engineering equals innovation?

Preface: I’m not a big fan of city rankings. I’m an engineer.

In a recent article on Forbes, with yet another city rankings study, Joel Kotkin makes some connections between cities and technological innovation. The proxy, fittingly, is number of engineers per 1,000 employees in the city. Is this a good proxy? Aren’t there plenty of engineering jobs that are definitely not innovative? He does make connections economic sectors, but its a stretch to say that this indicator is a good operationalization of innovation. No doubt that cities are centers of engineering employment and technological change, history tells us this, but what exactly is “innovation”? Is this the modernist idea of progress, where social, political and technical changes are framed as benefits to a society, when we know that many repercussions of modernist projects are failures on many fronts? Kotkin notes his idea of this progress or innovation in terms of engineering:

These top three engineering cities [San Jose, Houston, Wichita] tell us much about the source of American innovation, and the remarkable diversity that makes this country an engineering powerhouse. It involves three essential industries — information technology, energy and manufacturing. Each has a distinct geographic makeup that reflects differing kinds of engineering talent [High-Tech, Energy, Manufacturing] .

And what about those infamous, cutting edge cities, “prospering” because of oil?  Bakersfield is by far the most conservative area in California, and in many cases is extremely dependent on the oil industry. How will oil-dependent cities fair in the future? I think the term resiliency immediately comes to mind, which of course is neither only technical or economic, but also social and political.  What kind of innovation will spring up around a town dependent on oil industry jobs when their is no oil left?

The Energy Cities. When thinking of energy, we might think of wildcats covered with crude (like James Dean in Giant), but this is becoming an industry very dependent on highly trained geophysicists, petroleum engineers, chemical engineers and other specialists. This explains the ninth-place ranking for Bakersfield, “the oil capital of California,” a city better known for country music and cruising than technology. Over 15,000 people work in this generally high-wage industry in the onetime Okie capital. Energy jobs are also big in No. 14 Baton Rouge, La., home to Louisiana State University, which sends many of its engineering graduates into the Gulf of Mexico energy industry.

The economic and technical focus of innovation in this piece also tends to miss the cultural and political when thinking about the source of innovation that more creative, grassroots, and non-engineering professions/activities can provide. Would you agree that New York is not innovative? Perhaps, but their are many interesting things happening in New York which contribute to the city’s appeal and solution generation that places like Bakersfield or even LA just cannot muster.

The Have-not Regions. One surprisingly weak area is greater New York, which ranks 78th, with a miniscule 6.1 engineers per 1,000 workers, and some 20,000 fewer engineers than Los Angeles. The New York media and the city’s chattering classes may like to talk up the Big Apple as a high-tech center, but the relative lack of engineering talent should spark a tad of skepticism over whether the nation’s largest urban area is really up to the task of competing against engineer-rich places like Boston, San Diego, Seattle, Denver or Austin, much less stand up to Silicon Valley, with seven times the concentration of engineers.


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