The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

More on the Lower Lakes, Production and Innovation

Toledo, Ohio’s port on Lake Erie.  Source:

So I’ve been taken to task for a comment I made about the Lower Lakes subregion in my recent post in the “Five Midwests” series.  Here’s what I said that sparked the criticism:

The Lower Lakes were built for production, not innovation. Cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee came into being as places where things were built and shipped, not places where the ideas behind them would be discussed. Production is part of their DNA. However, this puts them at a disadvantage in an economic era where innovation, creativity and talent are driving economic growth.”

The first comments that pushed back on this were posted in the comments section.  This one is from commenter Alon:

“I’ve heard people describe Detroit as a center of innovation, in automotive engineering – if not now, then a hundred years ago, before its industrial monoculture grew. Do you think it was (or still is) an engineering center like that, or do you think it’s always been a production center based on ideas from elsewhere?”

However, much more pointed criticism was raised on the forums at  There’s this:

“that is so wrong. so many innovations that define the basic physical underpinnings of the modern world came from the midwest.”

And this:

“I can’t find the source but I think I remember seeing the Chi-Pitts megaregion was 3rd in the world after Tokyo and Bos-Wash for annual patents which is completely the opposite of “not innovative”.”

Corner Side Yard commenter Betty Barcode pointed me to a CityLab article by Richard Florida from 2013 that probably provides the most constructive opportunity to clarify.  The article includes three graphics than identify innovation locations across the U.S., by metro area, as measured by the number of patent applications issued.  This was further broken down by the number of patents applied for before and after the 2007-2009 Great Recession, which saw a significant decrease in patent applications.  This image shows the number of patent applications by metro area between 2001 and 2011:


 The following maps show the location quotient of patent applications in the 2001-2007 pre-recession period:


And also in the period between 2007 and 2011, which includes the Great Recession:


I think each of the maps shows there is undoubtedly a cluster of patent applications that comes from the area I’ve called the Lower Lakes.  The first map clearly shows that patent application activity is high from Rochester, NY in the east to the Chicago/Milwaukee metro complex to the west.  Furthermore, it’s clear that patent application activity in the Lower Lakes subregion is exceeded only by three other regions — the East Coast megapolitan area stretching from Boston to Washington, DC, the West Coast megapolitan area going from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, and the Pacific Northwest centered on Seattle.  The subsequent maps showing pre- and post-Great Recession patent activity document pretty much the same thing.

I will admit to making a sweeping generalization about Rust Belt innovation and regret that characterization.  The Lower Lakes I grew up in was in many ways defined by the collapse of the auto industry in the early ’80s as it faced stiff foreign competition from Japanese and German automakers.  The auto industry responded with resentment, and it took decades for the Big Three to approach the quality, design and engineering standards that foreign automakers established.  By that time big chunks of market share were lost forever.  However, that does not extend to all aspects of Rust Belt manufacturing.  I extended that metaphor too far.

Still, there are three points I think should be considered when it comes to innovation in the Lower Lakes/Rust Belt:

Innovation (as defined by patent applications) may exceed other parts of the country, but it still lags behind the acknowledged innovation centers on the East and West coasts.  In a competition against the Sun Belt, the Rust Belt might be well-suited to take advantage of its innovation lead to build a stronger economic foundation.  But Rust Belt metros are not competing only against Sun Belt metros.  They are competing against metros across the globe that are either developing ideas that support economic growth, or are producing goods at a lower cost.   In a world where you can’t do both, coastal metros have made their choice.

Conversely, the innovation demonstrated by patent applications in the Rust Belt hasn’t pulled it closer to the economic success seen on the coasts.  Rust Belt cities have seen a huge rebound in their economies since the Great Recession ended.  The rebound has largely been built on the return of manufacturing.  Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and Rochester stand out as metros that are retooling themselves to compete in a global economy that is less reliant on manufacturing, but many others seem to be doubling down on manufacturing being the driver again.  I’m skeptical this can happen.

The Rust Belt innovation many critics mention seems to be that of the past, and not of the present or future.  Alon’s comment above is spot on about the Midwest’s growth as an engineering center more than a hundred years ago; that allowed it to develop as the auto capital of the world.  At, a commenter mentioned Michigan’s role in innovation:

“Well, I guess Michigan will take back refrigerators and other appliances; numerous plastic-based products, including commonly-used Saran wrap and Ziploc bags; baby food; office and household furniture, including the office cubicle; honey-baked ham; carpet cleaners; hospital carts; pop and the ice cream soda; color technologies; water fluoridation; cars, etc…since they have not been innovative enough. (And that’s just Michigan!)”

I don’t dispute the Rust Belt’s contributions to the American economy.  I do agree that it’s an underappreciated aspect of what the Midwest means to the nation.  But when I hear this I’m reminded of the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” when characters there talked about the Greek origins of democracy, literature, philosophy and science — providing the foundations for Western civilization.  True, but that legacy is not serving Greece very well right now, and I wonder if the entire Rust Belt is making the appropriate adaptations to succeed in a changing world economy.

2 Responses to “More on the Lower Lakes, Production and Innovation”

  1. Betty Barcode

    Thanks for the shout-out, Mr. Saunders. It is only in the rear view mirror that we understand which innovations have lasting value. mattered in 2005. It doesn't matter now. Considering the amount of ongoing innovation in the Lower Lakes, I think that the question we should ask is how the region can retain and develop the intellectual property that it does have and not watch it get pirated away.Like Facebook, which rendered MySpace irrelevant and, as everyone should recall, was invented in Cambridge, not Silicon Valley.


  2. NEO

    The Lower Lakes Rust Belt region as you have coined it, Pete, has indeed given much to the world, but I for one think we would be doing ourselves a major disservice to focus primarily on promoting and defending our legacy of production and innovation in manufacturing, as opposed to pouring our efforts anew into how we can re-establish ourselves and our region in ways and means that are actually going to be relevant in the 21st century global world.In other words, as a region, we need to live, think, and act in the present with an eye towards the future, and not in the past, as producers and innovators. We don't need museums and tributes, or highway billboard ads with archival black and white images of steel, glass, rubber and auto workers standing in front of smoke stacks and assembly lines with arms crossed, proclaiming our former greatness.Rebuilding our region and our cities from the ashes and ruins of the past is the only real way forward, and also the best possible way of also honoring our legacy–by actively living and applying it.



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