Cities of Knowledge - Book Review

Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge is a welcome addition to the study of the so-called “informational city,” to which scholars such as Manuel Castells and AnnaLee Saxenian have contributed so richly in the past. A variety of historians, sociologists, urban planners, and theorists have tried to understand the “geography of innovation,” searching for the factors that turn some places into centers of advanced scientific and technological work instead of others. Why, for instance, did Boston become a haven for cutting edge research while Detroit has floundered for decades in the death throes of its manufacturing base, with few zippy, shiny “new economy” enterprises to call its own?

The answer, some have suggested, lies in the conscious effort to develop “nodes” or “agglomerations” of scientific research in the form of research parks, often tied to a neighboring university. Such projects have a Field of Dreams quality about them – if you build it, they will come. “They” are entrepreneurs; venture capitalists; highly trained scientists and engineers with plenty of income to spend and tax; branches of multinational corporations like IBM or Pfizer; and all the other workers who attend to the labs and their inhabitants. “It” is a place where multiple corporations and start-ups can enjoy the network effects of nearness to other companies engaged in the same field, access to the resources of a university (libraries, faculty expertise), and the general ambience of an environment populated by scientists and scholars.

In this view, Detroit failed to reinvent itself because it lacks the cultural and academic strengths that have invigorated Boston (MIT, Harvard), the Research Triangle of North Carolina (Duke, Chapel Hill, NC State), San Francisco (Stanford), and even Pittsburgh (Carnegie Mellon, Pitt). As O’Mara’s title suggests, people throughout the world have sought to imitate these successful examples by deliberately setting aside land and money to create the “next Silicon Valley.”

O’Mara brings a broad view to the historical complexities of technology and economic development. While others have focused on statistical data to determine which cities have the greatest agglomerations of high-tech industry, and why cities have accumulated such business over time, O’Mara employs a more historical and qualitative approach, looking first at the origins of American science policy (and funding) in World War II and going on to weigh the successes and failures of particular attempts to build “cities of knowledge” in the San Francisco Bay area, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. This method allows the author to look at the model of a research park par excellence (Stanford Industrial Park), while examining what factors limited the success of similar efforts around the University of Pennsylvania and Georgia Tech University.

In the book’s first section, “Intent,” O’Mara examines how the US government got into the business of funding science and higher education in the first place, driven by a desire to maintain American technological and military superiority with the emergence of the Cold War. These chapters provide an eye-opening look at the politics that surrounded the creation of the National Science Foundation, and the reluctance of some conservatives to see the government spend money on and meddle in the affairs of science. Scientists too were ambivalent about putting research “in the hands of bureaucrats.” O’Mara reveals how scientific leaders like Vannevar Bush successfully lobbied for a government agency that would be dominated by the (supposedly) meritocratic elite of academia.

O’Mara also shows how security concerns and planning traditions defined the geographical contours of postwar science. Federal officials believed “dispersal” was wise, so that laboratories and high-tech industries would be scattered across the landscape, reducing their vulnerability to military strikes. A long-standing belief that intellectual contemplation required a serene, verdant environment also supported the suburbanization of science, particularly in the form of a research “park.” A location in leafy suburbia also seemed more likely to win the approval of the nation’s highly sought-after scientists and engineers, who companies like IBM competed to hire. Perceptions of traffic, crime, and other unpleasantries in the city combined to make the move of research facilities to the suburbs of the South and West practically over-determined.

There are wrinkles to the story, though. The conventional narrative of the Sunbelt at first seems an easy fit for O’Mara’s analysis. Democrats, long dominant in Congress, assured that federal funds would flow to their friends and constituents in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, California and other states. But the rebirth of Boston as a center of software, biotech and other industries seems like a major exception, especially since O’Mara’s southeastern case study, Atlanta, appears to have been a failure. Despite enjoying the largesse of Pentagon spending, the Georgian capital never became well-known as a high-tech node (though it certainly accomplished itself as a center of media, business services, and other new-economyish activities).

Perhaps the next-best example of a successful research park after Stanford, the Research Triangle Park, receives only passing notice. Was the North Carolina region similarly dependent on Cold War spending? Did it share the policies that made Stanford’s park so appealing to entrepreneurs, corporations, and workers, and how did its own racial, cultural, and political dynamics compare to those of San Francisco or Atlanta? One would assume that the Triangle resembled Atlanta more in its political culture, yet the attempt of local political, business, and academic elites to build a center of science and technology achieved a Stanford-like degree of renown.

Stanford offers the textbook example of how to create a magnet for employment in research and technology. The university had abundant land to work with, and was barred by Leland Stanford’s wishes from selling any of the property. Instead of leasing it to farmers, university leaders decided to let research oriented companies settle there. (It was initially called Stanford Industrial Park, but the name was changed in the 1970s.) With unquestioned control of the physical environment, Stanford could dictate what kind of companies would occupy the land, how large their facilities could be relative to lot size, and numerous other factors that were crucial for fostering a green, dispersed environment. Big lawns and unobtrusive, modernist architecture were the order of the day. Stanford also benefited from its cozy relationship with political and economic powerbrokers in the Bay Area, and from its position near the defense complex that grew up in San Francisco during and after WWII. With the arrival of General Electric, Lockheed Martin and others, the park got off to an auspicious start.

Stanford was able to develop its land on its own terms, with federal funds flowing to its corporate lessees and little political interference with its vision. The park builders of Philadelphia and Atlanta were not so fortunate. The University of Pennsylvania attempted to develop its University City Science Center as part of urban renewal efforts in the poor neighborhoods that surrounded the school, uprooting less favored tenants and aiming to bring in more valuable workers who would contribute to the area’s tax base. Although the Center was developed and persists to this day, it inspired local opposition and left hard feelings in the community, much like the similar campus expansion at Columbia University in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, Georgia Tech’s attempt to reinvent itself as the core of a dispersed technological industry in Atlanta was foiled by crisscrossing political loyalties within the city and the state as a whole, as well as resistance to efforts to expand its campus into areas populated by working class white and black residents. Although the alma mater of many big players in city affairs, Tech simply did not have the financial resources, political leverage, or unified vision to succeed in transforming Atlanta into a “city of knowledge.” Moreover, the preference of city leaders for a sprawling, metropolitan view of Atlanta – a segregated and car-dependent archipelago of suburbs – militated against having a concentrated area where hi-tech companies coexisted.