If you live in one of these, you will come up with the next great idea

Photo: Antonio DiCaterina

Every so often an invention comes along that changes everything. Henry Ford’s Model T for example, or more recently, Apple’s iPod. These types of innovations do a whole lot more than make their creators’ money, they change millions’ of people’s lives for the better.

If you feel like the next great, game-changing invention is on the tip of your mind’s tongue, a new study from The Ohio State University has a helpful suggestion for you. If you haven’t already, move out of the suburbs and into the hustle and bustle of a city. 

The research team at OSU investigated the geographic origins of over one million U.S. patents and found that disruptive, creative, and unexpected inventions usually come from the heart of cities. 

The suburbs actually produce more patents in general, but most of those are more conventional and not nearly as innovative as urban inventions. Explaining things a bit further, the research team says that innovations thought up in cities are much more likely to combine different technologies, industries, and fields in unexpected ways. 

For instance, the iPod combined computerized data storage with acoustics/music in a way few had imagined at the time.

“Densely populated cities do not generate more patents than the suburbs, but they tend to generate more unconventional patents,” explains study co-author Enrico Berkes, a postdoctoral researcher in economics at The Ohio State University, in a release. “Our findings suggest that cities provide more opportunities for creative people in different fields to interact informally and exchange ideas, which can lead to more disruptive innovation.”

The link between creativity and city living isn’t exactly a new concept. Artists, writers, and inventors of all sorts have flocked to cities for decades in search of inspiration and camaraderie. But, what exactly is it about sprawling urban landscapes that ignites the mind’s creative side? 

At first, based on prior research that had found most patents originate from large metro areas, Berkes and his team theorized that population density is an important aspect in all this. To their surprise, however, the study’s authors quickly noticed that while it’s true most patents come from big metropolitan areas, the majority of those inventions aren’t coming from city centers but nearby, less populated city suburbs. 

“If new technology is spurred by population density, we wanted to know why so much is happening in the least dense parts of the metro areas,” Berkes comments.

After analyzing over one million U.S. patents granted between 2002 and 2014, researchers got their answer. City suburbs have produced more patents in general over the past two decades or so because major tech companies like Microsoft or IBM routinely open large offices and research centers in such areas (big “office parks” usually located at least a few miles from a city’s center). 

“These companies are very successful in taking advantage of formal channels of knowledge diffusion, such as meetings or conferences, where they can capitalize on the expertise of their scientists and have them work together on specialized projects for the company,” Berkes says. “But it is more difficult for them to tap ideas from other scientific fields because this demands interactions with inventors they’re not communicating with every day or running into in the cafeteria or in the hallway.”

So, there you have it. Big office parks are conducive for specialized inventions, but not so much when it comes to thinking outside the box and combining two unexpected areas. For unique inventions, the very heart of a city is much more helpful.

“If you want to create something truly new and disruptive, it helps if you have opportunities to casually bump into people from other scientific fields and exchange ideas and experiences and knowledge. That’s what happens in cities,” Berkes continues. “Density plays an important role in the type, rather than the amount, of innovation.”

Researchers were able to determine where exactly each studied patent originated from thanks to geolocated data provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This is what allowed them to connect innovative patents with cities and less creative inventions to suburbs.

Each patent was classified as either “conventional” or “unconventional” based on the prior research the invention was based on. If the inventors used earlier work in two very different areas for their creation, that patent was considered unconventional. 

One example given by researchers was a 2000 patent filed in Pittsburgh for one of the very first precursors to the modern Fitbit. That invention combined earlier patents involving clothes and electronic equipment. Those are two distinct fields, thus that invention was classified as unconventional. 

A city, by its very nature, is a cultural melting pot filled with intellectuals, artists, and creators. When it comes to facilitating innovation, there’s no beating that recipe.

The full study can be found here, published in The Economic Journal.