Goldilocks and the Geography of Innovation

A sweet spot in the Technology Readiness Level attracts private industry.
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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge in Pomona, California. Built by Carnegie Mellon University-NREC, CHIMP took home a prize check for $500,000. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge in Pomona, California. Built by Carnegie Mellon University-NREC, CHIMP took home a prize check for $500,000. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Richard Florida claims innovation "comes from cities." Margaret Pugh O'Mara wrote an entire book placing innovation in suburbia. At least after World War II, innovation is neither urban nor suburban. The economic geography of innovation is mostly dependent on the quality of a research university.

In "From Metal to Minds: Economic Restructuring in the Rust Belt," Richey Piiparinen and I detail how the production of knowledge in a research university attracts private firms, like a moth to a flame. In Boston, life sciences is the flame for big pharma. In Pittsburgh, robotics is the flame for Uber:

There’s a useful high-tech concept called the Technology Readiness Level that helps explain why Uber pounced when it did. NASA came up with this scale to gauge the maturity of a given field of applied science. At Level 1, an area of scientific inquiry is so new that nobody understands its basic principles. At Level 9, the related technology is so mature it’s ready to be used in commercial products. ‘‘Basically, 1 is like Newton figuring out the laws of gravity, and 9 is you’ve been launching rockets into space, constantly and reliably,’’ says Jeff Legault, the director of strategic business development at the National Robotics Engineering Center. ...

... In effect, Carnegie Mellon used the NASA scale to carve up its robotics research. The Robotics Institute would handle research from Levels 1 to 3 or 4, while the center would take technology from there and move it to 7. If John Deere approached the center for help with a self-driving tractor, for example, the center would produce a prototype that could be mass-produced while publishing its research publicly.

‘‘Typically,’’ Legault says, ‘‘people who call us, they’ve been looking around, and there’s nobody else who can solve their problem.’’

Basic research is too cold. The technology isn't ready enough. Mature technology is too hot. Uber would be too late. But applied research is just right. Uber would swoop in, regardless of where the university was located.

Wherever a company can find strong applied research, Levels 4–7 on the NASA scale, the flame is the perfect brightness. Explaining the economic geography of recent news about Toyota:

Toyota, the Japanese auto giant, on Friday announced a five-year, $1 billion research and development effort headquartered here. As planned, the compound would be one of the largest research laboratories in Silicon Valley.

Conceived as a research facility bridging basic science and commercial engineering, it will be organized as a new company to be named Toyota Research Institute. Toyota will initially have a laboratory adjacent to Stanford University and another near M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass.

Emphasis added. The bridge is between Levels 1–3 and 7–9. The bridge is over the metaphorical "Valley of Death." The line between research university and private company blurs, defining today's geography of innovation.

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Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.

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