Making Rochester a knowledge economy? Beware of unintended consequences

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When looked at in terms of certain metrics, our city of Rochester is not a happy place. For instance, it is one of the most racially segregated cities in the U.S. The poverty gap between whites and people of color is huge. Some would argue that local racism is systemic.

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal

Despite these ills, many continue to be bullish about Rochester. The University of Rochester’s Duncan Moore argued in 2012 that the institutions of higher education in Rochester have had and will continue to have a positive impact on the region’s economy. In his 2019 book, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber contended that Rochester had what was needed to become a major driver of national economic growth. And in his 2023 State of the City address, Mayor Malik Evans argued that Rochester could become a powerhouse of the 21st century economy of knowledge and innovation.

The argument that making a place a center of knowledge and innovation will have positive effects is not new. Indeed, it has been made by many in the social sciences. That said, two points are worth emphasizing. First, we now know that the economic gap between cities with strong knowledge-based economies and those specializing in traditional industries is widening. Second, and particularly relevant for Rochester, new research by Enrico Berkes and Ruben Gaetani demonstrates that there is a causal connection between the rise of the knowledge economy and an increase in economic segregation in urban areas.

The implication here is that taking steps to promote a knowledge-based economy can make matters worse in some ways. This seems counterintuitive. So, what is the argument? Let us find out.

This research uses data from 1990 to 2010 to analyze whether there is a relationship between an expansion in knowledge-based activities in a city and changes in economic segregation in this same city. Why might such a relationship exist in the first place? This is because of two reasons. First, research has shown that innovation and creative jobs depend greatly on localized knowledge spillovers. Second, knowledge workers tend to care greatly about the existence of local amenities such as good schools, quality restaurants, and fitness centers.

The painstaking empirical research conducted by Berkes and Gaetani shows convincingly that an expansion of local innovation activities (what they call an “innovation shock”) results in a salient increase in economic segregation. Notably, this negative result does not depend on the specifics of how innovation activities and economic segregation are measured. Several alternate measures yield the same negative result. This result arises because of a rise in the geographic sorting of households along the income dimension.

Why does this residential sorting in cities take place? The best explanation is that when new knowledge becomes available and gives rise to innovation possibilities, the incentives faced by firms to locate close to each other go up and this matters more than any negative impacts from congestion. In other words, a larger “innovation shock” gives rise to more clustering of knowledge-intensive jobs in neighborhoods that are marked by a high initial density of workers in knowledge-intensive occupations.

This clustering of employment matches changes in the residential choices of knowledge workers. Specifically, in response to an enlargement of local innovation activities, knowledge workers relocate in the proximity of census tracts that experience an inflow of knowledge-intensive jobs, possibly to reduce their commuting distance from these novel employment opportunities. Put differently, because knowledge workers care greatly about local amenities and less about rents, this relocation can contribute to amplifying the impact of employment clustering on economic segregation.

The bottom line is this: Those who want Rochester to become a strong center of knowledge and innovation need to think carefully about the point that as knowledge-based activities increasingly become the main propulsive force in our city, the geographic divide between individuals with different levels of income may well continue to widen, in the process intensifying differences in terms of access to education, health, and consumption amenities.

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is a Distinguished Professor, the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics, and the interim head of the Sustainability Department, all at Rochester Institute of Technology, but these views are his own. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

2 thoughts on “Making Rochester a knowledge economy? Beware of unintended consequences

  1. How ironic that a city that wants to be a center of knowledge and innovation continues to support and defend a city school system that is among the lowest performing in the nation and that resists rejects all suggestions for meaningful improvement, and whose leadership instability is reflected by having 9 superintendents in 15 years. The negative atmosphere confronting charter school efforts to build a higher-performing education sector sends the message to people across the country that Rochester is not serious about becoming a center of knowledge, or even about providing a workforce with the basic skills needed to be productive.

  2. IF this is a concern, isn’t the answer to ask why lower income strata wouldn’t participate in a Corporate boom as envisioned in this article? Doesn’t the obvious culprit appear to be the NYS education system? Why a system that takes such a bite out of your taxes isn’t producing individuals that would benefit from such a boom? New York State has a lot of defects, but the secondary education system is still somewhat well thought of around the country. (this statement assumes that detractors are not successful in removing key elements that made it so, like standardized Regents programs and testing at the High School level) . Isn’t this a perfect application of what we were told the Excelsior Scholarships were intended for? (I believe it required a recipient to stay in State after graduation) . That being the case, this is a opportunity for CNY, not something to fear will create more poor people?

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