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Urban Revival, Suburban Form and Divergent Innovation
Alex Steffen, 23 Sep 08


A thought's been bugging me lately, seeping up through the subconscious and nagging at me, and recently, as I do my horizon-scanning, I think I've started to figure out what it is: I think we're beginning to see a serious case of divergent innovation based on geography in the United States.

That is, the kinds and amounts of innovation available to a person vary significantly in urban and suburban and rural America, and the degree to which they vary is increasing rapidly. Some of those variations are really obvious: you can't get cellphone coverage everywhere in rural America, much less broadband, for instance.

But a whole other major class of innovations, which has to do with the layering of infotech over place, is less noted but sharp and clear once you look. Mapping aps like WalkScore, smart grids, car-sharing and product-service systems, place-annotation systems like Yelp and the like all seem to both make more sense in wealthy urban environments, and to be taken up more quickly into the culture.

And, as we've remarked here before, all things being equal, people who live in compact communities tend to keep more of their paychecks as disposable income and spend less time commuting and running errands, meaning they have more money and time to buy gadgets, experiment with innovative tools and update their systems... thus perhaps fueling more and faster innovations.

Or at least so goes the theory.

The latest thing, by the way to make me think of this is iNap, an iPhone ap that sets off a wake-up alarm when you near a particular destination, essentially a clever alarm-clock for transit riders. Cool idea, and obviously far less useful in American suburbs, where the vast majority of trips are still by car (presumably, drivers remain awake for the duration of their commute).

I'm certainly not saying that all innovation is urban, or that the suburbs are brain dead or anything. I am saying that compact, wired and wealthy urban communities seem to me to be becoming the epicenters of innovation these days, and that is going to change what innovations emerge.

It's also worth remembering that not all innovation is technological in nature, and that a lot of people are creating new solutions of their own in rural places, in part because innovators in wealthy urban areas tend not to be as interested in what they perceive as the problems of poor people living in the sticks. Again, it's not a matter of one group being smarter than another, but of innovation paths diverging.

Above image: Urban Design Associates' Ray Gindroz’s vision of the future of the Portsmouth Waterfront centers on properties owned by the City of Portsmouth. Image credit: flickr/tidewatermuse, Creative Commons license.

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I'm not so convinced that divergent innovation is being driven by increased disposable income or leisure time available in urban areas; nor is it something intrinsic to the urban form. I think it has much more to do with a group's level of connectedness.

One of the driving forces of innovation is the continuous formation of random, yet meaningful connections. The reason why I continue to visit is that it is an innovation collection and redistribution system. I'm not looking for anything in particular. I just know that this site has a higher probability of connecting me to a random piece of meaningful information, which is likely to be useful for improving my world.

Suburban forms which lack compelling public spaces will have residents who compensate for the lack of public space by inhabiting isolated McMansions. High-density urban forms which lack personal security will have residents who hide behind layers of deadbolts. Neither will be innovative societies.

So if you want to foster innovation, don't focus on the form itself, but how the form influences the formation of meaningful random connections. This is not necessarily cheaper or easier in urban spaces. It's just that the particular urban spaces which you inhabit have vibrant neighborhoods with plenty of Starbucks and street fairs for people to connect. I'm guessing that such places have a heavy influence on your ability to scan the horizon.

Posted by: Geoff on 23 Sep 08

It's worth noting that in European cities, suburbs are precisely where that innovation will take place. There's pretty complete coverage for mobile phones and broadband, and public transport is much more prevalent.

Posted by: Drew Shiel on 26 Sep 08

Good post. But when you say that urban people are better able to take up new connectedness tools, isn't this like saying that rural people are better able to take up new agricultural tools? Connectedness is what cities are about. City people have always been more widely connected that rural people, and this difference is foundational to any coherent idea or definition of what cities are.

As the internet reaches rural areas, it draws some rural people into new kinds of virtual cities. But there is still a gap between urban and rural experience that we can't bridge and shouldn't want to.

I'm a leftist, carless urbanist as you probably are. But be careful: a common fallacy of the urban left is assume that rural people are impoverished by their lack of urban resources, without considering first whether those people really want those resources. At it's worst, you risk sounding as though you're expressing a purely narcissistic sentiment such as "isn't it sad that not everyone's life can be like mine." I realize your point is more subtle, but you're on a slippery slope.

Posted by: Jarrett on 26 Sep 08

The story above is from one of the traditionally rural, rapidly suburbanizing (but not urbanizing) counties adjacent to the Research Triangle Park region, just east of Raleigh.

There are some people in Johnston County who are capable of dealing with change, but they are certainly in the minority. Backwards, intolerant individuals who cannot accept changes in life tend to be in positions of leadership.

Regardless of whether or not rural culture wants or needs urban amenities, it generally does not want structural change in society. To the extent that innovation becomes increasingly attached to economic growth, these areas are on an arc towards economic disaster.

Posted by: Exurban Nightmare on 29 Sep 08



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