September 24, 2020

A Few Cities Have Cornered Innovation Jobs. Can That Be Changed?

The report’s authors propose identifying eight to 10 cities, far from the coasts, that already have a research university and a critical mass of people with advanced degrees. The government would then spend about $700 million a year for research and development in each of them for a decade. Lawmakers could give high-tech businesses that set up shop in these cities tax and regulatory breaks. Mr. Atkinson suggested a limited break from antitrust law to allow businesses to coordinate location decisions.

Battling the forces driving concentration will be tough. Unlike the manufacturing industries of the 20th century, which competed largely on cost, the tech businesses compete on having the next best thing. Cheap labor, which can help attract manufacturers to depressed areas, doesn’t work as an incentive. Instead, innovation industries cluster in cities where there are lots of highly educated workers, sophisticated suppliers and research institutions.

Unlike businesses in, say, retail or health care, innovation businesses experience a sharp rise in the productivity of their workers if they are in places with lots of other such workers, according to research by Enrico Moretti, who is an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and others.

Other industries and workers are also better off if they have the good fortune of being near leading-edge companies. The report points out that the average output per worker in the 20 cities with the most employment in the 13 high-tech industries is $109,443, one-third more than in the other 363 metros across the country.

The cycle is hard to break: Young educated workers will flock to cities with large knowledge industries because that’s where they will find the best opportunities to earn and learn and have fun. And start-ups will go there to seek them out.

Even skyrocketing housing costs have not stopped the concentration of talent in a few superstar cities. High-tech companies that seek cheaper places to set up beyond their hubs often go to Bangalore, India, rather than Birmingham, Ala.

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