University of Auckland study finds technological inventiveness in successful cities depends on mix of talents

Having a blend of brains and not just a bulk of them is what makes big cities like Auckland more likely to produce clever new inventions, Kiwi researchers have found.

A study led by University of Auckland researcher Dr Dion O'Neale, presented last week to a conference in Spain, investigated the relationship between the mix of technological specialty in more than 4000 places and cities, and the novelty of the patented products that sprouted from them.

It found that the rate of innovation didn't necessarily reflect the number of researchers in a particular place - and that having a wide range of different work going on was often the real difference.

Study co-author Professor Shaun Hendy, the director of Te Punaha Matatini, a new Centre of Research Excellence hosted by Auckland University, said the same could be said of a rainforest.

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"In natural ecosystems, you find rarest species in the areas with the highest biodiversity - the same applies to innovation," he said.

"It's consistent with this idea that has been around for a while, that new ideas are the recombinations of old ideas - and we'd suggest the more diverse technological base you have, the more opportunities you have got for combining things in new ways and coming up with novel ideas."

One example was Kiwi success story Icebreaker, which combined cutting-edge science with merino wool to create a new fibre layering system.

In Auckland's case, the researchers analysed innovation in the city over the past 30 years, and found it was only in the last decade that its mix had become more diverse, which had led to the creation of more unique technologies.

"If you wind the clock back 20 years, Christchurch was the city with the most technological diversity in one place, but Auckland has since overtaken it."

Professor Hendy said the findings were especially important for New Zealand, as they proved bigger didn't always mean better.

"There's the argument we often make in New Zealand that we are small and can't do it all - there's a certain truth to that, but there's another part to the equation where, if you restrict what you focus on too much and over-specialise in a few areas, you are going to struggle to come up with world-beating technologies."

The research also found a trend between highly innovative places and the amount of national expenditure on research and development, along with the specialisation of the goods that a country exported.

Those countries that exported more specialised goods typically had a smaller proportion of companies that held a larger share of the patents, while those which sent more common products overseas had a larger share of inventions held in small portfolios.

Innovation ranking

Auckland University's Professor Shaun Hendy marks cities on their inventiveness:

Great: Zurich, Switzerland, is good at just about everything; electronics, ICT and advanced manufacturing. Its technologies also tend to be the most novel - there are few places in the world that can do what Zurich does.

Grim: Ostend, Belgium, just seems to do things that everyone else can. It doesn't have any technological specialties that separate it from the pack, so in technological terms, it is very average.

Us: Auckland's technological base has become more diverse over the past few decades, and at the same time the things it has become good at are things that fewer other cities can do, like biotechnology and microbiology, food technology and medical technologies.

Auckland on top

Five recent innovations the world can thank Auckland for:

1.

Lanzatech's bacteria that can capture carbon dioxide and turn it into valuable chemicals.

2.

PowerbyProxi's wireless charging technology.

3.

Fisher & Paykel Healthcare's humidified ventilators, which continue to lead the pack.

4.

Rocketlab's rockets for low-cost satellite launch

5.

StretchSense - stretchable fabric sensor technology.