Recap | Building Blocks: Knowledge and Innovative Cities

What makes a city innovative? And in what ways does innovation need the city (or not)? As the panelists at the recent “Building Blocks: Knowledge and Innovative Cities” conference addressed, innovation is not inevitable; it is the result of intentional policies and regulations with implications for social equity and economic development. “Building Blocks” was presented by the Technological Change Lab (TCLAB) at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). The conference was not only a chance to showcase some of the collaborative partnerships between the Lab and outside organizations, but also offered inquiry into the role that the university can and does play as an actor in regional development and in “the innovation economy” on a larger scale.

The conference traveled through case studies from different continents, examining national and local policies and the dynamics between the public and private sectors in contributing to improving quality of life. With forays into health policy, patent licensing, urban infrastructure and housing, the speakers covered a wide terrain and represented the interdisciplinary nature of the issue at hand. Did they arrive at a clear conclusion about innovation and cities? No. But the discussions and positions presented point to the multivalence of the issue and its demand for an equally diverse and context-specific range of policies and responses.

“Innovation” is a term sometimes difficult to define, and its relationship to “city” (itself subject to interpretation) is even more nebulous. In his opening remarks, Mark Wigley, Dean of Columbia’s GSAPP, stressed the pressing need to explore this relationship further, but he also expressed some healthy skepticism about the relationship’s nature and existence. He called into question his own territory, the academy, and wondered whether the knowledge and technologies developed in academic contexts like universities depend on and contribute to the social and economic well-being of the city.

What followed were three panels investigating these preliminary questions. The first spoke to equity and technological innovation, the second to the diffusion of technology and urban growth, and the third examined models of entrepreneurship and partnership in the commercialization of technology. Across panels, two themes emerged: questions of innovation and quality of life and equity, and an examination of the economy of knowledge management and transfer.

São Carlos, panoramico norte, by Marcelo Braga via <a href="" />Flickr</a>
São Carlos, panoramico norte, by Marcelo Braga via Flickr


Perhaps the most obvious need cities have for innovation is an ability to improve the quality of life of their residents. As Smita Srinivas, Director of the TCLab, pointed out in her introduction, technological advances are the result of the policies that govern discoveries and later their dissemination. While innovation can be leveraged for economic gain, it can also lead to a radical restructuring of urban form with repercussions for everyday life.

The keynote speaker, Cecilia Martinez, Director of UN-Habitat’s New York office, stressed that a paradigm shift in technological innovation is needed to change the employment and housing structure of cities in industrializing nations — that her organization’s slum improvement efforts are treating symptoms and not the disease. She reminds us that, historically, health innovations have drastically improved urban conditions, and now the question is how to implement a new, sustainable and equitable model into existing cities to ensure humane conditions for the masses of disenfranchised urban dwellers. She was insistent that, unlike the “improvements” of Modern urban planning, decisions moving forward need to be made with an intimate knowledge of community and context, and should question whether Western measures of quality of life should be held as standard worldwide.

São Carlos
To explore the challenges of government funding for innovation and the impact it has in the immediate local context, Luciana Pereira, Professor of Innovation Economics at UFABC, presented a case study from Brazil. São Carlos, the “Capital of Technology” in the countryside near São Paolo, is a small town with an incredible density of high-tech companies, universities and PhDs (1 PhD for every 180 inhabitants). If São Carlos is a magnet for public funding for photo-optics research, a glance at the area surrounding the Tech compound reveals the limited local reach of the benefits of this research. Living in precarious conditions, the residents outside of São Carlos rely on agriculture — sugar cane, coffee and orange harvesting.

Pereira asks how these two worlds can co-exist in such close proximity and, more generally, what responsibilities do multinational corporations have towards the local context in which they work? How can government funds be directed towards research that improves prospects for regional living conditions? Later in the day, Srinivas suggested that the link between multinational entities and locally-serving NGOs needs to be rethought to bridge the global capital/ local development gap and best serve the community’s needs. A mediating body between global capital and local services could allow the development within São Carlos and similar compounds worldwide to trickle to the community beyond.

In the final remarks of the day, Professor Richard Nelson of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs noted that economic innovation has always been a painful process that leaves lots of people out and even worse off. The question remains, does this always have to be the case?

If Srinivas rightly questions the connection between global systems and local service delivery, Greta Byrum of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative offered a model put into place in Detroit to connect the community to the country’s most recent and extensive infrastructure project, the Internet. The Open Technology Initiative is working within existing social structures and networks to improve Internet access through a system in which the nodes and access points are people and businesses. What is offered is a new kind of “off-ramp” from the information superhighway that reinforces a sense of social cohesion and place to enhance digital literacy and access. Byrum then asked, optimistically, whether this could point to a new paradigm for rebuilding the broken post-industrial economy; rebuilding with a structure that works with a community’s assets, flexible enough to accommodate emerging skill sets as they develop.

Though the New America Foundation developed a successful solution, albeit one that the residents embraced with a healthy dose of skepticism (having become test subjects for any number of new social ventures), Jigar Bhatt, PhD candidate in Urban Planning at Columbia, made an argument for honoring the inventions that emerge out of a community in need. He presented the case of scarcity-induced innovation in peri-urban areas around Maputo, Mozambique where the shortcomings of the municipal water supply were supplemented by a group of small-scale entrepreneurs, whose service in many ways surpassed that of the municipal provision. Beyond an argument for the free market, what it reveals is the value of indigenous knowledge and context in developing successful solutions for local problems. While it also runs the risk of glorifying the conditions of scarcity which induce such innovation, this project shares qualities with the Open Technology Initiative in thinking about network distribution on a community level to more equitably and efficiently distribute a resource held and managed centrally.


