A Guide to Innovative Cities

How the world’s most intelligent cities got that way

By Steven Macleod

The Organization of Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) figures long-term growth rests in our ability to innovate. If managed properly, OECD says innovation and globalization will help build a stronger, cleaner and fairer global economy. The organization is currently working on an Innovation Strategy for the 21st century, but a few cities around the world are already making the case to be a poster child for innovation.

It so happens, figuring out where the world’s most innovative cities are located isn’t an easy task and there is more than one organization on the case. In October 2011, Australian organization 2thinknow, released its index of the Top 100 innovative cities in the world. Boston took the top spot and Toronto was the top Canadian city in the 10th spot. In January 2012, the Intelligent Community Forum, released its list of the Top 7 Intelligent Communities in the world. Austin, Texas was number one on the list and Quebec City was the top Canadian city at number three.

Here’s a closer look at a few cities from both lists:


Population: 617,594

Boston was established in 1630 and became a city in 1822. “Beantown” has played an innovative and central role in American history for over 300 years and made advances from science and engineering to culture and society. Early achievements in U.S. history included the first public anti-smoking law; the first public park; the first U.S. mail route, which operated between Boston and New York; and the first American lighthouse. Analysts with 2thinknow put Boston at the top of their list because of more recent achievements, including the city’s dominant institutions of Harvard and MIT, as well as its strength in start-ups and arts.

Austin, Texas

Population: 757,688

Austin prides itself on being “weird,” but there’s nothing strange about how the Texas city sauntered down the dusty trail of innovation. In the late-‘80s, 14 semiconductor manufacturers and the U.S. government created a partnership called SEMATCH to solve common manufacturing problems. Austin was selected as the headquarters and it sparked a technology boom. Growth robust and it looked like the city’s economy was as close to recession-proof as possible – until the dot.com collapse of 2001 that tripled the unemployment rate.

A long-term economic development strategy from the city and the local chamber of commerce led to a nearly $6 billion increase in regional payrolls during five years. A second five-year plan launched in 2010 seeks to add another $11 billion. To address a workforce challenge, Austin has established a program that puts college enrollment managers into public schools to guide the choices made by students, which has helped boost the graduation rate for low-income students 14 percentage points to 75 per cent.

Oulu, Finland

Population: 141,742

Located in northern Finland, Oulu is the country’s sixth largest city, but home to one of the world’s largest companies – Nokia. During the past two centuries, civic leaders in the city have seen industries come and go, from tar and wood in the age of sail to leather goods, fishing and heavy equipment manufacturing. When heavy industry went into a steep decline, the Nokia Research Center became one of Oulu’s biggest employers. City leaders remained alert to the threat of employment concentrated in a single large company and founded the Oulu Technology Park to incubate more small-to-medium-sized businesses. Despite the financial crisis that hit in 2007, Oulu has managed to create 18,000 jobs in high technology, thanks to risk-taking in education and strong public-private collaboration.

Quebec City

Population: 638,000

Quebec City was founded in 1608 and is recognized as the cradle of French civilization in North America. The capital of La Belle Province has long been a cultural and economic hub, and in the midst of the recession, the city’s unemployment rate was less than 5 per cent. Home to major universities, it ranks number one in Canada and number two in North America for university students per capita. Quebec City also has Canada’s largest per capita concentration of researchers.

Regional GDP has grown 30 per cent in the past 10 years, driven largely by R&D and high-tech businesses. Yet in the 1980s, Quebec City accounted for only three per cent of high-tech jobs in the entire province. A decision by local government to interconnect the city’s universities and business community transformed a political capital into a technology capital. Quebec Metro High Tech Park is now home to nearly 100 companies employing 5,000 people and the park’s management team continues to advise and steer promising applications from universities into commercial development.

Saint John, New Brunswick

Population: 69,000

Saint John was incorporated in 1785 and more than two centuries later when most of the world celebrated the start of the new century, the year 2000 was a time for mourning in “Canada’s Original City.” A shipbuilding contract from the federal government came to an end and a major food manufacturer closed its plant in the same year. A long period of industrial decline had suddenly reached crisis point.

While it had Canada’s largest per capita decline in manufacturing from 1989 to 2003, Saint John also saw eight per cent growth in services, double the Canadian average. To accelerate that positive trend, the city created a partnership with education, health care, the provincial government, cultural institutions and business. It targeted ICT, life sciences, tourism, energy and advanced manufacturing for growth. In a strategy called True Growth, the city engaged with local employers and educators to identify and recruit skilled young people emerging from secondary school and university. It also recruited skilled immigrants and launched a mentorship program to connect immigrant entrepreneurs with business executives.

Photo of Quebec City courtesy of Emmanuel Huybrechts

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