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Universities and Cities: Q & A with Meric S. Gertler

Toronto's vibrancy, livability and cosmopolitan character helps attract top students and faculty (photo by Diana Tyszko)

Despite the longstanding presence of universities within cities, the nature of the economic relationship between institutions of higher learning and their urban environments is not well understood. Economic geographer Meric S. Gertler, co-author of Strategies for Creative Cities, founding co-director of the Program on Globalization and Regional Innovation Systems at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the Goldring Chair in Canadian Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, University of Toronto, discusses the mutually beneficial city-university relationship.

One of the university’s main responsibilities is to foster innovation by producing and sharing knowledge. How is this measured?

The university’s impact in creating and distributing knowledge is typically not measured very effectively. It tends to be evaluated in a way that defines the production and sharing of knowledge too narrowly. 

There is a commonly held misconception that when public research councils fund university research, the knowledge outcomes can be fully captured by measures such as patents, licensing revenues or university-based start-up firms. So policy makers and the public at large have developed somewhat unrealistic expectations concerning the knowledge production process.

In fact, the most important social contribution that universities make is through educating human capital. Knowledge flows from the university to the city around it in the form of embodied knowledge: well-educated graduates who make up a talented workforce. This contribution tends to be overlooked or seriously discounted when measuring the university’s impact or in developing innovation policies, even though the central role of highly educated and creative workers in the contemporary economy is well known.

Patents and spin-offs are important, but such measures don’t come close to capturing the full economic impact of a university. The main way knowledge flows from the university to its city-region is in the form of graduates, student internships and professional experience placements, and so on. It also flows when faculty consult with private- and public-sector clients to solve real-world problems.

How can the city and other levels of government better support innovation?

Governments want to foster innovation by better leveraging our critical knowledge infrastructure. The MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, in which universities, hospitals, the financial sector and government agencies are located in close physical proximity, is a good example of how to do this successfully. But the public discourse surrounding the role of the university within the economy – and its impact on the city – tends to be far too narrowly focused on universities as producers of research (again as measured by patents, licensing and spin-offs), and less focused on the other ways in which universities foster innovation.

Higher education policy, innovation policy and urban policy often operate in silos but should be far more closely coordinated. For example, universities are ideally situated to lure the best and brightest graduate students from around the world to Toronto. We know that when highly educated talent earns a degree from a local post-secondary institution, it is much easier for them to enter the local labour market successfully than when they arrive with foreign credentials already in hand. We also know from experience that many of these students go on to build very successful careers in Canada once they graduate, often starting their own firms or contributing to the successful growth of innovative enterprise. So we should be redesigning higher education policy to encourage foreign students to come to Canada by supporting them with public funds. In doing so, we will foster a much stronger innovation culture.

At the same time, governments should be leveraging and accentuating the urban advantages of cities like Toronto, whose vibrancy, livability and cosmopolitan character serve as tremendously attractive assets for talented newcomers. We see sporadic attempts to link up innovation policy and higher education policy, but the urban context for supporting innovation is overlooked far too often. If we are to find a sustainable path towards prosperity out of the world's current economic woes, this state of affairs will have to change.

How can a university help a city attract talented workers to boost the economy?

Universities attract creative talent to a city by offering well-paid, secure employment and highly desirable working conditions. Moreover, career success at a university is dependent on one's ability to think creatively and originally. Cities that score most highly on comparative rankings of 'talent' are also home to at least one – and frequently more – universities. This effect is compounded by the role universities play in producing successive generations of talent.

You have described the university as a global knowledge portal. What is this and how does it benefit the city?

The most innovative and economically dynamic city-regions typically have strong ties to other centres of knowledge around the world. These knowledge 'pipelines' are crucial for a city's economic prosperity: no single metropolitan region (or country) could ever produce enough knowledge on its own to enable it to thrive economically.

Knowledge pipelines are often driven by professional interactions between local scholars and their colleagues around the world, whether occurring through face-to-face meetings at scholarly and professional conferences, through their collaboration on multi-institutional research teams, fostered by visiting lecturer appointments or other means. In this way, universities act as key portals to global knowledge networks, forging critical links between their host city and other top knowledge-producing centres around the world.

But you’ve said this is a two-way relationship. What benefits does the university get from the city?

In many ways, the success of the university depends fundamentally on the quality of the urban environment in which it is situated.

Drawing from my experience as dean, I can tell you that, when we are recruiting prospective faculty, they are often keenly interested in employment opportunities for their partners or spouses, meaning that urban economies with a broad range of employment opportunities are more attractive to them. They are also interested in good public schools, safe neighbourhoods, and cultural amenities. Second, the knowledge produced through research collaborations with local industrial partners often provides the impetus for new ideas and discoveries. And third, local employers represent an important source of internship and co-op placements for students.

So, while strong universities clearly make for strong cities, the reverse is also true: strong cities underpin strong universities. The effectiveness of universities as agents of innovation rests squarely on the quality of the urban environment around them.