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Scaling the heights

Cities are magnets for people, resources and infrastructure — essential components for the generation of new ideas. We present here other factors that make for an ideal knowledge city. The elements might seem obvious, but there's no magic formula for how to combine them. Data analysis by Aaron Ballagh, data visualization by Daniel Ormella.

Mapping science cities

The 500 cities plotted on this map account for more than 90% of the share of authorship in the Nature Index in 2016.

In a huddle

Agglomeration is the term used by urban economists to describe the added benefits that come from companies clustering in cities. Spatial proximity also seems to amplify knowledge. The relatively small city of Boston-Cambridge has two of the top 10 academic institutions in the Nature Index 2016, ranked by their weighted fractional count — Harvard University and MIT. China’s top two institutions are less than a kilometre apart in Beijing. And King’s College London, Imperial College London and UCL form a successful triangle, north of the river Thames.

Global connections

While advances in digital technology have made it easier for people to communicate and collaborate, meeting face-to-face is ideal, especially for serendipitous discovery. That can mean being on the next flight to be with the rest of the team when something is about to break. If they’re in Atlanta, so much the better: the Megahubs Index ranked Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport as the most connected airport in the world in 2016.


Some of the most diverse cities in the world are also scientific powerhouses. According to the International Organization of Migration, the United States is the world’s top relocation destination, taking more than 40 million immigrants, 85% of whom have settled in the country’s top 100 metropolitan areas.

New York is at the head of the queue. A 2000–2010 analysis of patent records from the World Intellectual Property Organization also found that the US had the most foreign-born inventors. Of course, diversity refers not just to population, but to industries and activities too.

Je ne sais quoi

Work opportunities may be only one factor in a researcher’s choice of cities. They might like a city for its clean-energy commitment, such as Zurich, which topped the Sustainable Cities Index in 2016, or choose a city such as Amsterdam for its green spaces and cycle paths. For theatre fans, New York’s Broadway or London’s West End might appeal.


Larger cities rev up the rate of discovery by creating more opportunities for people with a diverse skillset to meet. They also offer the niche markets needed to service these ideas. “There is nothing magical about cities,” says Deborah Strumsky, an urban economist at Arizona State University. “Cities are more productive because they have more inventors per capita — the larger the city, the larger its share of inventors.” With a population of more than 36 million, Greater Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world.

Digital access

In an ideal knowledge city, researchers can easily communicate with the world, digitally or in person. Seoul offers the fastest home broadband plans for the cheapest price, according to the Open Technology Institute. It also operates the world’s largest metropolitan subway system. Ease of communication may have contributed towards researchers in Seoul being granted 22,513 patents from the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2016 — the highest for any city.


The amenities of big cities can make them expensive, but the most affordable cities might lack qualities that make them attractive to live in. Almaty in Kazakhstan was ranked the cheapest city in the world to live in according to The Economist’s Worldwide Cost of Living 2017, though it comes with a measure of economic insecurity. The most ‘liveable’ city in 2017 was Melbourne, Australia taking into account stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure.


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Scaling the heights. Nature 550, S160–S161 (2017).

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