Patents granted: Where are Britain's most inventive cities?

The most inventive river in Britain. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

Inventing stuff is probably a pretty good thing for an economy, right? I mean, it was a rush of inventions like the flying shuttle and the spinning jenny that sparked Britain's industrial revolution back in the 18th century. A century or so later, the inventiveness of people like Thomas Edison (and those whose ideas he, well, stole) played a big role in the USA's rise to economic superpower status.

So, if you want to work at the cutting edge of technology, in a place that's generating the jobs of the future, then a city that registers a lot of patents might be the place for you.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the map. This is patents granted per 100,000 people in 2013. As ever, if you hover over a dot, you should get a bit more information.

For once there's no obvious pattern here (which is refreshing in some ways, but a pain in the backside if you're the poor sod trying to write about it). The cities of England's depressed eastern edge generally don't seem to be hives of invention. And the south looks slightly more inventive than the north.

But there are plenty of green dots in the north nonetheless, and a few pale ones in the south. Britain’s inventors are a widely scattered bunch.

There's a limit to the conclusions we can draw from this, so let's look at the top 10. To make it less likely any pattern is a fluke, we've included the data for both 2012 and 2013.

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Cambridge, with its two universities and its science park and its cluster of tech firms and venture capitalists ("Silicon Fen") is producing vastly more patents than any other British city. These figures are per head, so this is presumably a combination of small-ish population and large number of patents at work – but nonetheless, it’s so far out ahead that it’s fair to call it a trend.

Of the other cities that make those lists, several (Bristol, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Coventry) house major universities. Others can probably credit their links to the military (Aldershot) or the security services (Gloucester, which is just up the road from Chelthenham and GCHQ).

Aberdeen has an oil industry; Milton Keynes, Swindon and Reading pretty successful business parks. The one we're really struck by is Blackburn, a Lancashire city which had a good industrial revolution but hasn't done so much since. The answer, we suspect, likes in the fact it's a big hub for aerospace manufacturer BAE Systems.

Perhaps just as striking, though, is a city that isn't there. Oxford is in many senses just like Cambridge. (Honestly, get to know one of them first, and the other will forever look like a wonky version of it.) Yet it doesn't appear in  top 10 in either year. It was 18th in 2012, and 12th in 2013; in both years producing around 5 patents per head.

This is hardly a disaster – Oxford has plenty of other things going on – but it does suggest that potential might be going untapped.

You'd expect there to be less consistency at the bottom end of the league tables - the numbers are smaller, so more likely to be skewed by a few local companies or one enthusiastic garage inventor having a good year.

Yet three cities do make the bottom 10 of both lists (Dundee, Hull, Wigan). One, indeed, is at the very bottom of the league table in both years:

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Sort it out, Sunderland.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.