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The Geography of Innovation

SOURCE: iStockphoto/Adam Kaz

The federal government can assume a vital role in helping to grow regional centers of innovation.

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This report was originally published in Science Progress.

Innovation is the critical component of long-term economic prosperity, driving productivity growth and (if spread across key sectors of the economy) ensuring broad-based economic growth. Sparking innovation, however, requires capital (which is threatened by the current economic downturn), skilled-labor, scientific and technological advances, and creative collaboration between government and the private sector. Innovation cannot be dictated, but it can be cultivated.

In this paper, we focus on the importance of President Barack Obama’s call for a new federal effort to support regional innovation clusters. We know now—from a solid record of state and local achievements and academic research—that regional innovation clusters are a critical component of national competitiveness. Geographic regions that are bound together by a network of shared advantages create virtuous cycles of innovation that succeed by emphasizing the key strengths of the local businesses, universities and other research and development institutions, and non-profit organizations. Think information technology in Silicon Valley, music in Nashville, manufacturing in the Pacific Northwest, or life sciences in Massachusetts.

The United States, we argue in this paper, requires innovation policies for which responsibility is shared between regional leaders and the federal government. Leadership must begin in the clusters themselves—with local understanding of competitive strengths and strategies to increase the shared advantages that economists recognize as “positive externalities.” The federal government, however, can and should assume a vital role in which it frames critical national challenges, facilitates the flow of information and expertise to and between regions, and helps finance, in a competitive and leveraged fashion, valuable activities that clusters would otherwise be unable to undertake.

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