Looking for the City of Knowledge

For at least the last twenty years, scholars have proposed that the rise of a post-industrial economy led to the reinvention of urban life — the so-called “informational city.”  What is the relationship between cities, on one hand, and high-technology industries such as computers, media, and pharmaceuticals, which seem to cluster in metropolitan areas like Silicon Valley?   Numerous historians, geographers, sociologists, planners, and theorists have tried to understand the “geography of innovation,” searching for the factors that turn some places into centers of advanced scientific and technological work instead of others. Why, for instance, did Boston become a haven for cutting edge research while Detroit has floundered for decades in the death throes of its manufacturing base, with few zippy, shiny “new economy” enterprises to call its own?

The answer, some have suggested, lies in the conscious effort to develop “nodes” or “agglomerations” of scientific research in the form of research parks, often tied to a neighboring university. Such projects have a Field of Dreams quality about them – if you build it, they will come. “They” are entrepreneurs; venture capitalists; highly trained scientists and engineers with plenty of income to spend and tax; branches of multinational corporations like IBM or Pfizer; and all the other workers who attend to the labs and their inhabitants. “It” is a place where multiple corporations and start-ups can enjoy the network effects of nearness to other companies engaged in the same field, access to the resources of a university (libraries, faculty expertise), and the general ambience of an environment populated by scientists and scholars.

In this view, Detroit failed to reinvent itself because it lacks the cultural and academic strengths that have invigorated Boston (MIT, Harvard), the Research Triangle of North Carolina (Duke, Chapel Hill, NC State), San Francisco (Stanford), and even Pittsburgh (Carnegie Mellon, Pitt). As Margaret Pugh O’Mara suggests in Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (2005), people throughout the world have sought to imitate these successful examples by deliberately setting aside land and money to create a new innovative milieu.

O’Mara brings a broad view to the historical complexities of technology and economic development. While others have focused on statistical data to determine which cities have the greatest agglomerations of high-tech industry, and why cities have accumulated such business over time, O’Mara employs a more historical and qualitative approach, looking first at the origins of American science policy (and funding) in World War II and going on to weigh the successes and failures of particular attempts to build “cities of knowledge” in the San Francisco Bay area, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. This method allows the author to look at the model of a research park par excellence (Stanford Industrial Park), while examining what factors limited the success of similar efforts around the University of Pennsylvania and Georgia Tech University.

In the book’s first section, “Intent,” O’Mara examines how the US government got into the business of funding science and higher education in the first place, driven by a desire to maintain American technological and military superiority with the emergence of the Cold War. These chapters provide an eye-opening look at the politics that surrounded the creation of the National Science Foundation, and the reluctance of some conservatives to see the government spend money on and meddle in the affairs of science. Scientists too were ambivalent about putting research “in the hands of bureaucrats.” O’Mara reveals how scientific leaders like Vannevar Bush successfully lobbied for a government agency that would be dominated by the (supposedly) meritocratic elite of academia.

O’Mara also shows how security concerns and planning traditions defined the geographical contours of postwar science. Federal officials believed “dispersal” was wise, so that laboratories and high-tech industries would be scattered across the landscape, reducing their vulnerability to military strikes. A long-standing belief that intellectual contemplation required a serene, verdant environment also supported the suburbanization of science, particularly in the form of a research “park.” A location in leafy suburbia also seemed more likely to win the approval of the nation’s highly sought-after scientists and engineers, who companies like IBM competed to hire. Perceptions of traffic, crime, and other unpleasantries in the city combined to make the move of research facilities to the suburbs of the South and West practically over-determined.

There are wrinkles to the story, though. The conventional narrative of the Sunbelt at first seems an easy fit for O’Mara’s analysis. Democrats, long dominant in Congress, assured that federal funds would flow to their friends and constituents in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, California and other states. But the rebirth of Boston as a center of software, biotech and other industries seems like a major exception, especially since O’Mara’s southeastern case study, Atlanta, appears to have been a failure. Despite enjoying the largesse of Pentagon spending, the Georgian capital never became well-known as a high-tech node (though it certainly accomplished itself as a center of media, business services, and other new-economyish activities).

The shape of jazz to come

Perhaps the next-best example of a successful research park after Stanford, the Research Triangle Park, receives only passing notice. Was the North Carolina region similarly dependent on Cold War spending? Did it share the policies that made Stanford’s park so appealing to entrepreneurs, corporations, and workers, and how did its own racial, cultural, and political dynamics compare to those of San Francisco or Atlanta? One would assume that the Triangle resembled Atlanta more in its political culture, yet the attempt of local political, business, and academic elites to build a center of science and technology achieved a Stanford-like degree of renown.

