Expert Voices: Edwin Heathcote, Architecture Critic, Financial Times and the FT Citi Ingenuity Awards

The FT Citi Ingenuity Awards aim to recognise innovative solutions to the issues facing cities around the globe. The aim is to find local initiatives which have produced real results in the quality of life of citizens and to publicise those innovations so that cities can learn and benefit from the experience of others particularly in the fields of education, infrastructure, healthcare and energy. The deadline for entries is May 31, 2012 and we encourage all those, at any scale, who have initiated urban programmes to submit them so that we can ensure cities are still recognised as the engines of invention and progress which has characterised their success over the last 5000 years. For complete information, and to share your idea, visit

Below is a reprint of an article about urban ingenuity and innovation by Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic for FT, that originally ran on November 16, 2011. If you are an FT subscriber, you may find the piece here.

Urban Ingenuity

By Edwin Heathcote

The city is a machine for innovation, an incubator of ideas born of necessity as people from different places and social classes rub against each other creating a static electric field of ideas and inventions. If we look at Rome in the first century, Baghdad a thousand years later, Birmingham in the eighteenth century, London in the nineteenth century or New York in the twentieth century, the city stands out as an engine of progress and modernity. Yet it does not necessarily last. No one would call contemporary Venice a hub of innovation whilst the city that was only a few decades ago at the forefront of industrial innovation and production, Detroit, has become the most famous, and epic example of how quickly it can all collapse. So how can a city continue to innovate? How can a city continue to create a hospitable home for entrepreneurs and ideas?

Richard Florida, author of ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ and urban planning guru, believes the first thing governments must do “is to get out of the way - stop ‘squelching’ entrepreneurial culture”. It is a familiar notion – the idea that however well-intentioned governments and municipalities might be, their involvement is rarely the spark that sets things off. So why have Silicon Valley in California and Cambridge in the English fens developed as centres of innovation but other regions languish? Is it the concentration of education and technology industries? Or just sheer luck?

Prof Florida is sceptical about the influence of universities too – no matter how good Stanford or CambridgeUniversity. He believes the role of educational institutions can be overestimated ‘Look at Michigan and Ann Arbor’ he says, contrasting the presence of a great educational institution with the terminal decline of the state’s rust belt cities from Flint to Detroit.

“But US universities are better than Chinese and Indian universities’ he admits ‘because they encourage the formation of groups and of discussion. The San Francisco Bay Area was always open to art, music, literature and ideas and most places are not open – even if they think they are. These [cities] accrete entrepreneurs over time.”

That openness needs to be not only to ideas but to people. “50 per cent of all technology start-ups in Silicon valley” he says “had an immigrant on the founding team. Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant and we all know about Sergey Brin.”

Yet both London and New York, big cities Florida cites as critical centres of innovation, are introducing stringent new rules on immigration, whereas more openness and high-skill immigration would, he says ‘up your odds of attracting the right sorts of people – entrepreneurs, like athletes are born and not made.’

Florida puts the success of cities down to his 3T’s “Technology, talent and tolerance.”

Harvard’s Edward Glaeser, in his recent book Triumph of the City, points to the “ability of skilled cities to reinvent themselves”. He only has to look around the corner to Boston to see a city that has made its living as a trading post, a port, a manufacturing centre, a financial centre, a high-tech hub for producing military equipment and which spawned early computers and the emergence of management consulting. He also points to how industrial Milan reinvented itself as a design capital, its status prosperously surviving the decline of European manufacturing.

Milan has seen a remarkable adaptation of both its centre and its post-industrial edges as a city of studios; fashion, architecture, product design are all accommodated in roomy buildings in a city that has invested in the infrastructure of fairs and the transport to get to them, employing some of the world’s finest architects to design them and make them attractive. Ricky Burdett, Director of the LSE’s Cities Programme points to Turin as another city that has managed to reinvent itself. He cites ‘the way in which Turin and the broader region, Piedmont, were proactive as the downturn kicked in, allowing significant investment between universities, foundations and industry to create high tech and innovative clusters.’ Professor Burdett credits the two consecutive mayors of Turin, Valentino Castellani and Sergio Chiamparinoas hugely influential in cutting through Italy’s notorious red-tape to re-zone areas of the city and in attracting EU funds. “It’s also about stabilising economies’ Burdett adds ‘not just a question of creating new jobs. You have to ask what would have happened to Turin, or Barcelona, or Munich if these policies weren’t carried out?”

