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How new technologies spread (and what that means for superstar cities)

We know that innovation and economic growth tends to be unevenly distributed. This is the bull case for living in cities and, more particularly, for living in certain cities. But of course, the big question these days is whether or not our little work from home experiment has proven that, for the first time ever, work can now decentralize.

Well here is a unique study that looked at 29 disruptive technologies over the last two decades in the United States. Using three main sources — patents, job postings, and hundreds of thousands of earnings calls — the team traced where new innovations/technologies have tended to emerge and then how they spread (or didn’t spread) across the rest of the US.

Their initial findings won’t surprise regular readers of this blog. There are indeed a certain number of pioneering superstar cities. Within their list of new disruptive innovations, the team found that about 40.2% of them came from California. The next “super-cluster” was along the Boston-Washington corridor in the northeast with ~21.2%. By narrowing down their list to “disruptive patents”, as opposed to all patents, innovation looks even spikier.

Next the team looked at how these disruptive technologies tend to diffuse across the country. This is where job postings and earnings calls come into play. New technology gets created in California garage. Cool. But at what point do CEOs across the country start talking about it and hiring people who are capable of doing things with it? This next figure shows that diffusion at various time intervals.

Now here are the important takeaways. New disruptive technologies clearly take time to spread. However, high-skilled hiring tends to spread much more slowly than low-skilled hiring. This kind of makes sense as you’ve got a built up and entrenched knowledge base in these pioneering locations.

But what this also means is that pioneering locations tend to maintain their hegemony for quite some time — decades. The high-paying jobs stick closer to home for much longer, presumably because geography makes it harder to transfer knowledge. This is, of course, based on historical data. But I remain highly suspect that Zoom calls can really disrupt the importance of our superstar cities.

Maps: Vox

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