Stanford offers the textbook example of how to create a magnet for employment in research and technology. The university had abundant land to work with, and was barred by Leland Stanford’s wishes from selling any of the property. Instead of leasing it to farmers, university leaders decided to let research oriented companies settle there. (It was initially called Stanford Industrial Park, but the name was changed in the 1970s.) With unquestioned control of the physical environment, Stanford could dictate what kind of companies would occupy the land, how large their facilities could be relative to lot size, and numerous other factors that were crucial for fostering a green, dispersed environment. Big lawns and unobtrusive, modernist architecture were the order of the day. Stanford also benefited from its cozy relationship with political and economic powerbrokers in the Bay Area, and from its position near the defense complex that grew up in San Francisco during and after WWII. With the arrival of General Electric, Lockheed Martin and others, the park got off to an auspicious start.

Stanford was able to develop its land on its own terms, with federal funds flowing to its corporate lessees and little political interference with its vision. The park builders of Philadelphia and Atlanta were not so fortunate. The University of Pennsylvania attempted to develop its University City Science Center as part of urban renewal efforts in the poor neighborhoods that surrounded the school, uprooting less favored tenants and aiming to bring in more valuable workers who would contribute to the area’s tax base. Although the Center was developed and persists to this day, it inspired local opposition and left hard feelings in the community, much like the similar campus expansion at Columbia University in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, Georgia Tech’s attempt to reinvent itself as the core of a dispersed technological industry in Atlanta was foiled by crisscrossing political loyalties within the city and the state as a whole, as well as resistance to efforts to expand its campus into areas populated by working class white and black residents. Although the alma mater of many big players in city affairs, Tech simply did not have the financial resources, political leverage, or unified vision to succeed in transforming Atlanta into a “city of knowledge.” Moreover, the preference of city leaders for a sprawling, metropolitan view of Atlanta – a segregated and car-dependent archipelago of suburbs – militated against having a concentrated area where hi-tech companies coexisted.

This raises the question of what a city of knowledge is at all. Is it the Stanford Research Park itself, the workplace where people spend the better part of their days, or the shopping malls and suburbs where scientists and engineers intermingle with students, managers, and service workers? These agglomerations of research and technology are often referred to by non-urban names – Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, the Space Coast in Florida. In short, they are places, areas, or regions, but not quite, perhaps, cities. O’Mara suggests that the dense, urban environment around Penn and its complex city politics were a major liability for its own “University City.” Of course, plenty of other colleges have their own University Cities, as the area around my own former college in Charlotte is known.

What makes these Cities of Knowledge, Informational Cities, or University Cities distinctive is their image, their branding. At least one scholar who has looked at data on research parks throughout the United States concluded that cities with parks did not fare all that much better than cities without them, at least in terms of attracting and sustaining scientific industry. The presence of a significant university, sociologist Stephen Appold says, appears to correlate with greater amounts of research activity over time.

In other words, it was not the park that made Stanford great, but the other way around. For many local boosters, from Silicon Valley to the Research Triangle, universities were among the chief selling points in their efforts to recruit companies to their communities. These companies, in turn, considered the appeal of their location to potential employees to be a primary concern. The idea of being near people like themselves – well-paid, well-educated, primarily white and privileged people – was a major plank in the promotion of cities of knowledge. Local authorities wanted these kinds of people, whether in the poorer districts of Philadelphia or the exurbs of Raleigh, and these kind of people wanted to be around each other.

The climate is here, wish you were beautiful

In my own study of research parks, I have noticed that vague and euphemistic terms like “atmosphere” and “climate” come up often when both employers and employees talk about their decision of where to settle. This language recalls Richard Florida’s circular thesis that places become cool because cool people are there, and cool people want to be around other cool people – cool meaning, of course, people with similar education, cultural interests, and possibly race. It does not really explain why a city like Huntsville, Alabama becomes a center for research and technology – few intellectuals have likely longed for the erudite climate of northern Alabama – but Huntsville’s preeminence seems to be thoroughly the result of defense spending in the “Rocket City,” ever since Werner von Braun landed there in the midst of the Korean War.

For other places, such as Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle, selling the immaterial qualities of “culture,” “diversity,” and an intellectual “climate” has been key – and the existence of one or more distinguished universities has typically been the basis for making such claims. Academic leaders, businesspeople, and state and local government officials wanted to create spaces that would attract a certain kind of citizen and worker, with a high level of income and education, residents who could enhance the tax base and the marketability of the community itself.

In short, the work of O’Mara and others tentatively suggests that it is less the purposely designed concentration of skilled labor and advanced technology in a research park that makes a place prosper, but the pre-existing cultural and social capital of schools that matters most. Unfortunately for those who are still hunting the “next Silicon Valley” and hoping to find it in their own backyards, that is the kind of value that can’t be created through a real estate scheme or a good marketing campaign.