Skip to main content

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Sydney, Australia. (Photo: FiledIMAGE/Shutterstock)

Sydney, Australia. (Photo: FiledIMAGE/Shutterstock)

Place happens when people reside in a geographic space. People make places. On the other hand, do places make people? Urban hierarchies and economies of scale:

Despite the enormous complexity and diversity of human behavior and extraordinary geographic variability, we have shown that cities belonging to the same urban system obey pervasive scaling relations with population size, characterizing rates of innovation, wealth creation, patterns of consumption and human behavior as well as properties of urban infrastructure. Most of these indicators deal with temporal processes associated with the social dimension of cities as spaces for intense interaction across the spectrum of human activities.

The bigger the city, the greater the innovation rate. Mathematics tell us that. The number crunching doesn't explain why we observe a certain quality of place associated with innovative activities. When positive correlation is good enough, "Turning Buffalo From a Rust Belt City Into a Start-up City":

Emerging research validates that “where” entrepreneurs start is as important as “what” they start-up. ... Is your existing start-up community sprawled about, fragmented and disconnected? How is your city dismantling “scarcity mentalities” that hinder the “collision density”* required to sustain a vibrant entrepreneurial culture? ... *Collision Density: as the density of people increases, interactions (collisions) increase. These collisions lead to unplanned idea exchanges, which increases innovation.

Urban scaling relations with population size drive innovation. That's quite an imaginative leap. Enter Australia:

Is Australia poorly networked? The Australian government thinks so. “Australia is a poor collaborator by international standards,” it says.

According to a recent Innovation System Report, the country’s university and industry links rank poorly. So does its international collaboration. Increasing collaboration – both nationally and internationally – and improving connections within the national innovation system may help Australia remain competitive and become a desired destination for collaboration.

Australia connecting abroad does have its impediments. Palmer cites the obvious – Australia’s geographical isolation. Its isolation becomes even more striking without adequate resourcing.

Australia lacks long-term and strategic funding to support enhanced collaboration, especially with Asia. Past programmes such as the International Science Linkages programme no longer exist. ...

... Australia is not leveraging its growing regional alumni networks. Approximately 80% of international students studying in Australia are from countries in Asia. Australia is training the next generation of science and technology researchers and bureaucrats. What it fails to do is develop long-term interactions with its untapped network.

Australia is isolated. In terms of innovation, what does that mean? Innovation is a product of collaboration across international borders and disciplines. Greater density (and innovation districts) is a fool's errand. Australia should leverage its growing alumni networks, not dismantle scarcity mentalities that hinder the collision density. People develop, not places.