12: Think Global, Act Global

For global collaborations around innovation to succeed, and for global flows of science and technology genuinely to convert nation states into a secondary factor in innovation, innovation needs to be internationalist in thought and deed.

The innovator should aim to benefit the whole world, not any particular purse or nation. He or she should know about and uphold the achievements of innovators abroad, and oppose all attempts to pervert or stunt innovation there.

There is no such thing as Jewish physics, which is what the Nazis called Einstein’s relativity theory. Nor, by themselves, do the Nazi origins of the coal-to-liquids Fischer-Tropsch process make it a redundant energy technology. Yes, Israeli universities are tainted by their involvement in military R&D – but exactly the same is true of universities everywhere. The direction and worth of scientific enquiry can be distorted by different political regimes (most notoriously, genetics under Joseph Stalin and immunology under Thabo Mbeki). But if a piece of science can withstand expert criticism and the classic test of falsifiability, then its benefits in technology and innovation are indivisible.

Place is overrated

The historical development of innovation has certainly occurred, at different times, in definite places. However, place is overrated as a source of innovations. The Green slogan ‘think global, act local’ reduces the scope for human action. Innovation means going beyond your immediate experience. In innovation, both ambition and action need to be unbounded and global.

Place has anyway burdened innovation for reasons that go beyond it. A wider culture values place, because it’s seen as essential to that evanescent thing, a sense of belonging. Sadly, though, innovation cannot reinforce a sense of belonging. Even the most advanced, most social versions of Web 2.0 social networking do not guarantee that. If anything, innovation disrupts the old order. It prompts misgivings more than a sense of belonging.

Electronic maps of the local, whether on mobile devices, in cars, or on the street, have much to recommend them. The cult of the local is another matter. Locally grown and bought food, local services, cities and regions, decentralised sources of energy and local green spaces do not at all guarantee innovation.

Scientific and technological breakthroughs have very often occurred in different countries simultaneously. Likewise, real innovations have mostly had an international impact. The spirit of innovation is to find solutions that are universal, not just local.

The space for innovation

Back in 1890, England’s Alfred Marshall praised not the intrinsic creation of value through innovation, but the benefits firms gained extrinsically, from the amenities of a place: better climate, roads, water, drainage, newspapers, books, and better ‘places of amusement and instruction’. [1] Then, left-leaning French sociologists of the 1970s, followed by Anglo-Saxon sympathisers in the 1980s, concluded that command over space was the key ingredient of power. [2] By 1990, returning to Marshall, Harvard professor Michael Porter could rally economics behind the idea that local conditions are what inspire innovation. [3]

In a striking piece of non-innovation, the doctrine that geographical clusters of local firms in the same industry form powerful sources of innovation still holds undiminished sway over city planners and academics. [4] The simple idea here is that proximity assists the exchange of tacit, or informal knowledge. But innovation isn’t especially about informal knowledge; for to get things done with any timeliness or precision, the explicit sort of knowledge – written formulae, blueprints and the like – is much more vital. Nor, more fundamentally, is innovation about the exchange of existing ideas. Innovation depends on the development of new knowledge, not just its intimate transfer. [5]

Amending Porter’s thesis, some hold that the long-distance geography and movement of people are the keys to innovation. Berkeley’s AnnaLee Saxenian believes that Asian engineers migrating to Silicon Valley have formed entrepreneurial networks that have helped Asia, turning a brain drain into a ‘brain circulation’. Chicago’s Saskia Sassen contends that the financial innovation of the 1980s ‘was decisively enabled’ by ‘an increasingly transnationalized subculture of mostly young financial professionals who were knowledgeable about the pertinent mathematics and computer software’. Toronto’s Richard Florida proposes that, with innovation, ‘only about two or three dozen places across the world make the cut’ – because of ‘the tendency of creative people to seek out and thrive in like-minded groups’. In a British mirroring of Florida’s position, others say that innovation comes from the ‘diversity dividend’ in cities, or the commingling of different cultures. [6]

From Porter on, all these theories share a focus on the circulation of innovations, not their production. Thought, experiment, self-questioning, fierce debate, prototypes and budgets for R&D count for little. Instead, innovation is advanced by walking into local universities, watering holes and mosques, or by getting on to aeroplanes. Brilliant!

Slums as an example to follow

Dogmas about the spatial origins of innovation reach a new low around innovation in urban form. Beginning with the concept of ‘smart’ or ‘compact’ growth, the city, so often lauded as a site for innovation, is attacked when found guilty of sprawl. [7] Thus, for London School of Economics professor Richard Burdett, Los Angeles must – as usual – be savaged for its two-hour commutes, and more densely populated, compact cities such as Hong Kong and Manhattan must be praised as ‘inherently more sustainable places to live than the likes of Houston and Mexico City’. [8]

Where, though, is real compactness to be found? The answer is Dharavi, central Mumbai, where perhaps a million people live in just 223 hectares. Mumbai is the world’s densest city; central Dharavi is perhaps six times denser than daytime Manhattan. [9] Is this, then, where proximity gives innovation a special dynamism?

