Cities full of inventors spawn more innovation
We found that increasing exposure to innovation may be a powerful tool to increase the number of inventors in America, particularly among women, minorities and children from low-income families. To test the importance of exposure, we first counted the number of inventors that lived in each child’s city when the child was young. We use this measure as a proxy for exposure to innovation. After all, a child’s chances of coming into contact with inventors increase when there are more inventors around. We found that growing up in a city with more inventors substantially increases the likelihood that a child will become an inventor as an adult. This is true even when we took kids who were the children of inventors out of the analysis. This suggests that it’s not just children of inventors who are likely to become inventors themselves.
As time goes on, less privileged kids who had the talent to become inventors fall behind their more well-off peers academically.
We also found that kids who go on to become inventors tend to invent the same kinds of things as the inventors in the city where they grew up. For instance, among current Boston residents, those who grew up in Silicon Valley around computer innovators are most likely to invent computer-related technologies. On the other hand, Boston residents who grew up in Minneapolis – a hub for medical device companies – are more likely to invent new medical devices. These detailed patterns suggest that there is something specific about interactions with inventors during childhood that causes kids to follow in their footsteps.
The effects of growing up around inventors are large. Our estimates suggest that moving a child from an area at the 25th percentile of exposure to inventors, such as New Orleans, to one at the 75th percentile, such as Austin, Texas, would increase the child’s chances of growing up to invent a new technology by as much as 50 percent.
These effects are stronger when children are exposed to inventors with similar backgrounds. Girls who grow up in a city with more female inventors are more likely to invent, but growing up around adult male inventors has no effect on girls’ future innovation rates. Similarly, boys’ future innovation is influenced by the number of male rather than female inventors around them during childhood.
Chicago students participate in an invention workshop meant to encourage more American students to become engineers and inventors.
Since underrepresented groups are likely to have fewer interactions with inventors through their families and neighborhoods, differences in exposure play a large role in these disparities. Indeed, our findings suggest that if young girls were exposed to female innovators at the same rate as boys are to male innovators, half of the gender gap in innovation would be erased.
Together, our findings call for greater focus on policies and programs to tap into our country’s underutilized talents by increasing exposure to innovation for girls and kids from underprivileged backgrounds. It may be particularly beneficial to focus on children who do well in math and science at early ages.
Such policies could include mentoring programs, internships or even interventions through social networks. At a more personal level, those in positions to be mentors might give more thought to making sure students from underprivileged backgrounds have the guidance needed to follow them in their career paths. The more each of us does to help boys and girls from different backgrounds achieve their innovative potential, the more it will spur innovation and economic growth for us all.