities, in contrast, can build cultures of innovation across department much quicker. “Long before positions like the Director of Innovation existed, leaders in small city’s local governments were coordinating efforts across departments,” writes Burgoyne. The nomad’s hub Louisville, Kentucky, launched a program last year that offers free online classes in software engineering and data analysis for those that lost their jobs during the pandemic. Tulsa, Oklahoma, meanwhile, has been giving $10k to remote workers moving there since 2018.

With hybrid and remote models being the preferred method of work even as restrictions in the US are lifted, SMSCs are becoming affordable, less stressful alternatives for workers who had previously moved to urban centers for job access.

Burlington, while being the most populous city in Vermont, still only has a population of around 42k. Yet remote workers from Apple, Google, Twitter, and IBM have been migrating there for years, according to a November 2020 NPR piece. “What COVID has allowed is this whole awakening to remote work,” said David Bradbury, president at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.

This Week in Business History

July 1st, 1979: The Sony Walkman launches and makes music portable

Long before the iPod revolutionized the portability of music, the Sony WALKMAN was launched in 1979 as a compact cassette player that allowed users to carry their cassette tapes around, changing the way we consume album-based music. The impact of the WALKMAN on our culture was manifold — it created a new form of shutting off from the world around you, even as you walked around. From a global perspective, it was the first real push of Japanese prowess around technological and gadget innovation that boomed through the 1980s. This New Yorker piece is a great look back at the various impacts of the WALKMAN.

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