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Culture

The Geography of Innovation

The suburbs generate more patents, but cities generate more unconventional innovations, a recent study finds.
GE's new corporate headquarters rises in downtown Boston, following decades in a sprawling campus in suburban Connecticut.
GE's new corporate headquarters rises in downtown Boston, following decades in a sprawling campus in suburban Connecticut.Bill Sikes/AP

Which type of place is more innovative—dense, diverse cities or sprawling, homogeneous suburbs? For most self-described urbanists, the answer would seem obvious. The density and diversity of cities enable all sorts of unique collaborations and chance encounters that foster innovation.

But this popular association between cities and innovation has long been confounded by the prevalence of suburban innovation hubs—the low-slung, car-dependent office parks that Joel Kotkin famously dubbed “nerdistans.”  This term describes nearly all of the most high-profile tech hubs, including California’s Silicon Valley; the Route 128 beltway outside Boston; Seattle suburbs like Redmond where Microsoft is headquartered; and similar collections of office parks outside Austin, in the North Carolina Research Triangle, and elsewhere.