ID Conference: Robert Huggins about Cities, Innovation and Behavioural Change

Our next keynote speaker is Professor Robert Huggins, the director of Research and Innovation, School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University. He will present his research about the transformation of the role of cities, as well as the changes related to the economics of innovation. We have talked to Professor Huggins about his research, the impact of COVID-19 on cities and his attidude towards the online conferences.

Photo courtesy of Robert Huggins

Photo courtesy of Robert Huggins

– What topic will you present at the Conference?

– I am an economic geographer. As any economic geographer, I tend to think about uneven development across places, especially cities and regions. And in this presentation, I will particularly look at how innovation is changing across cities and regions around the world.

In 2018-2019 I undertook more than a hundred interviews with innovation agents, large firms, corporates, co-working spaces, incubators, accelerators across six big cities trying to understand what is happening with regard to innovation in an urban environment. I visited New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, Shanghai, and Tokyo. My argument is that everything that is happening in big cities will foreshadow what all cities need to do in terms of developing an innovation system or an entrepreneurial ecosystem. I was looking at the behavioral changes of entrepreneurs, and why individual agents are attracted to cities, thinking beyond some of the «usual suspect» places such as Silicon Valley. I was in the process of writing an article and planning a book. But obviously COVID came along, and now there are concerns people will be too afraid to go to cities, or they will go to smaller cities rather than big cities I looked at.

So what I am trying to do in the presentation is to understand some of the changes that I have already found and to think about what will happen in a, hopefully, soon arriving post-COVID environment. I am looking at the changes in processes and the nature of innovation within cities, and why it may start to take place in different cities along the way. I argue that this drift from larger cities to more smaller cities is long-going, not just because of COVID. I argue that there is more connection between these big innovation hubs, such as the ones I looked at, and more satellite cities. This makes sense because for some the innovation agents – be they companies, individuals, or the academia – at some point certain negative externalities may kick in, in terms of costs, congestion, and obviously, now COVID. That is the tenor of what I am trying to get over in my presentation. I argue that in the end that cities are just very inefficient places because they are highly dense, and cannot operate at any sort of optimum. But really the inefficiency is the reason that gives them advantage.  

– In your opinion, what are the key drivers of these developments in innovation and the role cities?

– I think one of the key drivers is the way the innovation is being undertaken, and this promotion is more around open innovation rather than the innovation that is taken within one particular organization or a company. Now there is a lot more connectivity, networks across companies, entrepreneurs, institutions, and agents. And, of course, because there is more connectivity between entities, there is going to be more connectivity across places. New types and forms of networks are occurring. For example, now we are working remotely, and there is no need for me to be in London or in any hub. I can be where I am but can have these connections as well. So, this collaborative and network approaches to innovation are driving development, and innovation will become more distributed across the globe. There is also a behavioral change associated with this connectivity. Some people may prefer to live outside the cities, to be in a more natural environment, and hence some rural areas may become hotbeds of innovations. I think that these changes would have happened anyway, but COVID is maybe going to accelerate some of them.

– In your opinion, will the COVID-19 pandemic impact the role of cities altogether?

– It is a difficult question, because different cities have different roles. When we think about the hierarchy of cities – very big cities, second-tier cities, and smaller provincial ones, – what I am noticing within the environment of innovation will probably be similar to what is happening more generally across economies. Larger cities will remain important but will become more hollowed out. The days of commuting from outside the big city to the city itself five days a week will change. I was already seeing that for «white collar» workers, some of them may not be even in a commuting area, they can be quite a distance away. When I undertook interviews in London for instance, there were people commuting from Madrid and Northern Italy, and it seemed quite natural to them. Universities now serve as laboratories for this phenomenon in a way. Some academics are traveling quite a distance across different countries for their job. This trend in academia will become more replicated in general across the economy. I think second-tier cities will begin to play a stronger role. We will see a change in the balance of power relations and importance between the first and second tiers.

Now we may see many cities around the world as «ghost towns» due to COVID, but then we will start getting back to normality, cities will become populated again. People will require this face-to-face interaction. I have seen a survey that many business managers and big companies want their employees to return to work, because they understand the value of this face-to-face interaction. Maybe not for five days a week, but certainly people will be going back to the city. We can assume that there will be some return to normality, but with some different conditions that we will need to operate in. But it is a new environment and difficult at the moment to predict. I do think that looking at innovative-driven entrepreneurs gives an indication of what may cascade down towards the wider economy as a whole.

– What are your expectations from the Conference, and do you see any advantages of the online format?

– There are advantages in terms of efficiency and costs, I guess. People can dip in and out easier than maybe if they have to be face-to-face. But for me the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, to be honest. I would love to be there with you. I have been to St Petersburg a few times and it is a pleasure to stroll down the Nevsky Avenue, visit the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, walk along the river – I miss all that. It is a wonderful city, even in November. So yes, there are advantages, but I do not think this can replace what we get intellectually and culturally from being together.

In the future, the online format will become a part of life in terms of conferences and teaching. Now if I cannot attend an event, but it is online and recorded, I can watch it in my leisure time. It is good for us – academics and students – to build content online. But it is very sad to think that we may not be able to meet. Connectivity, networks, the possibility to have a chat and to develop some new ideas or projects – cyberspace takes away this spontaneity.

And this goes hand-in-hand with innovation. You can do certain work online, but can new ideas be naturally generated with the same value in cyberspace? I think it requires some face-to-face interaction. It is a different mentality in having a conversation in person compared to looking at the screen. It is a way forward, but not a substitute. It is like reading a book or searching for something online – sometimes it is actually really nice to have a book in your hands.

Interview by Yury Kabanov and Angelina Silaeva