What helps economies grow? That question vexes economists, economic development professionals, policymakers and local government officials looking for something to generate faster growth in local and state economies.
Innovation is widely believed to be important for local economies because the invention and introduction of new ideas can create long-lasting effects for business. But getting your hands around that notion and turning it into pursuable policy might be another matter.
Some equate innovation with patents. A recent Brookings Institution argued that “inventions, embodied in patents, are a major driver of long-term regional economic performance.” The study mapped patents nationwide and found that U.S. patent levels have been increasing in recent decades, and an increasing concentration of patents is coming from the top 20 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs).
But do high patent levels lead to measurably better economies? The Brookings report did not answer that question definitively, and there are enough struggling metros in the top 20—Detroit, Philadelphia, Phoenix—to suggest that it’s not a perfect correlation. California has four of the top eight MSAs in patent production, yet all of them have high unemployment rates; San Francisco took the top patent spot, but its average unemployment rate from 1990 to 2011 ranked 161st of almost 360 MSAs analyzed.
Among 24 MSAs in Ninth District states (including 10 in Wisconsin that are located outside Ninth District boundaries), there was a wide range of patents per thousand workers (see Chart 1). Rochester, Minn., lapped much of the competition several times over—it ranked third best nationwide in patents on a population basis, thanks mostly to being home to an IBM campus. Wisconsin MSAs, many of them manufacturing hubs, also tended to rank high. But patent levels at a majority of MSAs in district states were less than one per thousand workers; only one in three regional MSAs was above the national average of 0.6 patents per thousand workers.
Not surprisingly, the top ranking MSAs tended to have a larger share of technology jobs as a share of all employment, as well as a higher proportion of workers with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (so-called “STEM” degrees; see Charts 2 and 3. In the four scatter graphs, the MSAs from Chart 1 are rank-ordered, so low-ranking Great Falls = 1, high-ranking Rochester = 24).
However, patents themselves are not a particularly good predictor of economic growth over time. As Charts 4 and 5 demonstrate, there is virtually no relationship between recent patent trends and either growth rates per worker or unemployment rates.
None of this means that patents and other innovations are not valuable to local economies. It only means that local economic activity is a complex recipe, and patents are likely only one ingredient for faster growth.