The ‘Edge-City’, a breeding ground for technological innovation

by Linus Vanhellemont, @Lyneus

In ‘The Creative City in the Third Millennium’ Professor Peter Hall from the University College London argues that throughout history cities have been the source of major innovation. They have been places where human creativity flourished: from them came the world’s great art, the fundamental advances in thought and the great technological innovations.

He suggests that the concentration of people on a small surface and especially the fast growth of such concentrations are at the root of the innovatory character of cities. The sheer amount of people living together necessitates solutions for legal, technical and organizational matters.

People are obliged to be creative, for problems need to be dealt with. But immigration to the city did not only create problems, it was also the source of many opportunities: the new masses represented a big consumer-market and provided opportunities for making gains that could serve as means of investment in innovation; the immigration provided the necessary talented people to come up with the ideas; and the presence of creative people being part of the same network fired up the pace of the innovation in ideas.

Peter Hall takes it a step further and argues that throughout history a difference can be recognized between cities that generate cultural innovation in thoughts and in the arts, and cities that generate technological innovation.

Although they share the above mentioned traits ‘cultural cities’ are invariably older and more mature than ‘technological cities’. The technological cities of the 19th century such as Detroit, Berlin or Manchester were always plugged into what was happening globally, but at the same time they kept their distance to it as they were only emerging. In that sense they are called ‘edge cities’, not at the center, nor off the edge of their world.

They were not trammeled by old traditions or ways of doing things. Most had egalitarian social structures: they lacked old wealth and were not hide-bound by class; they were open societies in which careers were open to talents. They shared an ethos of self-reliance and self-achievement; they tended to have open educational systems, or at least apprenticeship systems, with a stress on the practical uses of scientific knowledge.

A man without a diploma, but the capacity to make it happen could get started and make business out of an idea. The many young enterprises that marked the edge-city, seem to have started by catering for a local market whose characteristics they understood. This was sometimes a consumer market but often it was a market of related producers. The digital revolution of the 20th century was not different in that respect and also the context was similar. Big innovations of the last 50 years came just as well from spin-off companies once set in place to produce for other producers. People doing the innovative work were certainly not only university graduates (the most famous examples are of course Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs of Apple) and except for Silicon Valley the innovation occurred just as well in cities.

However there is a difference to be pointed at when comparing with the 19th century innovation. In he’s book on the impact of the digital revolution ‘the rise of the network society’ Manuel Castells has argued that the previous elements need to be combined with an important presence of more institutionalized research institutes and universities. The synergy of creative people in a close-knit network combined with more traditionally subsidized organizations seems to bear the seeds to the magical formula of technological innovations in a digital era.

Based on

Castells, M (1995) The Rise of the Network Society

Hall, P (1999) The Creative City in the Third


What’s your idea about academic research on technological innovation? (Feel free to comment in a constructive way)

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