Cities that encourage high levels of education and collaboration are better able to reinvent themselves to a changing world than cities locked into low-skilled labour in monoculture industries.
By Ryan McGreal
Published April 11, 2012
A raft of innovative research clearly demonstrates that cities are powerful engines of economic growth and development. By their nature, cities enable a number of urban efficiencies - economies of scale, agglomeration, density, association and extension - that, taken together, vastly multiply the productivity of innovators and entrepreneurs.
It can be difficult to square this economic research with the clear evidence of decline and failure in cities that were among the largest in the world just several decades ago.
However, some cities that tumbled in the latter part of the 20th century have already managed to reverse their fortunes and undergo a dramatic renaissance, while others - like Detroit - have continued their tailspin into astonishing decrepitude.
The big cities of the 19th and 20th centuries were industrial cities, a relatively short-lived product of a particular set of historical circumstances. Industrial cities are characterized by a small number of large industrial employers providing mostly unskilled labour.
As Edward Glaeser argues in his recent book Triumph of the City, industrial economies actually undermine the knowledge generation and sharing that make cities economic engines. Writing about Detroit, Glaeser laments:
By turning a human being into a cog in a vast industrial enterprise [Henry] Ford made it possible to be highly productive without having to know all that much. But if people need to know less, they also have less need for cities that spread knowledge. When a city creates a powerful enough knowledge-destroying idea, it sets itself up for self-destruction.
Other industrial cities, like Boston and New York, reinvented themselves as innovation centres by focusing on widespread education, generation and cross-fertilization of ideas, and a dense ferment of innovative startups.
When their industrial economies declined - Boston's garment, leather and machinery trade and New York's textiles industry - those cities were able to reinvent themselves into knowledge-based economies thanks to an ongoing commitment to education and entrepreneurship.
In many ways, Hamilton is a classic industrial city, with an economy traditionally based on a small number of big industrial employers providing mostly unskilled jobs. That picture is changing - the health care industry is now the city's single largest employment sector - but our industrial legacy remains a challenge.
If Hamilton wants to enjoy the best prospects of long-term economic vitality, we need to transform ourselves into a learning city. This will require great political courage: a long-term investment that will take a generation to bear fruit.
According to the Hamilton's Vital Signs report, Hamilton's high school non-completion rate improved from 27% in 2000 to just 19.9% in 2010. That's good news, but Hamilton still slightly lags the provincial average.
Worse, the city-wide average hides the fact that non-completion is painfully concentrated in certain areas. In some neighbourhoods, as many as 65% of adults don't have a high school diploma.
That might have been okay when Hamilton was an industrial economy with a wealth of decent-paying unskilled jobs, but today it's a recipe for economic disaster and social despair.
Similarly, Hamilton's post-secondary completion rate of 51.1% slightly lags the provincial average - and again, the middling city-wide number hides the fact that graduates are concentrated in certain areas of the city.
As a necessary prerequisite, we need a higher percentage of high school graduates and a higher percentage of post-secondary graduates if we want to become a city that generates and capitalizes on new ideas.
That doesn't just mean attracting more people with degrees to move to Hamilton. Nor does it merely entail getting more graduates of McMaster and Mohawk to stay here.
More broadly, it means successfully encouraging a lot more Hamiltonians to complete high school and to go on to complete a post-secondary program. That, in turn, means starting in early childhood to set Hamilton's children up for success at school.
It also means McMaster and Mohawk need to do more to reach out to Hamilton's lower-income neighbourhoods and beat a smooth path into post-secondary education.
Another characteristic of learning cities is that they have a wealth of post-secondary institutions that foster cross-disciplinary research and information spillover and are integrated into the local community and economy.
There are at least 52 universities and colleges in metropolitan Boston, the most famous of which, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has long been a renowned incubator of new inventions, including an impressive swath of seminal information technologies.
One of the most remarkable facilities at MIT was Building 20, a shabby, poorly-built, temporary structure erected during the Second World War that ended up remaining in operation for 55 years.
Because of its temporary designation, Building 20's occupants were highly creative in their use of office and meeting space, taking advantage of its plywood construction to cut holes in ceilings and knock down walls as their needs required.
The hodgepodge of academic disciplines housed there - including acoustics, biotechnology, data processing, electronics, linguistics, medical research and radiation - and a confusing building design that brought lost and wandering researchers into frequent contact with each other created the conditions for a remarkable outpouring of new ideas.
Building 20 was the site of innumerable contributions to human knowledge, including the invention of radar, one of the world's first particle accelerators and groundbreaking work in cognitive science. Collaborations between acoustic and electronic researchers spun off into the Bose Corporation. Noam Chomsky synthesized cutting-edge work across biology and computer science to invent a new model of linguistics. Harold Edgerton combined disciplines to invent both high-speed stroboscopic photography and side-scan sonar technology, among other accomplishments.
Meanwhile, the playful approach taken in Building 20's Tech Model Railroad Club evolved into MIT's famous hacker culture that has underpinned so much of the Internet's development. Richard M. Stallman of MIT Media Lab inaugurated the free software movement with the GNU Project, which not only produced most of the essential software that runs the Linux operating system, but also created the first free software licence that established the legal conditions for a collaborative free and open source software project.
As Jonah Lerner concludes in a recent New Yorker essay:
The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right - enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways - the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant-not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism-that doesn't mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.
Jane Jacobs hit on the same realization in her defence of old buildings as places where people can try out new ideas without huge startup costs - and more broadly in her defence of an urban built environment as an environment in which creative people come into contact and combine their knowledge and ideas to generate innovations.
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