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The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.
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Okinawa, Japan. (Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

Okinawa, Japan. (Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

I invite you to play in a sandbox. You can build a community any way you see fit. However, the goal of construction is innovation. Tony Hsieh (Zappos) took this challenge and built his castles of innovation in Downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh anointed his leading architect as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser:

“Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies,” Glaeser writes. “They are proximity, density, closeness.” He makes much of the city’s unsurpassed ability to facilitate productive connections, even in this age when the internet has eliminated so much of the difficulty of distance — as Zappos has done with shoe-shopping. “Cities enable collaboration, especially the joint production of knowledge that is mankind’s most important creation. Ideas flow readily from person to person in the dense corridors of Bangalore and London, and people are willing to put up with high urban prices just to be around talented people, some of whose knowledge will rub off.”

Sounds dreamy. You bump into people and knowledge rubs off. Magic. In your sandbox of innovation, people must bump into each other as much as possible. Build accordingly. Create collisions.

Glaeser evokes Bangalore. Why not Mumbai? If Glaeser is right, then the places with the greatest densities will have the most innovation. The densest parts of the city should be cauldrons of innovation. Pick your own table of urban population density. You won't find anything resembling hotbeds of innovation. I can tell you from a research perspective that the most innovative places in the United States are a function of federal spending and labs, not density.

If you want innovation, then you have to think outside the sandbox. You have to think like a geographer, not an economist. Looking for root beer in a country that hates root beer:

Recently our reporter Nakano made the trip down to Okinawa to get a taste of the frothy brown soft drink for the first time. Okinawa was the one enclave of Japan where root beer could flourish thanks to the presence of American military installations there.

Americans like root beer. Americans in Okinawa (Japan) for military service might have a thirst for root beer. The door opens for root beer on Japanese soil. The door opens for innovation:

In this era of increasing globalization we see more and more cases of foods jumping across cultural boundaries and changing in the process. Japan is no different with foods like pizza topped with scallops, curry which tastes sweet as pudding, and ramen burgers.

And of course this culinary door swings both ways such as the United States’ take on sushi in creations like the California roll. However, now we are seeing an interesting twist in the migration of sushi with New Port Sushi located in Okinawa. Here American style sushi can be enjoyed in Japan. After our reporter Nakano was finished vomiting up his glass of root beer, we sent him in to check it out. ...

... New Port Sushi had only recently opened and is run by a Japanese sushi chef. Trained in his home country he took his talents to open a shop in California. Now back in Japan he has brought with him an array of American palate-pleasing taste ideas. ...

... As Nakano sat there munching on his rolls and smelling some burning incense wafting in from the distance while sipping on Wilkinson carbonated water (a brand started in Japan by a British person). He sat there enjoying this truly unique moment because there probably isn’t another place like New Port Sushi in Japan or America.

Okinawa is the product of a quirky historical geography. If not for that quirky historical geography, then "there probably isn’t another place like New Port Sushi in Japan or America." Innovation doesn't pay any attention to the population density in Okinawa. Innovation doesn't pay attention to population density anywhere.