State or municipal intervention doesn’t always work, however. Edward Glaeser is scathing about the efforts to rehabilitate Detroit. Money was thrown at construction but achieved negligible results.

Yet steel city Pittsburgh has managed to transform itself into a contemporary metropolis of tech clusters and vibrant neighbourhoods. Its success seems to result from a lucky combination of careful, consistent investment and seed money for start-ups from the Pittsburgh Technology Council (established perceptively early, in 1983), an ethnically mixed city of vibrant and distinctive neighbourhoods defined by good restaurants and cafes and, critically, cheap property prices.

London categorically does not benefit from cheap and plentiful real estate. Yet here too there has been an effort to establish a tech cluster on the eastern edge of the city. Old Street’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ was recently seized upon by ministers as an example of a cluster of successful urban innovation (with over 600 tech firms) but it grew spontaneously, without municipal intervention. On the border between the wealth of the City and the fashionable bohemia or Shoreditch and Hoxton, this was a young, funky place to be. Charles Armstrong, entrepreneur and founder and chief executive of Trampoline Systems (a social analytic software company) who has been based in the area since 2003, suggests three points which have defined Silicon Roundabout’s success. “Density – the concentration of relevant businesses; diversity –a range of different businesses, not all tech-based” He points out that “this was a fertile fashion, art and design scene before it was a tech hub” and finally “Connections – the network of cafes and bars, networking opportunities and events”.

Mr Armstrong has used his background in ethnography todevelop his Tech City Map, a real time representation of the spread of the cluster and its influence through social media and connections in real time, with tweets popping up on screen as they happen. He suggests that the local authority, Hackney, has been helpful in ‘zoning regulations and in maintaining a balance of businesses but also in ensuring that in new buildings a proportion of the accommodation needs to be provided as incubator space’ ensuring the continuing availability (at relatively affordable rates) of space for start-ups as the area becomes more popular.

The UK government is keen to see the phenomenon spread eastwards to Stratford as part of the legacy of the huge Olympics regeneration (and has established Tech City UK as a body

To encourage the spread) but the same dynamic just isn’t there. Even if the £308m taxpayer-funded media centre is turned over to tech companies, as has been mooted, it would be difficult to foster the same urban intensity as Shoreditch. Innovation can be encouraged, but almost never kick-started from zero - although it will be interesting to see whether the much-touted Songdo in South Korea, billed as the world’s first smart-city, will manage it. The key, it seems, is to spot the first stirrings and fine tune the conditions.

Key factors in urban innovation:

A good mayor

Mayors in Barcelona, Munich, Turin, Bogota and Caracas have radically influenced their respective cities’ futures through tenacious and intelligent intervention, through the reduction of red-tape and zoning and construction restrictions and the careful balancing of social, business and cultural agendas.

Ethnic mix

Cities with lively, tolerant, changing and mixed ethnic populations tend to attract the best people from around the world. But the big established cities need to be wary of ghettoising new immigrants to the peripheries, Paris and New York have already seen their city centres gentrified and London is in danger of going down a similar path. If downtowns can be kept flexible cities will retain an advantage.


Although Richard Florida may disdain the link between education and tech start-ups, every successful centre from Bangalore to Silicon Valley has, at its heart or on its periphery, a good university.


The more tech firms there are, the greater the density but the trick is to get them communicating. This means bars, coffee shops, corridors and shared streets. Real innovation often comes through serendipitous meetings or conversations over coffee so tech clusters need places for unexpected encounter. Cool bars attract bright young people and the proximity of the creative industries helps both groups to spot new opportunities and trends emerging.