With the understanding that cities are engines of production and concentrated sites of knowledge transfer, how is innovation regulated and promoted by private and public sectors at the global, national, regional and local level?

Addressing the global level, Saku Mäkinen of the Tampere University of Technology spoke about the system of innovation operating in Finland, asking where private firms stand between profit-making machines and entities developed to deliver innovation to the public. Finnish companies, characterized by Mäkinen as the nimble ski troops that defeated the Soviet Union in the Winter War, are a small group churning out innovations for export. But who is Finland inventing for? Standard development for the global market or products designed for a particular audience? And how is this encouraged by Finnish policy? In counterpoint to scarcity-induced innovation, the export-driven concerns of Finnish invention respond to a generalized need, and Mäkinen argues the country would be better served if innovation followed a consumer-driven business model.

Intellectual Property
Bhaven Sampat, Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia, confronted the polemic of commercialization of discovery and university-based economic development, specifically addressing the value of patents versus public funding in encouraging innovation. Sampat argues that patents have been booming over the past twenty years and are emerging in industrializing economies without an examination of the impact they have on discovery and innovation. While the traditional model holds that without patents companies would have no incentive to nurture the embryotic ideas developed in universities, Sampat asks whether in fact universities need patents to disseminate their products, or is intellectual property a way for universities to play the market?

Sampat was challenged by Dan Abraham, Director of Columbia Technology Ventures’ Morningside and Lamont-Doherty licensing team, who manages the patents of Columbia’s estimated 300 inventions per year, responsible for 128 start-ups over the last 18 years. Abraham presented several design-related inventions managed by the university (one by architecture students was LuminAID, inflatable LED lights with a solar charger designed for refugee camps) and characterized the university patent ventures as not only a means of connecting innovation to industry, but a lucrative source of funds that fuels further research. But, hearkening back to Mark Wigley’s original probe into the relationship between innovation and the city, one could ask: if Columbia is one of the highest patent-producing institutions in the country, and only one of several research-based institutions located in the city, why New York City isn’t known for its science and technology sectors in the same way Boston or San Francisco are?

Siting Innovation
New York hosts an innovative financial services sector yet lags in science and technology, despite being the city with the second most NIH funding (behind Boston). While New York City trains a disproportional amount of the country’s doctors at some stage in their career, and produces an incredible amount of patents and research institutions, the “hard science” sector seems to leave town. Maria G. Gotsch, President and CEO of the New York City Investment Fund (NYCIF), spoke of the Fund’s efforts to resolve this disparity by working at the intersection of the private, non-profit and public sectors to “reduce friction” in commercializing technology, giving the city’s commercial science and technology sector a boost and helping diversify the economy. The density of knowledge, research institutions and financing are in place; the missing pieces in the science and technology puzzle, according to Gotsch, are commercial lab space and entrepreneurial spirit.

But is it simply, as Bhaven Sampat put it, that “the rent is too damn high?” If space is one factor in preventing growth in the science and technology sectors, and it seems to be, the NYCIF is founding the East River Lab Space, a flexible laboratory for start-ups to germinate within sight of the venture capitalists who are so eager to fund. With venture capital and lab space accounted for, the NYCIF hopes to add “the secret sauce” to foster an entrepreneurial spirit among New York’s hard scientists through networking events, and an Entrepreneur in Residence who will circulate around schools in the area to encourage and mentor budding scientists through the commercialization process with the ultimate goal of keeping their innovation, jobs and profits in the Big, Innovative Apple.

At the end of the day of talks, however, Srinivas rightly noted that missing from the discussion was the question of a repair economy. It seems like an easy trap for a conference on innovation and discovery (especially in an American context) to fall into, to forget that innovation can and needs to occur in the economy around the afterlives of the technologies that remain behind as the frontier of discovery marches forward.

The Alexandria Center for Life Science®–NYC (formerly known as the East River Science Park), a collaboration between the New York City Economic Development Corporation and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.
The Alexandria Center for Life Science®–NYC (formerly known as the East River Science Park), a collaboration between the New York City Economic Development Corporation and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.

Building Blocks: Knowledge and Innovative Cities
February 17, 2012
Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
Wood Auditorium

Sarah Rafson is a Masters candidate in the Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices program at Columbia University’s GSAPP. She worked in game design at Carnegie Mellon University ( and is interested in this and other strategies as critical practices in architecture, planning, and curating.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Dalya Hakimi March 21, 2012

This was a great article and very well written. I would like to agree with Bhaven Sampat. The rent in New York is too damn high!
I am architect trained in New York at City College, where the emphasis was always on designing buildings that improved the urban fabric for everyone. I left New York to do graduate work in Boston, at M.I.T. and never again lived in New York. I have lived in now in Chicago, Denver and Toronto and would never dream of living again in New York because the cost of living there is too high. Indeed, the social costs are too high as well, because of time consuming commutes to work and play, expensive parking, overcrowding due to super high density.It is just such a stressful environment that it is not a great place to live. No matter what the university does to attract research and innovation the educated labor market will seek other more pleasant and less costly places to set up shop.