In the next episode of Future by Lund New Normal we meet James Wilson, Research Director at Orkestra in San Sebastian, Spain. He points out the importance of cities for driving innovation and transformation – for example by providing testbeds – even when covid-19 sets limits for human contact. “We will probably see a lot of experimentation that maintains the advantages that comes from living in a city whilst mitigating the risks and dangers in terms of closeness of contacts”, James Wilson says.
James Wilson is research Director at Orkestra (Basque Institute of Competitiveness). He has years of experience with studying cluster initiatives, drivers of regional competitiveness and territorial systems.
What differences and similarities between the concepts of cluster initiatives and innovation districts (or city-led innovation platforms) do you see?
- First of all there are lots of similarities. The main similarity is that they are rooted in the power of collaboration and the idea that collaborative dynamics across different actors generates enhanced creativity, innovation productivity and better social economic results for everybody involved. The similarities are bigger than the differences.
- To me there are two real differences. Innovation districts are a bit broader in terms of activity. They are not specific to one sector or group of sectors and tend to be more open in terms of trying to foster innovation in a broad range of activities. Cluster initiatives usually are more specific and could focus on a specific set of activity (not necessarily a sector). The second main difference is the geographic scale. When we talk about a city-level innovation district, we often talk about a very confined geographic scale, often in walking distance. Cluster initiatives usually use a regional scale…more like driving distance between companies and other actors.
What role can cities/local level play in leading collaborative innovation/transformation processes?
- Cities are critically important for innovation and creativity, and history has shown that innovation occurs when people come together and you have a critical mass of people. I think there are a number of key roles that cities and municipalities can play - from a broad base to more specific things. In a broad sense, the best thing that cities can do to encourage innovation is to provide a good living environment where creative people want to live, as that’s what ultimately brings people to cities and that’s what keeps them there. The basis for collaborative behaviour is the people. Cities that function well provide an environment where people want to live, and are a magnet to attracting and retaining talent.
- Moving to business-led innovation, I also think cities can play a role to help firms to innovate. Cities have an interesting role to play as testbeds for many innovation activities – particularly with innovation focused on sustainability and the move towards the green economy and the digital economy. There are quite radical changes in how we do things, and you need systems that work well. The city as a system is a great testbed, where you can be able to test, for example, intelligent electricity grids, intelligent transport and mobility solutions - the type of things firms are trying to innovate and which are difficult to do on their own. With a city context, you can test a lot of solutions. Cities can engage in a proactive way and drive forward the innovations that need a systemic context.
- And then practically, cities often play a very important role in fostering entrepreneurship - providing the physical space, building space or incubator facilities where entrepreneurs feel that they have a place to do their stuff within a city.
How do you see the role of cities changing in fostering innovation and addressing the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Many solutions, particularly about the digital revolution and the climate emergency, are challenges that were there before covid-19. Cities in many places were planning their systemic roll, and covid-19 accelerated the pace (particularly for digitalisation). We will need to accelerate our response to the climate urgency. We are in a period now when all actors need to do more radical things…to be testing and pushing the limits of what can be done to provide new ways of being more sustainable. And cities play a role in creating an environment to make that possible.
-Covid complicates that more than slightly, as the biggest advantage of cities has been the ability to bring people together in close proximity. What we have with the pandemic era is that bringing people together in close proximity is the worst thing you can do. The biggest and most populated cities in the world are also hardest hit by the covid pandemic. Yet historically, cities are very resilient places. Some people talk about the death of the city because of covid, but I think cities will find solutions. I live in a small city in Spain. We are starting to open up, people are going to work and living their normal lives – finding different ways of interacting while using a mask or practising social distancing, etc. The creativity that comes from the proximity of people is ultimately still absolutely critical for meeting the biggest challenges in society, such as the climate urgency. We will find solutions in cities to adapt or change our behaviour so we can overcome the pandemic and move on from it.
So the role of the cities are the same but the ways to implement these roles are maybe different?
- Yes. We have already seen radical adaption of behaviours in the short term. Cities have been changing radically in the last three months in how they operate. Now they are trying to work on a solution to live with covid – finding medium and longer-term solutions. We will probably see a lot of experimentation that maintains the advantages that comes from living in a city whilst mitigating the risks and dangers in terms of closeness of contacts.