From hip TV presenters to British royals, the broad answer given is yes. Kevin McCloud, UK broadcasting’s high priest of residential design, insists that Dharavi, being car-free and lacking ‘interest in material excess’, is an economic miracle. [10] Likewise Prince Charles, contrasting Dharavi with what he calls ‘a single monoculture of globalisation’, says that it shows how ‘economic advantages will arise from celebrating local assets and capitalising upon diversity’ – and that communities like it may be ‘best equipped to face the challenges that confront us’ because they ‘have a built-in resilience and genuinely durable ways of living’. [11]

So Dharavi, where privacy doesn’t exist and open kilns are right outside front doors, is the model to follow. Backwardness is represented as forward thinking; the West has ‘lessons to learn’ (McCloud). Elsewhere, innovatory skyscrapers, which add to urban density, are nevertheless attacked as vain and hubristic. [12]

In fact, though, innovations come from people. Those people, moreover, operate in corporate or government buildings that happen to be situated in spread-out suburbs, or take the form of high-rise constructions.

Innovations won’t come from slums, and there is nothing innovatory about housing five people to a room.

[1] Alfred Marshall, The Principles of Economics, Macmillan, 1890, Book II, Chapter 2 – Wealth, on http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/marshall/prin/prinbk2

[2] Henri Lefebvre, La Production de L’espace, Anthropos, 1974; Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir (1975), published in English as Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, 1977; Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1977; David Harvey, The Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization, John Hopkins University Press, 1985, and The Urban Experience, Blackwell, 1989; Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: the Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, Verso Books, 1989, Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford University Press, 1990.

[3] Michael Porter, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Macmillan, 1990.

[4] See for example Eurocities, ‘WG Clusters Workplan 2010’, on

http://www.eurocities.eu/uploads/load.php?file=2010_workplan-JDOD.pdf, and articles in Regional Studies, November 2009.

[5] For a useful critique of cluster theory as it applies to the music industry, see Bas van Heur, ‘The clustering of creative networks: between myth and reality’, Urban Studies, Vol 46, Issue 8, July 2009.

[6] AnnaLee Saxenian, The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy, Harvard University Press, 2006; Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton University Press (2006), updated edition, 2008, p361; Richard Florida, Who’s Your City? How the Creative Economy Is Making Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, Basic Books, 2008, p248; Phil Wood and Charles Landry, The Intercultural City: Planning For Diversity Advantage, Earthscan, 2007. See also Stewart Brand, who believes that ‘what drives a city’s innovation engine’ is ‘its multitude of contrasts’. Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, Viking Adult, 2009, p33.

[7] For the same old story, see Richard Rogers, ‘Architecture for Sustainable Cities: London, Paris + The Compact City’, speech to the Urban Age Istanbul Conference, November 2009, on http://www.metacafe.com/watch/3841966/richard_rogers_architecture_for_sustainable_cities_london_paris_the_compact_city/. Critics of sprawl have been effectively answered by Robert Bruegman, Sprawl: A Compact History, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

[8] Ricky Burdett, ‘Cities – Proposed Way Forward’, Futureagenda, 10 October 2009, on http://www.futureagenda.org/?author=8

[9] See Katia Savchuk, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, quoting a survey by the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture, in ‘Intro: lakhs of residents, billions of dollars’, dharavi.organic, 25 February 2008, on http://www.dharavi.org/A._Introduction, cited in Sadhvi Sharma, ‘Living in filth is no lifestyle choice’, spiked, 10 February 2009, on http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/6197/

[10] Kevin McCloud, ‘Kevin McCloud on his trip to India’, The Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2010, on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/6952436/Kevin-McCloud-on-his-trip-to-India.html

[11] ‘Press Association reports foundation’s conference “globalisation from the bottom up”’, The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, 6 February 2009, on http://www.princes-foundation.org/index.php?id=618, and Robert Booth, ‘Charles declares Mumbai shanty town model for the world’, The Guardian, 6 February 2009, on http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/feb/06/prince-charles-slum-comments.

[12] Stephen Bayley, ‘Burj Dubai: The new pinnacle of vanity’, The Daily Telegraph, 5 January 2010, on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/dubai/6934603/Burj-Dubai-The-new-pinnacle-of-vanity.html#comments


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Can’t believe you said this in 2010, 5 years ago.

  2. last few days our class held a similar talk on this topic and you point out something we have not covered yet, thanks.

    – Laura

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