Urban Studies Urban Innovation Systems
Willem van Winden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0031


There are good reasons to study urban innovation from a systemic perspective. A key finding in innovation research is that organizations rarely innovate in isolation, but in interaction with clients, competitors, suppliers, and other organizations. A system perspective is useful in understanding and analyzing these interactions. Cities and urban regions are increasingly recognized as key milieus in which these interactions occur. The urban innovation system approach conceptualizes the city or urban region as a context in which innovations emerge from complex interactions between urban actors—firms, citizens, governments, knowledge institutes— in a particular institutional setting. The systemic view of innovation departs from traditional linear models that depict innovation as a staged process that starts with (basic) scientific research and ends with commercialization by companies. Innovation processes are much more complex and diverse, influenced by multiple actors that interact in networks with feedback loops, and involving many types of knowledge beyond scientific knowledge. Urban innovation systems are nested in innovation systems on other spatial levels—regional, national, international. Studies on urban innovation systems seek to explain how innovations emerge in an urban context, why urban regions differ in their innovative performance, and also address questions on the governance and management of such systems. Studies in this field draw from a variety of disciplines including economic geography, urban and regional economics, political sciences, innovation studies, social sciences, and urban planning.

General Overviews

A good starting point for understanding urban innovation systems is the seminal book Hall 1998, which elaborates how, throughout human history, cities have played a key role as innovation breed-beds, magnets for talent where talented entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, cultural innovators, and capitalists mutually reinforce each other. Another classic is Jacobs 1969, which provides a powerful argument linking diversity (cultural, economic, and architectural) to innovation and prosperity. Jacobs’s systemic view led her to reject massive grand urban designs planned to “modernize” cities by bulldozing away old neighborhoods and replacing them with modern blocks and broad highways. The premodern urban neighborhoods that she cherished are now the main cradles of creative and innovative activity in many cities. In a more precise conceptualization, Cooke, et al. 1997 specifies the concepts of “region,” “innovation,” and “system,” and identifies the organizational and institutional dimensions of local innovation systems. Fagerberg, et al. 2006 dedicates several chapters to the systemic nature of innovation and the role of regions and cities. A systemic approach to innovations can also be found in the literature on creative cities like Landry 2012 and Scott 2006. Simmie 2001 explores the link between geography and innovation, and presents in-depth case studies on innovation in Stuttgart, Milan, Paris, London, and Amsterdam, elaborating on how urban assets contribute to innovation. Van Winden, et al. 2014 provides a broad and recent overview on the literature of urban innovation systems, and also addresses the question to what extent such systems can be managed. In the early 21st century, the term “innovation ecosystem” has become more popular than urban innovation system; Oh, et al. 2016 is critical of using this term, rejecting it as not yet a clearly defined concept, much less a theory. Moreover, in the authors’ view the idea carries pitfalls, notably its overemphasis on market forces, and its flawed analogy to natural ecosystems.

  • Cooke, Philip, Mikel Gomez Uranga, and Goio Etxebarria. “Regional Innovation Systems: Institutional and Organisational Dimensions.” Research Policy 26.4–5 (1997): 475–491.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0048-7333(97)00025-5

    Specifies the concepts of “region,” “innovation,” and “system” as the prelude to an extended discussion of the importance of financial capacity, institutionalized learning, and productive culture to systemic innovation. Building on the notion of regions as occupying different positions on a continuum and referring to processes constituting them and their powers vis-à-vis innovation policy, the paper concludes by advocating strengthening of region-level capacities for promoting both systemic learning and interactive innovation.

  • Fagerberg, Jan, David C. Mowery, and Richard R. Nelson, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Contains a broad overview of innovation studies literature, including reflections on the role of cities and regions.

  • Hall, Peter Geoffrey. Cities in Civilization. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

    Analyzes twenty-one cities at their greatest moments in history, outlining the forces that led to each city’s success. Hall identifies four distinct expressions of urban innovation: artistic growth, technological progress, the marriage of culture and technology, and the assemblage of solutions to problems. Cases include Renaissance Florence, Manchester during the Industrial Revolution, Henry Ford’s Detroit, and Palo Alto at the dawn of the computer age.

  • Jacobs, Jane. The Economy of Cities. New York: Vintage, 1969.

    Stresses localized entrepreneurship as major source of innovation and wealth. Jacobs describes vividly how, throughout different times and places, cities grow in wealth and importance on a wave of innovations generated by local entrepreneurs, and sink back when diversity wanes and cities become dominated by a single industry or oligopoly.

  • Landry, Charles. The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781849772945

    Provides an overview of creative cities and delivers a range of approaches and methods for city stakeholders to think creatively, to plan creatively, and to act creatively in order to arrive at urban innovations.

  • Oh, Deog-Seong, Fred Phillips, Sehee Park, and Eunghyun Lee. “Innovation Ecosystems: A Critical Examination.” Technovation 54 (2016): 1–6.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.technovation.2016.02.004

    Reviews the increasingly popular concept of innovation ecosystems and asks “What is gained from adding ‘eco-’ to the treatment of national and regional innovation systems?” (p. 1).

  • Scott, Allen J. “Creative Cities: Conceptual Issues and Policy Questions.” Journal of Urban Affairs 28.1 (2006): 1–17.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0735-2166.2006.00256.x

    A critical overview of the interactions between urbanization and creativity. Allen highlights positive and negative tendencies related to the emergence of creative cities.

  • Simmie, James, ed. Innovative Cities. London: Spon Press, 2001.

    This book starts with a rich introduction into the history of ideas on the urban geography of innovation, from Schumpeter to Porter. It includes an in-depth analysis of five European case studies (Amsterdam, London, Milan, Paris, and Stuttgart). Among many other things, the cases reveal the importance of path dependency of urban innovation and a city’s position in national urban systems as key context variables.

  • van Winden, Willem, Erik Braun, Alexander Otgaar, and Jan-Jelle Witte. Urban Innovation Systems: What Makes Them Tick? New York: Routledge, 2014.

    After a broad literature review, the authors take a policy perspective, analyzing which factors play a role in managing or steering urban innovation systems in various national contexts.

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