The Stupid City That Can’t Innovate

In Chapter 5 of our Trump City series, an end to immigration spells death for innovation.

The Stupid City That Can’t Innovate
[Photo: Johan Rydberg via Unsplash]

This article is part of our seven-part series on the future of cities under President-elect Trump, for which we asked experts in urban planning, city surveillance, and social reform to describe the city they imagine under the policies of the new administration.


If Trump’s isolationist philosophies carry into his presidency, and he thwarts immigration rather than encouraging it, it’s increasingly likely that our cities will lose their international diversity. And if we give up that diversity, we’ll also give up what drives innovation. Cities will become homogenous. The best talent either won’t be able to immigrate to America, or simply won’t want to. And American business will suffer as a result.

“In every age there are a handful of cities where the greatest thinkers gather together. That’s what has defined the great cities throughout history,” says Gabriel Metcalf, president of the urban policy think tank SPUR. “If we are not open to immigration, we will not in the long run be the source of innovation and new ideas. The great minds will have to gather somewhere else. I think that could be part of a worst-case scenario. We lose our innovation, our competitive edge, to cities in other countries that are actually welcoming to immigrants.”

You can see how that played out in America, from the immigrants who landed on Ellis Island and turned New York into the great, multicultural economic hub it is today, to the highly skilled, lower cost laborers who are building some of the most complex platforms inside Silicon Valley while much of the world has a shortage of coding talent.

Modern science also supports historic precedent. After surveying 1,800 professionals, conducting 40 case studies, and running numerous focus groups, Harvard researchers recently found that not only is diversity important to business, but something they call “acquired” diversity is important, too. It’s not enough to employ people of different genders, races, ethnicities, or sexual orientations–businesses actually benefit from exposing employees to different cities, people, and cultures to gain this so-called “acquired” diversity. The difference essentially equates to employees having positive friction with people different than themselves–actually having men work on products while learning from female consumers, or having employees from overseas work in America (or vice versa). According to the study, companies with acquired diversity were “45% likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market.”

The death of diversity will have repercussions in many of our smaller university cities as well.

“One of the paradoxes that myself and many colleagues have been struggling with is we talk a lot about wanting to be a diverse, open, inclusive campus. We say these values are fundamental to education, learning communities, and society. Then we have a national election that tells us actually they aren’t,” says Christoph Lindner, dean of the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts. “It’s very difficult to reconcile that one set of values with a national discourse that is prioritizing in many ways the opposite.”


At the University of Oregon, Lindner points out that this sort of anti-immigration mentality has made his own immigrant students nervous for their futures at the school–which has ramifications on the international scale. “They don’t know how safe they are to remain. They worry if they leave, over the break or something, if they can come back,” he continues. “Their families are worried, and this is my point: It’s not just a U.S. thing, it’s a global thing.”

It’s also worth noting that, for all the manufacturing jobs that the U.S. did pass overseas, our country’s economy is largely driven by the “creative class.” Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Facebook represent four of the country’s five most valuable companies—companies that, while admittedly skewing male and white, depend far more on international talent and immigrants than the average American company. How can any major company be competitively creative without working with the greatest talent, and acquiring the greatest diversity, from across the globe? It can’t.

Read Chapter 6: The Inundated City That Drowns In Climate Change Denial

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.