Innovation city

In an innovation ecosystem, no single actor can function in isolation. Each component contributes to growth

Innovation city
The government of India has declared 2010-2020 as the decade of innovation. The endeavour of the national innovation council (NInC) is to develop an inclusive innovation strategy geared towards creating ‘more from less for more’. The Indian model of innovation is frugal, distributed and affordable. “The idea is to encourage, inspire and empower people to think, discover, deliberate, innovate and implement novel solutions at the local and national level to expedite the process of development for the benefit of the nation”, writes Sam Pitroda, chairman, NInC. I recently attended a conference on innovation and the ecosystem. Since cities are an important part of the ecosystem, after the conference, a thought occurred to me – Is an innovation city co-dependent, and if so, what size of a city is ideal for innovation?

In this exciting period of development, our lives and the whole human ecosystem are going through a major transformation. As we grow, cities are growing too. We are seeing massive migration of rural population to urban centres. More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. It has several implications. One is that towns are becoming cities and cities are getting transformed into metropolis. As the city grows, one observes a change in its character. We observe changes in consumption patterns and population behaviour. As the city grows, it attracts creative people, and thus, its potential for innovation increases. As the city grows, new resources of wealth generation are created. It starts optimising the delivery of the social services. This is due to the economies of scale in infrastructure. However, as the city grows, there is also an increase in crime, pollution and diseases. A city loses or gains its identity when it becomes a megacity.

The change in the character of the city is primarily driven by innovation and followed by wealth creation. The city is expected to grow continuously, and for that it needs an “accelerating treadmill of dynamic cycles of innovation”. The time scales of innovation are city dependent, some researchers say. As the population increases, it becomes more connected. As a result, the time scale of innovation in big cities becomes shorter. It has also been suggested that the growth and sustainability of these cities are constrained by the availability and mobility of resources and their rates of consumption. The system collapses when it runs out of resources and if consumptions are not enough. Innovation is a viable means to avoid this crisis. It brings major qualitative changes in the populace as well as the city’s infrastructure. “As we approach the collapse, a major innovation takes place and we start all over again”, explain Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt of Santa Fe Institute.

Big cities provide better opportunities to creative people for innovation and wealth creation. This is possible due to the cramming of the individuals, occupations and industries into close quarters. “After all, intellectual breakthroughs must cross hallways and streets more easily than oceans and continents”. But the paradox is that as the size of the city increases, along with it increases the number of criminals, job-seekers and the amount of waste. West and Bettencourt argue that up to 85 per cent of the character of a city is determined simply by its size. It means that only 15 per cent of a city’s character is distinctive. It means that if a city doubles in size, it needs only 85 per cent more infrastructure. It also means that crime and disease increase by 15 per cent above the doubling rate. This paradox prompts us to ponder upon the question — What sized cities are most appropriate to set up innovation ecosystems?

In an innovation ecosystem, like in nature’s ecosystem, no single actor can function in isolation. Not only do the weak suffer, it makes everyone in the system suffer. The innovation ecosystem has various components: strong R&D institutions, an industrial base, a deep talent pool, a strong physical and cyber infrastructure, and a business-friendly regulatory environment. Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, compares innovation ecosystem with a coral reef. A reef structure protects fish in the ocean, provides food and creates an arena for marine plants and animals to live and thrive. Likewise, an innovation ecosystem should provide facilities for new companies, experienced business leaders, faculty researchers, government officials, established technology companies and investors to come together. Its most important ingredient is network, where “experienced people can mingle with newbies.” It needs a good mix of academia and industry. It is essential that the city is among the most wired ones. “The lesson seems to be, if you don’t have a strong university nearby, you can’t be an innovative city,” says Al Lee.

One essential element that is needed to create your own innovation reef, says Artman, is to get the right people who can fund projects, leaders who have had success with past innovations, technical experts and external consultants. The other element is to cultivate the network -- which includes mixing people in productive ways, holding regular meetings so that innovators can get together and share their experiences. The third important element is to educate others about the innovation so as to enable good ideas to be transformed into actionable plans. The innovation reef within a company is responsible for creating a structure that promotes innovation, but need not govern the innovation outcomes. “This loosely-coupled structure helps to create a culture of innovation, rather than top-down governance, allowing innovative ideas to not only be formed — but also thrive and grow”, writes Artman. The message is clear that the cities are vital for innovation. It should also be understood that there are different kinds of innovation. Different cities support very different types of innovation, and some cities are more successful than others. The diffusion of ideas, skills and expertise are important for stimulating innovations, and cooperation is essential for the exchange of relationships.

(The writer is a biotechnologist and ED, Birla Institute of Scientific Research, Jaipur)

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