The Future of Urban Innovation

I’ve written before about Creative Industries – what they are, why they’re important, and what they might mean for Berlin’s future. But I wanted to expand a little bit more in preparation for an interesting conference I’ll be attending this week here in Berlin called “Future of Innovation Laboratories and Urban Innovation Strategies.” It’s taking place during Asia-Pacific Week here in the city, and includes around 100 or so entrepreneurs, scientists, tech research labs, startups….etc. etc. You get the idea.

From what I understand, the fundamental question that these researchers are trying to answer is: How can cities support innovation, and how can this innovation be turned into positive economic and even social growth?

But first, let’s take a quick step back. While there is no set-in-stone definition of Creative Industries the definition currently used by the British government is companies that earn their profits from the creative skills of their workforce and that generate of intellectual property. In Berlin, this definition includes fine arts production; media; publishing; software design; and internet-based firms. By defining these kinds of industries as something unique, governments across the globe (including Berlin) are making a special effort to support and grow these firms.

It’s easy to get lost in the various definitions and technicalities, so for our purposes I would just make the following point. Governments want to support these kinds of industries for two fundamental reasons: their potential economic growth; and the role they play in energizing and reinvigorating cities themselves.

To take just one example, according to figures that I was given by the German Federal Labor Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) last year while researching my thesis, the number of workers in the digital technology sector rose from 38,699 in 2008 to approximately 55,656 in 2013. That’s a really big increase, and it’s only one sector. Those extra 20,000 workers represent not only more business tax, but they represent 20,000 salaries that are being spent within the city at bars, restaurants, clubs, and cultural activities; 20,000 apartment rentals, and so on. The positive spillover effects are really huge – and that’s only one sector.

The second reason why urban policymakers love creative industries is that, unlike in American-style commuter cities like Atlanta, creative industries are located in the urban core of cities, and so are the workers. Over the past 20 years, the desire among young, educated workers to move back into urban cores has become pervasive across the world. The positive effects – abandoned space being reclaimed, old manufacturing sites finally becoming economically productive again – seem to outweigh the negative effects of, among other things, gentrification. At least in the minds of policymakers.

That’s a very short summary of a really big topic. People have literally written dozens of books, papers, and doctoral dissertations about the subject, and I’ve summed it up in about four paragraphs. I realize I’m shortchanging some of the background, but I wanted to lay a few foundation bricks to bring me back to the point: the conference.

According to the informational brochure, the Labs to Public idea was begun in Deceber of last year in order to:

“provide new education, networking and prototyping formats for the development of international partnerships, project kick-offs and long-term cooperation platforms.”

The goal of the event itself is to brainstorm ideas about the future of city living. What I mean is the buzzwords that we’ve all heard before: Smart Cities, Sustainability, etc.

This ties in to creative industries, of course, because a lot of the economic activity going on within urban cores is being done by the creative industries. Shaping the economic life of cities means, to a considerable extent, shaping the economic life of creative industries. This ranges from subsidizing start-up coworking space to offering high speed internet to sustainable development projects.

Will I find the answers to the world’s biggest problems this week? Definitely not. Will I find answers to smaller ones, like how much money should governments spend subsidizing startups? Unlikely – but possible. I’m just psyched about meeting interesting people, listening to interesting talks, and reminding myself why living in cities is worth the Monday morning rush hour struggle.