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Innovating Super Cities

Apparently the size of a city has a direct impact on its innovation. According a report published in Seed Magazine, the number of patents filed, and the quantity of research/education institutions goes up 15% when a city doubles in size. This is an interesting statistic that begs the question, what is the ideal investment for urban expansion?

Well, an article published today in the Telegraph reports that China will invest approximately a trillion dollars in the next five years for the creation of super-cities or super-urban zones. Their plan is to surround the cities of a given region with high-speed rails and make significant infrastructural investments that cater to the various areas’ strongest industries. China is effectively manufacturing industry hot beds and reinventing the idea of a “major metropolitan center.”

The Pearl River Delta region is expected to be the first completed, focused around Guangzhou and 8 other cities, and will likely be contain 42 million people within the next three years. The largest urban zone would join the Bohai Economic Rim cities (Beijing, Tainjin and several others in the area) and contain 260 million people by 2020.

Wow. To be clear, there could be an urban zone of 260 million people, or 3% of the global population. Well, is there going to be an effective return on the investment? Considering the magnitude of this, it’s virtually impossible to say. There has never been such a large proportion of the population consolidated in one place. The closest historical comparison would probably be Babylon, which at 200,000 people may have had about 0.5% of the world’s population. It seemed to have some very interesting innovations—the hanging gardens were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and was economically prosperous as well. Seems promising.

A city of 260 million people seems like something out of a Star Wars movie, and could lead to some Star Wars like technologies. There are going to be more people of vocational specialties clustered together than ever before. The infrastructure is already being planned to create “high tech zones” where tech companies will operate, high-end manufacturing for optimal buyer-seller economies of scale, scientific zones where there will be research facilities, schools, and plants for R&D. There are many examples of competition in close proximity giving rise to global leading industries, and this city may be concentrating a country’s worth competition in an area 75 miles across.

Now, how exactly will the “15% growth” rule affect these new urban zones? It is difficult to know. There has never been such a massive investment in connecting cities with the intent of creating specialty areas. When Minneapolis and St. Paul were connected with a bridge, did the cumulative innovation go up by 15%? Or was there a 30% growth in innovation for the area? What about for the Pearl River Delta zone? They’re putting nine cities together. Will this lead to a 120% increase, or a 1080% increase? And how will the intent for specialization factor in? Clearly this is uncharted territory.

China is really buying into the Field of Dreams philosophy, “if you build it, they will come” with a trillion-dollar gamble. If it succeeds, China may end up with multiple hot beds of innovation and be the head quarters for the globe’s leaders of every major industry. However, if this investment goes sour, the urban zones could completely crumble on themselves. In either event, this is one huge investment with innovation in mind, and it will be very exciting to see how it turns out.

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