We increasingly see the world and much of its innovation through the lens of cities not countries, but there is little clarity around where the true innovation hotspots of today, let alone tomorrow, are to be found.

In a panel discussion at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, senior research fellow Parag Khanna from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, suggested that Dubai is already one of the top 10 cities from a global connectedness perspective. However, further conversations with business leaders and regulators revealed that the emirate, the wider UAE and others across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region have yet to reach the top rankings as one of the world’s innovation hotspots.

Measuring cities

Those who live in Dubai challenged this judgement and questioned the use of traditional technology and GDP output metrics. They pointed out that the city is working hard to drive bolder innovation and that much has been achieved in a short time period. Given this, if there is an alternative view, how should we be tracking innovation prowess and the impact of one location against another?

Many now believe that cities matter more than countries. Cities are where innovation happens, where most ideas form and from where economic growth largely stems. As a rising global population approaches 70 per cent urbanisation, not only are many mayors taking the lead over presidents and prime ministers on issues such as pollution, obesity and climate change, but they are also encouraging innovation around potential solutions such as electric vehicles, sugar taxes and green energy.

Many of us are rapidly moving to a new order, or rather we are reverting to the age-old principle familiar to the urban historians of London, Shanghai, Istanbul and Venice: it is cities, not countries that are driving the agenda. It is therefore through the city lens that we should be measuring and tracking not only who is most effective and efficient at innovation, but also what approaches are working best, where and why.

We are rapidly moving to a new order in which it is cities not countries that are driving the agenda

We are rapidly moving to a new order in which it is cities not countries that are driving the agenda

We are rapidly moving to a new order in which it is cities not countries that are driving the agenda

Views on which cities are the most innovative vary and consider myriad indicators. Here are just a few:

? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development believes it is about patents per capita. This is a distorted perspective as it is highly influenced by company headquarter (HQ) locations that are often the address used for patent activity from around the world. So in the most recent rankings, Eindhoven in the Netherlands (Philips’ HQ) comes top of its analysis, followed by Germany’s Stuttgart (HQ locations for Mercedes and Bosch).

? The US’ CityLab thinks it is more about the number, performance, reach and funding of start-ups with Silicon Valley, New York, Los Angeles and Boston taking four of its top five positions.

? The US’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology World Innovation Clusters focuses its analysis on factors such as venture capital, good weather, strong intellectual property protection, culture and positive immigration laws. This highlights Boston, Bangalore and Beijing in its top eight, alongside Russia’s Skolkovo Innovation City.

? In the UK, Nesta, Accenture and the Future Cities Catapult produced a report that evaluated 40 city governments and crunched 1,400 data points to determine that New York, London and Helsinki are the most innovative.

As the dominance of cities continues to grow, potentially at the expense of national interests, it is important that we gain a clear and shared, globally relevant view. If we are going to identify the emerging centres of future innovation, we need to collectively know what to look for. Equally if, as across the Mena region, several cities aspire to join the global top 10, then they need to understand what is most important and where to invest financial, human and physical capital.

Urban blueprint

Over the next few months, in partnership with a group of leading international universities, researchers at the Future Agenda and Innovation Leaders initiatives will look at this in more detail.

We will interrogate the cities seen as the innovative hotspots of today – San Francisco, Boston, London, Singapore and Helsinki

First, we will explore lessons from innovators of the past such as Athens, Alexandria, Istanbul, Florence, Beirut, Hong Kong and Amsterdam. Clarifying these successes will better inform how issues such as city influence, reach, governance, trade, educational facilities and legal frameworks all helped in the past.

Next, we will interrogate the cities seen as the innovative hotspots of today – San Francisco, Boston, London, Singapore and Helsinki. These will help to inform how new issues such as venture capital, start-ups, capital flow and digital connectivity are making a difference in creating interconnected, smart cities.

Finally, we will look forward. Using insights already identified from the global Future Agenda platforms, we will layer on the fundamental characteristics that will have an increasing impact on innovation in the years ahead. Whether this be deeper and more open collaboration, being a migration magnet for the world’s most talented, a hub of new technology development or a centre of supportive regulation, the aim is to help to define the potential urban innovation blueprint for the future.

Tim Jones has several roles across the innovation, growth and futures arenas. He is the author of 10 related books as well as a regular speaker on innovation leadership, growth platforms and future trends.