Now that's a fish tank! The AquaDom in the foyer of the Radisson Blu Hotel, Berlin (click for more)

There’s barely a city in the western world that hasn’t at some time sought to re-create the success of high profile technology innovation districts like Silicon Valley within its own boundaries. Mostly these attempts have involved establishing small publicly funded research/technology parks within or close to universities.

As well as Silicon Valley, the usual suspects that cities seek to emulate include the likes of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Boston’s Route 128, Italy’s Emilia Romana district, Germany’s Baden–Wurttemberg, and the UK’s Cambridge Science Park. Some cities like Melbourne have nearly as many tech parks as they have universities.

However barely any of the tech parks built to date in Australia have succeeded in terms of their original justification. They haven’t fostered innovation; they haven’t created links between academic researchers and start-ups; and they haven’t promoted productive partnerships between the firms located within them.

Almost all those claimed as “successes” in Australia are merely business parks. They’ve been successful only in real estate terms – they’ve sold land, attracted tenants and made a profit on the development.

In part they fail because the exemplars like Silicon Valley are unique. As explained in any number of books (e.g. Tom Wolfe’s Hooking Up), Silicon Valley grew organically and unselfconsciously in response to special conditions like unprecedented defence spending, a specific stage in the development of semi conductors, a particular collection of research institutions, and more.

The idea that a single small park associated with a single unexceptional university could somehow capture whatever is going on in an expansive region like Silicon Valley should give proponents pause for thought.

It’s also likely that the connections between firms, universities and research institutions in some of the famous districts aren’t as important as is commonly assumed. An alternative explanation is they located in the same place for the same reasons rather than because of each other.

The confluence of industry policy and urban policy – both highly politicised areas – must be a snake-oil seller’s dream!

What seems to matter most for innovation in the technology sector is being in a metropolitan area – the same “labour shed” – rather than paying the high costs of being cheek-by-jowl with each other or with key institutions. Very close proximity like that in the CBD seems to matter a lot for industries like finance, insurance, business services and media, but not for all industries or even most.

I’ve previously argued that our suburban universities have enormous potential to reinvent themselves as large, dense mixed-use nodes providing education, office and housing services. If they were to pursue this course they would be vastly more attractive places for students and staff. Those with tech parks need to reassess what value this infrastructure provides and how it could better contribute to a new role for the university.

On a related note, the astonishing success of Israel in growing its technology sector suggests there’re more ways to foster innovation than physical proximity. The country’s success is probably due in part to high levels of military spending, all those educated American immigrants and sojourners, and its small size.

However Jonah Lehrer suggests another reason. In his new book, Imagine: how creativity works, he reports asking an Israeli businessman, Yossi Vardi, why the country is so innovative.

The reason, Vardi says, is straightforward: the reserve forces maintain a vast network of weak ties across the country, since the soldiers reacquaint themselves with everyone else in their unit every year.

According to Vardi, annual military service is “like a college reunion that goes on for a month…..You meet people, you schmooze. Reserve duty is a big part of what helps keep this place feeling so tiny.” Lehrer notes that three successful hi-tech companies – ICQ, Check Point Software, and NICE Systems – were spawned by a single unit in the Israel Defense Forces.

So while face-to-face contact is an important driver of innovation, if Vardi’s hypothesis is right there are various ways to achieve it. Physical proximity might be the most common way, but it’s not the only one and anyway it might not maximise the potential for innovation. Something like military service isn’t plausible or desirable in Australia however it’s worth investigating other options for increasing contact between diverse groups of individuals.